By Michael K. Reynolds
In 1998, using the second of their two third round draft picks, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected one of the greatest receivers in their gloried history. He was part receiver, part running back, with a dash of quarterback sprinkled in for good measure.
He was Hines Ward, a tough as gristle player from the University of Georgia and he came into the NFL ready to play. Even if the Steelers weren’t ready to give him that chance.
Apparently he was too slow. Too unorthodox. And he was a player the Steelers thought they needed to upgrade.
Which is why in 1999 the organization used their number one pick on Troy Edwards, the thirteenth player selected overall in the draft. He would turn out to be, by Coach Bill Cowher‘s own admission, one of their biggest draft blunders.
This was the case as well with Malcolm Johnson, another receiver they drafted in the fifth round that year.
And although Hines Ward made every catch that was thrown to him and excelled at special teams the Pittsburgh brass remained desperate to find a more explosive pair of hands.
So with the eighth overall pick in the 2000 draft, they selected Plaxico Burress, high on talent and low on maturity. For good measure they threw in UCLA standout pass catcher Danny Farmer in the fourth round, whose game never translated to the pros.
Hines was left to seethe on the bench as both Edwards and Burress took his starting job, the one by all fair measurements he had already earned.
But the stubborn Bulldog refused to go away, slow feet and all, and long after Edwards and Burress and Johnson and Farmer exited the team for other pastures, Hines Ward continued to amaze. He would go on to break just about every important receiving record for the Steelers and in the process became one of the team’s all-time fan favorites.
Which brings us to Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum. He joined the Black and Gold as the FOURTH of four seventh round draft picks last year. Just a few picks shy of Mr. Irrelevant status.
In his rookie season, he was called into action when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and his backup Mike Adams went down. Fans covered their eyes and feared the worst. But, Beachum excelled.
This off-season he was taught EVERY position on the offensive line, and in all cases he exceeded expectations.
When high-pedigree left tackle Mike Adams faltered in the starting role, Beachum came in and…although not perfect in his play, he proved up to the task and continues to show improvement every week. In fact, a reasonable argument could be made that he saved the Steelers season.
Still, he hears the whispers. His position is temporary. For he’s too short. Too weak. Arms not long enough.
But as Steelers fans continue to sift through the college ranks in search of Pittsburgh’s next number one draft pick at left tackle, don’t fault Beachum if he continues to focus on getting better. And stronger. And more experienced.
Because by all accounts, he is a true student of the game, and passionate about making the most out of this opportunity.
Is he too weak at the running game to keep his position next year? Perhaps. And maybe the Steelers will bring in a higher-pedigree player to fill the role through the draft or free agency.
Then again. Maybe the Steelers already have their left tackle of the future. Raw, but a promising work in process.
Think it’s not possible? Just ask Hines Ward.