PITTSBURGH — The Steelers spent the final day of the NFL draft adding speed at running back and, yes, even defensive tackle, but also adding toughness with a “people-mover” at guard and a 220-pound safety who could also become one of those trendy hybrid linebackers.
When it was all over Saturday, the Steelers had six draft choices — their fewest in 17 years — but only one underclassman. Five of their picks were seniors who were mostly three-year starters, which could ease the rookie development process that has been impeded for all NFL teams because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
General manager Kevin Colbert said the Steelers did not enter the draft planning to draft seniors but admitted it was an uncharacteristic move for them.
“It’s going to be challenging for everyone, globally, from that standpoint,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s our job to be innovative … to get to know them and to get them to know us.”
The Steelers put their focus on offense through the first four rounds of the NFL draft but spread their six picks evenly among offense and defense.
It started when they took big-play running back Anthony McFarland Jr. of Maryland with the first of their two fourth-round selections (124th overall), a move that will give them an instant injection of speed in the backfield.
Then they added a guard, Kevin Dotson of Louisiana-Lafayette, with their second pick in the round (135th overall), adding some depth to a position that lost Ramon Foster and B.J. Finney.
But then they went back to Maryland to take Antoine Brooks Jr., a hybrid safety/linebacker who could play several roles in the Steelers sub-package defense, including alongside Devin Bush, on the sixth round (198th overall). The Steelers did not have a fifth-round pick because they traded it to acquire tight end Nick Vannett last season.
They ended the draft by taking defensive tackle Carlos Davis of Nebraska in the seventh round (232nd overall), giving them a total of six draft picks — their fewest since they had five in 2003. Davis is 6-foot-2, 313 pounds but distinguished himself at the NFL combine by running a 4.79 in the 40.
McFarland (5-8, 208) was clocked at 4.44 at the NFL combine despite being bothered last season with a high-ankle sprain when he rushed for 614 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He’s a good fit to the (running back) room, a good complement to what we have on the roster,” said Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner. “He’s really explosive. He has shown the ability to hit the long ball. That’s a little change from what we have.”
Dotson started 52 games at Louisiana-Lafayette and stood out as a powerful run-blocker who was often overshadowed by his roommate, guard Robert Hunt, who went in the second round to the Miami Dolphins.
“He’s a people mover,” said offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett. “I really like that this guy can move. He does all the type of stuff we’re looking for when you’re looking at that old-school run-game stuff. This guy can do it. That’s what stood out when we watched this guy.”
Brooks (5-11, 220), who ran a 4.64 at the combine, is the type of player who can help replace inside linebacker Mark Barron, who was released after one season. He averaged 79 tackles, including nine for losses, in three seasons as a starter for the Terps. Colbert called him “half a safety, half a linebacker” but said he will begin as a safety who can play in the team’s sub packages.
“There’s a lot of guys in today’s game that fit that bill,” Tomlin said. “It becomes easier and easier to forecast those possibilities because you see it on the college field. That 220-pound body is very useful body in today’s game.”
McFarland, a redshirt sophomore, was the only underclassman among the Steelers draft picks. He played only two seasons at Maryland but had his best year in 2018 when he rushed for 1,034 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry. He gained a lot of attention that season when he rushed for 298 yards on 21 carries against Ohio State, a game in which he had runs of 52, 75 and 81 yards.
“The Ohio State game did a lot for my confidence, let me know I could still compete with the best,” McFarland said. “Not only that I can play football, but I can go toe-to-toe with the best.”
The Steelers coaches have familiarity with McFarland. Their new quarterback coach, Matt Canada, was Maryland’s offensive coordinator in 2018. Also, Tomlin’s oldest son, Dino, played with the Terrapins last season.
“We were able to add a running back that gives us a change-up,” Colbert said. “He has a characteristic that’s different from the guys we have.”
Injuries have bothered McFarland since high school. He missed his senior season at DeMatha Catholic and had to be redshirted his freshman season at Maryland because of a broken leg. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry in addition to catching 24 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown in two seasons.
In addition to his injuries, McFarland said he had to deal with the sudden death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who came in the same recruiting class with him to Maryland. McNair died of football-related heat stroke in June 2018.
“It was a lot of ups and downs for me, having to redshirt, losing our teammate Jordan,” McFarland said. “I’ve been through a lot of adversity at Maryland, but I had a lot of success. Sometimes you’re going to fall, but sometimes it how you respond to it in life.”
Dotson (6-4, 313) was not invited to the combine, despite being a two-time first-team all-conference selection with the Ragin’ Cajuns. But he shares many of the same physical qualities as Hunt, one of the most powerful run blockers in the draft. Dotson has a tough-guy attitude that sometimes includes telling his opponent the play before it’s run to dare him to stop it.
“It’s more of an intimidation-type thing,” Dotson said. “I feel I can win any play that I do, so I tell them the play and they have to find a way to do it. If I tell you the play and they still can’t stop it, it hurts the morale even more.”
Brooks was a high school quarterback who nearly quit football when he sustained a compound fracture of his right ankle and broke his wrist on the same play when he was a senior. But he played all over the field for the Terrapins and likely will be tried as a hybrid linebacker in the Steelers defense.
“He plays a little everywhere,” said senior defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin said. “The biggest thing I liked about him is he’s always around the ball, he’s going to show up and he’s very, very physical. He has a really good feel for the game in terms of instinct. That’s what you’re looking for when you got a guy back there.”
At Nebraska, Davis played alongside his twin brother, Khalil, who was drafted a round earlier by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Like his brother, the 308-pound Khalil Davis opened eyes at the combine when he ran a 4.75. The Davis twins were each eight-time letter-winners at Nebraska (four each in football and track), the first Huskers in more than 50 years to be eight-time letter-winners.
That’s what made Carlos Davis so attractive to the Steelers.
“When you’re running 4.79 at that weight, and you’re performing the shot and discus, I don’t know if we’ve seen the best of those guys yet,” Colbert said.
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