John K. Manna
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Forget the first three rounds of the draft, it took until the third day for things to really get interesting for the Steelers.
A linebacker, a halfback and a wide receiver fail in comparison to what happened Saturday in the fourth round. First, the Steelers traded away a future draft pick for the first time in 40 years, and then they drafted a quarterback!
Landry Jones of Oklahoma not only shattered Big 12 Conference and Oklahoma passing records, he sees himself as a starting NFL quarterback some day, and he's not at all unhappy that the team that drafted him has Ben Roethlisberger.
"Ever since you're a young kid, you do see yourself as a starter," said Jones, who started 50 games at quarterback for the Sooners. "You see yourself winning Super Bowls. You see yourself doing all these different things in the NFL, so I'm just excited about being there and having an opportunity."
Since Roethlisberger just turned 31 recently, there's not much chance Jones will be doing all of those things as a starting quarterback with the Steelers anytime soon. Yet after having veteran backups Charlie Batch (since 2002) and Byron Leftwich (2008, 2010-11), the Steelers felt they needed a fresh, younger face on the roster. But as high as the fourth round?
"We have had great experience in that room with Charlie and Byron," said Randy Fichtner, who coaches the quarterbacks. "I just think it was time to start grooming a new player, freshen up the room if you will."
He is the first quarterback the Steelers drafted since they chose Dennis Dixon in the fifth round in 2008. Besides Roethlisberger, a first-round pick in 2004, Jones became their highest-drafted quarterback since Kordell Stewart came to them in the second round in 1995.
Roethlisberger said Saturday he doesn't know Jones personally "but I know he's a great kid and a hard worker and a good player."
The Steelers did draft some other players Saturday. They filled another need when they drafted Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round ahead of Jones. They traded with AFC North Division rival Cleveland for that pick, No. 111 overall, by sending the Browns their third-round pick in 2014. It's the first time since 1973 they traded away a future pick (their No. 3 in 1974 for Tom Keating). They previously traded a draft pick to the Browns in 1967 for tackle John Brown (for 1968 picks in Rounds 3 and 10). But then Jimmy Haslam was a partner in Steelers ownership until he bought the Browns in the fall.
The Steelers drafted Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne in the fifth round, and then took Landry's Oklahoma teammate, wide receiver Justin Brown, with their first pick in the sixth round. Landry transferred from Penn State after the school was hit with NCAA sanctions after the 2011 season.
They hit another need with their second pick in the sixth round, drafting inside linebacker Vince Williams of Florida State. They wound up their nine-man draft class by selecting defensive end Nick Williams of Samford in the seventh round.
But the buzz was all about the quarterback, and what he might bring to the Steelers. They already signed a new veteran backup, Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski, a free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals. That, combined with the pick of Jones, spelled the end of Batch and Leftwich.
Interestingly, Jones' wife Whitney Hand was a teammate on the Oklahoma University basketball team with Roethlisberger's sister, Carlee, who was in their wedding.
"He has some of the biggest production I've seen out of any of the QBs in several years," Fichtner said.
Jones, a pocket-passer, completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns in his four seasons as Oklahoma's starter in a high-octane, no-huddle offense.
"I am going to go in there and compete as hard as I can and try to win a job," Landry said. "This is going to be a great opportunity for me whether I play quick or whether I have to sit and wait for a couple years.
"Getting to stand behind Roethlisberger is going to be a huge opportunity for me. He is a guy who has been established in this league for a long time and I get to learn from one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. I'm just really excited to get to work with him and really excited about this opportunity."
He will have to get used to standing behind Roethlisberger, barring injury. Having Jones on the team, though, will present a different role for Roethlisberger, who goes from youngest quarterback on the roster last year to oldest. He often noted how he leaned on observations from Batch and Leftwich during games and how they were big helps during the week as they prepared the game plan.
"It may be time for Ben to give that experience to somebody else and to help in the room," Fichtner said. "I think this gives Ben an opportunity to share his experiences."
The Steelers traded their third-round pick in 2014 to grab 5-foot-9 Thomas because they feared some other team would take him before their turn at No. 115. They had a dire need for a safety and had Thomas ranked highly.
"If he had two more inches he would have been in the first round in my opinion," said secondary coach Carnell Lake, who joined the Steelers as a safety drafted in the second round in 1989. "That's how highly I think of this young man. He has size, he has speed, and he has strength."
He also has a history of concussions.
"They haven't been an issue with the medical staff," Lake said.
Brown, who is 6-3, said he transferred from Penn State to have the opportunity to catch passes from Landry at Oklahoma. He noted that he was on no one's prospect list in 2011 at Penn State. He started 13 games for the Sooners, where he caught 73 passes (for 879 yards) in 2012 after getting 35 in 2011 at Penn State.
NOTE -- Linebackers coach Keith Butler said it will be "miraculous" if inside linebacker Sean Spence plays again. Spence, who sustained ligament and nerve damage to his knee in his rookie preseason in 2012, will spend this year on one of the injured lists in the hopes that he could recover and play in 2014.