When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected running back James Conner in the third round, the pick resonated as one of the NFL Draft’s best moments for a lot of reasons.
First of all, Conner is an outstanding football player, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound power runner who grinds out tough yards. He should prove to be a mid-round steal for the Steelers.
He’s a hometown kid who starred in college at Pittsburgh. He was so productive for the Panthers, he was voted Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
“He’s better than a great story,” South Point sports book director Chris Andrews said.
Conner also is a cancer survivor. Early in the 2015 season, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He endured chemotherapy and fought his way back to the football field. He’s an inspiration in overcoming adversity. He will be a fan favorite.
As a backup to Le'Veon Bell this season, Conner will contribute to the Steelers on offense and special teams, in addition to bringing high character. Draft picks like Conner again show why the Pittsburgh franchise is far superior to the rival Cincinnati Bengals, who choose to pick outlaws and lose with them when it counts.
The Steelers’ overall draft class grades as excellent. It started with T.J. Watt, a fly-all-over-the-field linebacker from Wisconsin, late in the first round. Pittsburgh added JuJu Smith-Schuster, a 6-1 wide receiver from Southern California, in the second round, and former Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the fourth.
The Steelers need to find the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s not Landry Jones. Dobbs is 6-3 with impressive athletic ability and arm strength. He’s also highly intelligent and a hard worker, key qualities to being a successful NFL quarterback. Dobbs will be a solid backup to Big Ben and he could develop into a starter down the road.
Andrews said the draft results — which are subjective anyway — have a “minimal” impact on the regular-season win totals he will post Sunday. But Pittsburgh is among the teams that appear to have improved the most.
Other highlights from the draft:
Cleveland might not have its quarterback of the future, but there is optimism that DeShone Kizer could be the guy. By getting Kizer with the 52nd pick in the second round, the Browns got value. At one point last fall, before Notre Dame’s season fell apart, Kizer was considered the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the draft. The Browns made three quality first-round picks (Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku) before addressing the QB position, but at least they addressed it on the second day by adding a potential starter in a year or two.
Instead of looking for quarterback Philip Rivers’ future replacement, the Los Angeles Chargers wisely found him some help. The Chargers snagged Mike Williams, a big-play wideout from Clemson, with the No. 7 pick before rebuilding their offensive line in the second and third rounds with Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp and Indiana guard Dan Feeney.
Carolina, a 15-1 team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, had a draft that will please quarterback Cam Newton, who slumped last season. The Panthers’ top three picks — Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Ohio State speed receiver Curtis Samuel, Western Michigan tackle Taylor Moton — were on the offensive side.
If Deshaun Watson wins the starting quarterback job as a rookie, the Houston Texans’ gamble to move up to No. 12 will have paid off. There are critics of the trade, but Watson went 32-3 as Clemson’s starter and shredded Alabama and Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. Watson’s worth the risk. The team made solid selections in the second and third rounds with Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham and Texas running back D’Onta Foreman.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch nailed his first draft, both with trades and sharp selections. The 49ers had several needs and added 10 players. Lynch grabbed two elite defensive players — Stanford end Solomon Thomas at No. 3 and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster at No. 31 — in the first round. Quarterback remains a weakness, but bet on the 49ers making a big run for the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins in the next offseason.
According to reports, New Orleans coveted quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Foster, but both players were picked one spot before the Saints could get a shot at them. The Saints still filled needs — Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore at No. 11 and Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk at No. 32 — in the first round. Their draft haul improved a lot with three third-round picks, topped by Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara.
The New York Giants suspect Davis Webb, a former California quarterback, will be their eventual replacement for Eli Manning. Webb, who has a stronger arm than Manning, was a value pick in the third round. So was Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the fourth.
Tampa Bay continued to add weapons for quarterback Jameis Winston. In the first round, it was Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. In the third, it was Penn State wideout Chris Godwin. In the fifth, it was running back Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. The Buccaneers also made three draft picks on the defensive side.
Tennessee pulled in one of the draft’s most explosive players, former USC corner and kick returner Adoree’ Jackson at No. 18. That was after the Titans helped quarterback Marcus Mariota by picking Western Michigan wideout Corey Davis at No. 5.
The Washington Redskins’ draft class might slip under the radar, but it’s good, and it’s stocked with defensive help — Alabama tackle Jonathan Allen, Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson and former UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau, who could be a third-round steal.
Pass defense was an obvious problem for Green Bay last season. The team traded down to make a smart move for Kevin King, a physical 6-3 corner from Washington, with the first pick of the second round. Time will tell, as always, but North Carolina State safety Josh Jones, Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams, Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel, Brigham Young running back Jamaal Williams and two big wideouts (Purdue’s DeAngelo Yancey and Louisiana State’s Malachi Dupre) definitely improve the Packers’ roster.
Arizona did not jump for a quarterback, as expected, but the Cardinals did add impact defenders in linebacker Haason Reddick from Temple and safety Budda Baker from Washington. The hunt for Carson Palmer’s replacement will continue.
Dallas needed to load up on defense, so 6-6, 277-pound pass rusher Taco Charlton from Michigan was a good start late in the first round. The Cowboys had nine picks, and seven were used for defense.
The draft was a huge hit in Philadelphia, where the atmosphere was electric and Cowboys legend Drew Pearson made an epic appearance to fire up the crowd. The Eagles also had a solid draft haul. In the middle of it they picked little running back Donnel Pumphrey, a San Diego State star and Las Vegas prep product who’s a great story, too.