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May 2—An NFL Draft that continued its course down the road to fixing the league's least effective running game took a U-turn for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday.
After using a fourth consecutive pick on an offensive talent, and second in a row along the line, the Steelers turned their attention finally to defense. The next four selections were used on that side of the ball before their draft concluded with the Steelers taking the only punter selected in the draft.
"We think we're a better team today than we were yesterday," general manager Kevin Colbert said about the nine-member class, which was enhanced by the acquisition of a fifth-round pick. "That's always the goal coming out of this process."
The Steelers entered the third day of the draft with five picks. They gained a sixth when they sent a 2022 fourth-round selection to the Miami Dolphins for the chance to take defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk in the fifth round.
The proceedings began with the Steelers taking tackle Dan Moore of Texas A&M in the fourth round and continued with the selection of his college teammate, inside linebacker Buddy Johnson. After Loudermilk, the Steelers drafted Miami (Fla.) edge rusher Quincy Roche in the sixth round and Oklahoma cornerback/safety Tre Norwood in the seventh. Punter Pressley Harvin III, also a seventh-rounder, was the final pick for the Steelers.
The makeup of the nine draft picks followed a few familiar themes:
—All nine came from Power 5 conferences, the first time that happened for the Steelers since 2008.
—Eight of the players were upperclassmen, with Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth being the only true junior in the bunch.
—Nobody in the class opted out of the 2020 season because of covid-19 concerns.
"We hope we've added people on both sides — interior, offensive and defensive linemen," Colbert said. "We really added people at every level at positions that we really wanted to add to. Again, we'll wait and see how much they can do for us."
The only positions the Steelers didn't address were wide receiver (for the first time since 2011) and quarterback. Norwood was the only player added to the secondary.
While drafting players from major college programs, the Steelers emphasized experience and 2020 playing time as deciding factors.
Four picks were seniors, with two more (Loudermilk and Roche) being fifth-year players. Two others, including third-round center Kendrick Green, were redshirt juniors.
"I don't know that senior was a direct focus," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I know we really were interested in guys that had an opportunity to play in 2020. No disrespect to those who didn't play in 2020 or who participated in conferences that had uncertainty in that area. We just had a certain level of comfort with people with fluid resumes and participation in 2020. When it was close ... we were going to lean toward those players who played in 2020."
Colbert said it was coincidence the Steelers used their first four picks on offense — getting running back Najee Harris, Freiermuth, Green and Moore — before going the other way.
"Really, there was no plan for that entering this draft," he said. "It's just the way it unfolded for us. Happy to have some balance. There was no intent to do that. ... Hopefully we got balanced help for both sides of the football — or all three sides of the ball."
What was intentional was bringing in players to help retool the offensive line and improve the 32nd-ranked running game. Green will get a chance to compete for the starting job at center, and Moore will be in the mix at left tackle. Freiermuth provides a better blocking option than veteran Eric Ebron.
"I like the players. I like their talents. I like what they were able to do at their universities," Tomlin said. "The acquisition of players is just a component of it. Obviously, I feel better about where we are today ... because those are four quality players. We're excited about teaching them. We're excited about training. We're excited about the evolution of our schematics. All of those things are going to ultimately determine the look of it all."
Barring any covid-19 complications, the Steelers will hold a rookie minicamp later this month. Veteran players have said they will boycott organized team activities in May and June, but it isn't known whether rookies and undrafted free agents can participate in those workouts.
Regardless, Tomlin is ready for this version of the Steelers to start taking shape.
"I can't think of a last day of a draft where I haven't been excited," Tomlin said. "New men to work with is exciting. Getting to know these guys over the course of the last several months through our research brings a certain level of anticipation. We're excited about getting started with them. There are a lot of reasons to be excited. If you're in this business, particularly from a coach's standpoint, players are the lifeblood.
"New quality, talented young men to work with makes you smile."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .