Steelers 2008 Draft Revisited – Tomlin Take Two


With one season of his Steelers coaching career in the tank, Mike Tomlin had successfully begun to brand the team “his” after following in the lofty footsteps of William Laird Cowher,  The 2007 Draft had provided Coach Tomlin with his first set of Steelers draft picks, many of whom made solid contributions to the 2007 season.  That season would result in Tomlin’s first AFC North title as head coach, a 10-6 team that secured the #4 seed in the AFC Playoffs – only to be bounced out in the Wild Card Round by the Jacksonville Jaguars At Heinz Field.

Heading into the 2008 Draft, the Steelers had a few positions that required attention.  Long-time OG Alan Faneca had become a free agent, signing with the New York Jets for a massive five-year, $40 million contract.  The deal would include $21 million in guaranteed money, making Faneca the highest-paid offensive lineman in football for a short while.  The loss of Faneca left the Steelers with a massive hole to fill both on and off the field, as the Pro Bowl guard had become one of the leaders of the franchise during his amazing run in Pittsburgh.  OLB Clark Haggans also left the team in free agency, a move that opened up a starting position for 2007 draft pick LaMarr Woodley.  The team signed Center Justin Hartwig to replace Sean Mahan – a dismal failure in 2007.

Fans of the Steelers were still clamoring for the team to use a high draft pick on either a shutdown Cornerback or a massive Offensive Lineman to shore up the two areas that needed depth and a talent influx.  The Steelers felt that they could enhance the roster better by looking for those positions later in the draft, and instead they decided to draft the best player available in round one.  The player the team targeted was there for the taking at #23 overall, and the Steelers jumped on him quickly.

Round One – 23rd Overall – Rashard Mendenhall – Running Back – 5’10” 225 lbs. – Illinois

The Steelers had been lacking a power running game ever since “The Bus” retired on the podium at Super Bowl XL in February 2006.  The team had employed players such as FB Carey Davis, RB Gary Russell, and RB Najeh Davenport in goal line and short yardage situations throughout 2006-2007 with little success.  Starting RB Willie Parker had established himself as a legitimate NFL ball carrier, but lacked the size typically associated with the Steelers power running game.  With Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians refusing to fully commit to a true fullback, Steelers fans were anxious to see the team acquire a back who would harken them back to the days of Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis.  The team found their man in round one when Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall fell into their laps at #23.  With Oregon back Jonathan Stewart off the board at #13 and the rest of the first round quality running backs being more of the “Fast Willie” variety, Mendenhall was a natural choice for the Steelers.

Rashard Mendenhall had spent his career at Illinois as a bruising back with substantial success.  His 2007 season was impressive – 1,681 yards rushing with 17 rushing touchdowns and a 6.4 YPC (yards per carry) average.  Mendenhall seemed to fit the bill as a primary power back in a revamped Steelers running game that would utilize the quickness of Willie Parker and the power of Mendenhall to create the new trend in the NFL – the two-headed monster.  After dealing with fumbling issues in the preseason, Mendenhall opened up the 2008 season as the youngest player on the Steelers roster.  In Week 4, Willie Parker suffered an injury that forced Mendenhall into a starting role – just in time for a midseason clash with arch-rival Baltimore at Heinz Field.  The stage was set for the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall as the next great Steelers running back.  After rushing for 30 yards on nine carries to start the game, Ravens ILB Ray Lewis smashed Mendenhall with a vicious hit, fracturing his shoulder and forcing him to IR (Injured Reserve) for the remainder of 2008.

The real breakthrough for Mendenhall would come in 2009.  Another injury to Willie Parker opened the door to a start for Mendenhall against the San Diego Chargers.  He answered the call and rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns against the highly-ranked Chargers defense.  The Rashard Mendenhall era in Pittsburgh had officially begun.  Over the next few weeks, the influx of #34 jerseys in the seats of crazed Heinz Field would be noticeable.  Steelers fans had fallen in love with their new running back.

His 2009 season ended with 1,108 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as the incumbent starter for 2010.  In 2010, Mendenhall turned into the player the Steelers had hoped he would be when they drafted him, rushing for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns en route to leading the team to another Super Bowl appearance, albeit a loss to the Green Bay Packers.

The 2011 season was a step backwards, as Mendenhall seemed to be playing injured all season.  It also must be mentioned that a severe lack of adequate blocking did not help matters.  All told, he rushed for 100 yards only two times all season.  He did score 9 touchdowns, however, and finally helped the team achieve a solid goal line offense.  His season would end in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns when it was discovered that he had torn his ACL.  Mendenhall finished the 2011 season with 928 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

The future is cloudy for Mendenhall, who seemed to be on his way to superstar status after his 2010 campaign.  He enters 2012 as a player who will be unable to play for an extended time period.  He will essentially miss all of training camp and a currently unspecified number of regular season games.  Hopefully, when he does return he starts right where he left off – on pace to become one of the top running backs in the NFL.

Round Two – 53rd Overall – Limas Sweed – Wide Reciever – 6’4″ 220 lbs. – Texas

It was a perfect storm that brought Limas Sweed into the lives of Steeler Nation.  The lack of a large target for QB Ben Roethlisberger had been a subject discussed in every Pittsburgh media outlet since the departure of Plaxico Burress.  Sweed was originally touted as a bone-fide first round quality player, and when he slipped down to round two it was only natural for the Steelers to take a flier on a player who had a ton of upside, despite injury and personality issues.  The selection of Sweed was considered a fantastic move by draft gurus and media outlets nationwide.  Physically, he was everything a team could want in a wide receiver – tall, fast, and a track record of using his great hands to haul in touchdown passes at an astounding clip.

