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Savran: Steelers might have dropped the ball

Saturday, April 27, 2002

Time will tell if the Steelers' selection of Antwaan Randle El was a mistake. And while I don't believe it necessarily was, not drafting Antonio Bryant might have been.

It goes largely to one's definition of need. The Steelers could have forfeited all their draft picks and still would have been considered a Super Bowl contender. Nevertheless, I believe a third-down receiver -- given that a team plays about 40 percent of its offensive snaps with him in there -- is a necessity, not a luxury. And, therefore, a need.

Which is not to suggest that Randle El can't, or won't, eventually fill that need. But when? Immediately?

This is a guy whose experience at the position is a handful of games.

While scouts say he adapted well in practices at the Senior Bowl, is that the same as cutting across the middle with a salivating Ray Lewis waiting to dismember you?

Remember, this Steelers' team is built for now -- right now.

They don't have time for eventually or tomorrow. Their window of opportunity is open this year, maybe next. After that, who's to say?

The jaws of free agency and the salary cap are already nipping at the Steelers' heels, preparing to tear them asunder as early as the coming winter.

This is no time for projects. This season could be their best opportunity to win a championship.

Because a third-down receiver is much more than an afterthought, especially on a team that doesn't make a habit of throwing to the tight end, this is not a time for on the job training. Not even for someone as athletically gifted as Randle El.

Bryant, of course, wouldn't have had to enroll in Receiving 101.

Certainly, as with any rookie, he would need an advanced NFL education at the position, but he possesses enough skills to believe he could contribute immediately.

Obviously, character issues were significant in his case, clearly a concern for all teams based on how many passed on him.

Still, I think the primary reasons the Steelers did not take him were football related.

They apparently didn't think he would adapt as well as Randle El to the high-definition specifications of a third-down receiver.

Why they thought that, I can't tell you.

Maybe it was an issue of quickness or elusiveness or recognition or patience. But watching Bryant for three seasons, it's hard to imagine he would have been a bad fit.

Some claim that this smacks of provincialism, that if Bryant had played at Purdue instead of Pitt, wagging tongues would be silenced. Perhaps, but it's more a matter of familiarity, having seen the guy play at the same position he would be playing in the NFL.

As for the character issues, we're not privy to the extensive dossiers compiled by every personnel department on every potential draftee.

But looking back, at least as far as we know, weren't most of Bryant's difficulties based on immaturity rather than mean spirit?

He's not a felon like many others I could name -- some still playing, and starring -- in the league. He hasn't had serious, nose-to-nose confrontations with the law. His offenses consisted largely of being overly exuberant, at times a bit out of control on the sideline.

While that's not to be diminished or dismissed, it also wouldn't seem to be irreversible.

Wasn't there once a quarterback who challenged his coach on the sideline after being yanked from a game?

Does it also strike you that the Steelers' appetite for trickery is getting a bit too hearty?

Sure, Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey pulled some very entertaining rabbits out of his hat last year. And having another weapon like Randle El means Mularkey will have more up his sleeve than just his arm.

But when you desperately need to convert a third-and-7, tricks aren't going to save you. Precise routes and good hands will.

There is a way for the Steelers to have their tricks and treats: Sign a veteran wide receiver, a proven commodity to fill a critical need on a team whose only acceptable definition of success this year is a Super Bowl appearance.

That would still allow them to discover ways to best take advantage of Randle El's skills, without the pressure of having to rely on him.

It would give him time to grow into that role, a role Bryant might have filled more immediately, if not more capably.

Stan Savran is the hosts a sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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