A Blast From the Past: Fourth Round, Part 2

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Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We begin in 2012 with what was being said back then about the Steelers’ fourth-round pick. Joseph Bruno, writing for Bleacher Report, opined:

I was surprised that Alameda Ta’amu was passed up by the Steelers in the 3rd round.

I did not think he would be there when the team selected in Round 4.

The Steelers then made sure they got Ta’amu by trading their 4th- and 6th-round picks to the Washington Redskins for the opportunity to take Ta’amu.

Ta’amu has been my favorite NT prospect since the season has ended, and I was ecstatic to see that he is the Steelers’ future at the position.

Contained in the last sentence is, in a nutshell, the lure of the draft. So much potential. So many possibilities. In this case, the Steelers picked up an eventual replacement on the cheap for one of the greats at his position, one they had to take in the first round—Casey Hampton.

Only, of course, they didn’t. What they got was a guy whose college resume led people to think that perhaps he could translate well into the NFL. But he didn’t, or hasn’t so far.

Why is this? The first problem was that the Steelers scouts, front office, coaches, or whoever pushed the hardest for Ta’amu didn’t take sufficiently seriously the red flags around his DUI conviction in college. Perhaps they also didn’t take seriously enough Dane Brugler’s assessment of Ta’amu—”a pass rushing three-technique stuck in a zero technique’s body.”

Here’s what his NFL.com draft profile had to say:

STRENGTHS Ta’amu is a forceful player against the run who can quickly get off the ball and into a lineman’s face. He can hold two blockers to create lanes for his linebackers. He is big-bodied and understands his role within the defense. He can engulf running backs by using his long, strong arms or by pushing the interior of an offensive line into the backfield.
WEAKNESSES Ta’amu is a slow-mover who struggles to rush the passer and chase down ball carriers. He lacks pass-rush moves and doesn’t use his feet or hands to get off blocks. He has little value in a 4-3 defense given his shortcomings.

His lack of athleticism was demonstrated very early in his Steelers career. He was assigned, as a typical rookie task set by the veterans, to go buy candy at Walmart, without the use of a car. It was almost a 4 mile round trip, and Ta’amu missed the first two days of training camp because of a bruised foot he suffered during the walk. He thought perhaps he had broken it, but fortunately it was only a bruise.

I’ve often wondered if, despite football being a game of very short bursts of mainly anaerobic activity, it is a mistake to focus solely strength training at the expense of endurance training. I’m sure the balance varies greatly by position, but, for instance, a lot was made of Ben Roethlisberger’s focus on cardio training this off-season. I somehow would have thought that was an appropriate part of everyone’s training.

I suppose when you weight 355 pounds, even at 6’3″, it’s not a lot of fun to do aerobics, and it’s hard to blame him for having difficulty walking that far. But I can’t help thinking of James Harrison’s interception return for 100 yards and a touchdown in the 2008 Super Bowl. It took quite a while for him to recover from running the length of the field, admittedly at top speed (for him.) He later admitted he was hoping someone would tackle him so he could quit running, although I’m guessing the Steelers would only have five Lombardis if he had. After all, the 2nd quarter clock had run down, and while it would have kept a touchdown off the board, the 16-point comeback in the fourth quarter by the Cardinals would have won the game without the additional seven points. In honor of the need for long-distance conditioning, here’s a video of the play:

I’ve gotten off-topic as usual. The topic is, unfortunately, not nearly as nice to contemplate as Harrison’s amazing play. As you all probably recall, Ta’amu went on a mid-season rampage on Pittsburgh’s South Side, a place which, frankly, active players would do well to avoid after about 10 p.m. He managed an amazing feat as well, racking up 15 different charges, five of them felonies. This is, however, not the sort of amazing feats the Steelers are looking for from their players. They kept him until the end of the following training camp but released him in the final roster cuts.

He is still in the league at the moment. The Cardinals picked him up off waivers and he played for 2013 and 2014 for them. They released him prior to the 2015 season, and he was out of football until the Chiefs signed him to a futures contract in January of this year.

2013 saw the Steelers trade up to take the player I think most of us assumed would replace Troy Polamalu, insofar as one ever can replace a legend. Shamarko Thomas was a player many of us were excited about, and many words were written, including by this author, about what a great pick he was.

Here’s what Neal Coolong, then writing for Behind the Steel Curtain, had to say:

Love this pick. This guy wasn’t just a petty criminal or anything, he was in a gang back in the day. Overcame that, is basically raising his five siblings and made himself into a mid-round NFL draft pick despite being 5-foot-8. And he’s a badass. Sure, he may never intercept a pass that wasn’t tipped deep, but he’s gonna hit people and he’s gonna love hitting people.

The Steelers had not used their original fourth-round pick in the trade, instead trading their 2014 third-round pick to the Browns. As a result, there was a lot of excitement about who the Steelers would take later in the round. I can’t remember who all the players people hoped for were, but I do note that so far at least, the only Pro Bowler drafted after Jones was Oakland’s Latavius Murray. Since the Steelers had taken a running back they were pretty happy with in the second round, it’s not too surprising they weren’t interested in another.

I’m not sure anybody but his parents were excited about the pick of quarterback Landry Jones. Here’s one of the most positive assessments I saw, also from Neal Coolong:

This one is going to be argued back and forth, if it isn’t already. Jones looks to me like a player who somehow lost confidence in his ability. Physically, he has decent tools. Not great. His release isn’t legendary or anything, but from a mechanical end, you’ve seen worse looking throwers have success in the NFL. A great developmental pick. Smart pick.

The book isn’t closed on Jones yet, but I think it is fair to say Jones played an unexpectedly large role in the Steelers’ 2015 season. While Jones still has an unfortunate propensity for throwing passes to opposing defenders, he wasn’t the only one last season, as Ben’s touchdown to interception ratio was one of the worst of his career, and was the very worst post-2008. Perhaps the team needs to hire an optometrist along with all the other medical staff.

I’m going to leave Jones as an open question for the moment. On the other hand, the Steelers have clearly moved on from Thomas, at least for the near future, with the drafting of safety Sean Davis this spring. Thomas appears to be a victim of the “smarts” part of the “hearts and smarts” equation. When Mike Tomlin was asked during the 2015 season why Thomas was being replaced by a very veteran player like Will Allen or by a seeming career journeyman like Robert Golden, Tomlin told the reporter the problem was between Thomas’ ears. Heaven knows he’s taken plenty of dumb penalties on special teams. It’s a pity, because it didn’t seem to be for lack of desire or effort. Which once again demonstrates that drafting is not only not a science, it’s at best a black art.

 

 

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