Labriola on Day 2 of the 2024 NFL Draft

As Dan Rooney always says about this particular time of year, “The idea is not to try to win the draft. The idea is to try to win the Super Bowl.”

The Steelers entered the 2024 NFL Draft with some fairly specific needs/desires, and since it was an offseason of some urgency, there could be a risk that they might “try to win the draft” in an attempt to check off some things on their wish list. Instead, they navigated the Day 2 process by adding the center they needed after moving on from two-year starter Mason Cole, a wide receiver they wanted after trading Deontae Johnson and cutting Allen Robinson, and a speedy, athletic inside linebacker they couldn't. . Being overlooked after season-ending injuries to Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander taught them the hard way that you can never get enough of them.

They accomplished all of this by sticking to their principles, sticking to their processes, and not spending their venture capital like drunken sailors on vacation.

When the day's second-round picks rolled around, the Steelers had the 19th pick in that round, and 51st overall, and their chances of coming out of the weekend with a candidate capable of slotting into the starting lineup as a starter were evaporating. When they selected Troy Votano in the first round, their top three options at the position had not yet been selected. But before that run ended, Graham Barton was off the board to Tampa Bay. Then on Friday, when the Raiders plucked Jackson Bowers-Johnson off the pile, there was one left, and the Steelers' second-round pick was still 7 slots away. And even if there was some confidence in knowing whether teams with those picks were in the market for a position at the top of the chart, there was a very real possibility that another team in need of a center would trade one of those spots and screw everything up.

“We are very excited to bring Zach to the program,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. “It's rare to find a guy with that kind of pedigree, resume, and the number of snaps he's gotten in college. Certainly, there's his wrestling background. He's been a high achiever his whole life, and we couldn't be more excited to bring Zach into the building.”

Specifically, Frazier was a key part of his high school team that went 38-3 and won a state championship in football. He personally compiled a 159-2 record as a heavyweight wrestler and won the state championship 4 times. Once he arrived in Morgantown, Frazier started 37 consecutive games at center over his final three seasons and was a three-time captain. He is physical, strong, good in space, and excels in hand-to-hand combat while playing with the strength and balance that are necessary to be a champion wrestler. Oh, and he graduated with a 4.0 in sports management.

“He has a lot of experience pulling and making calls,” Smith said. “Obviously there's going to be an adjustment in the NFL, but this experience really helps. When he was here (on his draft visit), he was telling me he does a lot of woodworking. He builds things. Just the whole resume is impressive, he's a guy.” Very mature for his age coming here, that's why we want him to play as a midfielder.

As for the wide receiver they wanted, 7 were selected in the first round, 4 more went in the second round, and when the first pick of the third round was a wide receiver, 12 were subtracted from the overall pool. Once again, the Steelers bent their backs and stuck to their process. They didn't blink and threw draft capital at the situation. They waited it out and were able to select Michigan's Roman Wilson with their first of two picks in the third round, 84th overall.

When Smith was asked what qualities he saw in Wilson that impressed him, he said: “Competitiveness. I think you could see his instincts on tape. I thought he stepped up in the big moments. He had a great energy about him, too. When I met him in person.”

During Senior Bowl practices, coach Mike Tomlin encouraged Wilson and cornerback Quinion Mitchell to face each other when running drills, as part of his complete “iron sharpens iron” approach.

“The only thing that really caught my attention was that he told me to go find Quinnyon Mitchell, get in front of his reps, and just work on him,” Wilson said. “That was one of the big things for me at the Senior Bowl. Just having a guy like Mike Tomlin, I know he's watching me, wants me to go up against the best and get the ball out. That's exactly what I went out there with. And he did.”

Wilson's willingness to accept the challenge of taking on the best during Senior Bowl Week and then winning his share of games made him more than just a guy whose stats were padded out by being on an elite team, and it cemented his status as a worthy Day 2 pick.

One calendar year ago, the Steelers used unrestricted free agency to reshape their depth chart at inside linebacker by adding Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Alexander. But a major knee injury to Holcomb and an Achilles injury to Alexander had the Steelers scrambling there during the final month of the regular season. In the first wave of this free agency period they added Patrick Queen to the defense to pair with Roberts in the starting lineup, and with their second pick in the third round (98th overall) they added North Carolina State's Payton Wilson to the mix.

In 2023, Wilson won the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, and the Bednarek Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and was voted the 2023 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. In his final two seasons in college, he had 30 tackles for loss, And 10.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 9 passes defensed, and 2 fumble recoveries in 23 games. But Payton Wilson was a Day 2 draft pick because he's not a dynamic pass rusher, and he has a history of injury.

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Wilson tore his ACL as a high school senior, and as a college student he suffered another knee injury during training camp and redshirted that season. Then in 2021, Wilson suffered a shoulder injury in the second game that caused him to miss the rest of the season. But Wilson hasn't had knee issues since his freshman year at NC State, and both Hines Ward and Greg Lloyd had long, productive careers with the Steelers without intact ACLs. As for the shoulder injury, football is a tough sport and sometimes things can happen. But this does not make the player vulnerable to injury.

“I evaluate the tape I watch, and I let the doctors handle all the medical stuff,” defensive coordinator Terrell Austin said. “My job is to evaluate his tape as a football player, and how he helps our defense. He brings some speed to our defense, he brings some physicality to our defense, the ability to cover guys. That's what I look at. He can really (run). He's a quick guy, and he “What you like about a full-back is that he sees and diagnoses things very quickly, and that allows his speed to show in matches.”

So, on Day 2 of this draft, the Steelers banked on adding Futano by committing just three picks to fill the hole in the middle of the offensive line, and to add a fast, competitive and strong player to wide receiver. The depth chart is in flux, and to bolster a position that has been ravaged by injuries throughout the 2023 regular season.

And they did so without the temptation of trying to win the draft.

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