Unfortunately, the potential that so many saw in the young player from Brenham, Texas never materialized in the NFL.  Sweed had a very tough time learning the complex Steelers offense, and when he finally seemed to be catching on to the routes and timing patterns that are so important for the Steelers passing game, his head began to get the better of him.  After playing sparingly throughout 2008, he was forced into a larger role in the AFC Championship Game after an injury to Hines Ward.  Sweed had a chance to catch a perfectly thrown 50-yard pass that would have been a sure touchdown late in the first half, a touchdown that may well have been the death nail for the Steelers opponent – those hated Baltimore Ravens.  Sweed allowed the pass to slip through his fingers, an offense that would have been forgiven had he not followed it up with a sulking performance that cost the Steelers a key timeout due to his inability to get up off the field because of the embarrassment he felt by dropping the pass.  Although he would come back into the game later and deliver a massive block that was greeted by a thunderous Heinz Field ovation, the writing was on the wall for Limas Sweed.

A strange series of injuries and personal issues basically ended Sweeds time in Pittsburgh over the next few years.  After entering training camp 2009 in a battle for the #3 wide receiver slot with rookie Mike Wallace and veteran Shaun McDonald, he emerged on the roster and eventually secured the #4 spot in the Steelers rotation, although he saw little in terms of actual playing time.  In 2010, an Achilles tendon injury forced him to IR and he missed the entire season.  On August 17, 2011 the Steelers began to cut ties with the wideout by releasing him to the waived/injured list.  By mid-September, Sweed no longer had a roster spot or a locker in the Steelers locker room.

Round Three – 88th Overall – Bruce Davis – OLB – 6’3″ 250 lbs. – UCLA

A fantastic athlete who had excelled at both defensive end and outside linebacker at UCLA, Davis seemed to be a perfect fit for the Steelers.  His college resume included a first-team All American season in 2006 (47 tackles/12.5 sacks/17.5 tackles for loss), a similarly productive senior season (45 tackles/12.0 sacks/15.5 tackles for loss), and national recognition as a semi-finalist for the Bednarik Award in 2007.  A marginal combine performance dropped his draft status and enabled the Steelers to select him late in the third round, a value-based pick that looked to be a steal.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, transitioning to the professional 3-4 defense and the speed of the NFL game both proved to be obstacles that Davis could not overcome.  He was woefully over matched during the 2008 preseason, and spent most of his rookie season on the inactive list.  By the beginning of 2009, the Steelers gave up on Davis, releasing him prior to the start of the regular season.  Since that time, Davis has had stints on the practice squads of the Patriots, Broncos, and 49ers.  In 2010, he was signed by the Oakland Raiders and played in a combined 10 games between the 2010-2011 seasons.  He was released by Oakland this past October and has not been given another opportunity as of yet.

Round Four – 130th Overall – Tony Hills – Offensive Tackle – 6’6″ 305 lbs. – Texas

The Steelers reached back into the former Texas Longhorns player pool again in the forth round, selecting OT Tony Hills.  Hills would join fellow Texas star Limas Sweed as rookies in Pittsburgh for 2008.  His college career started as a tight end in 2003, a redshirt season that was forced upon him due to a very serious left knee injury that was deemed career-threatening.  When he returned the following season, he was converted to offensive tackle and played in 31 games at that position, including being part of a dominant blocking rotation that helped Texas win the 2005 BCS National Championship.  Despite missing the final two games of his senior season with a fractured left fibula, Hills was named to both the first-team All Big 12 team and the first-team Walter Camp All-American team.

Hills was unable to crack the Steelers offensive line depth chart during his three seasons with the team.  He played in three games for the team in 2010, working at both tackle and guard.  He was leapfrogged by Ramon Foster on the roster and released by the Steelers on September 3, 2011.  He was signed by the Denver Broncos for the 2011 season but did not play in any regular season games.  He heads into 2012 as part of the active roster in Denver, looking to secure a spot blocking for new QB Peyton Manning.

Hills was another in a long string of mid-round offensive line gambles by the Steelers that did not pay off.  A list that includes such notable failures as Bo Lacy (2004), Cameron Stephenson (2007), and Kraig Urbik (2009).

Round Five – 156th Overall – Dennis Dixon – Quarterback – 6’3″ 200 lbs. – Oregon

A prolific athlete during his high school and college years, Dennis Dixon was well on his way to being a first round draft pick in 2007, leading the Oregon Ducks all the way to a #2 National ranking before suffering a torn ACL that cost him the final two games, a Sun Bowl appearance, and the all important NFL Combine workout prior to the 2008 Draft.  Dixon was such a tremendous athlete that he was also drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft by the Atlanta Braves.  After struggling in a short rookie league season, Dixon gave up the bat and glove and returned to Oregon to resume his quarterback duties for his senior season.

During his college career, Dixon established himself as both a legitimate passing QB, as well as a rushing threat with blazing speed and pinpoint cutting ability.  His senior season included a 67.7 completion, 2,136 passing yards, and 20 touchdown passes to only 4 interceptions – numbers that equaled a QB Rating of 161.2, good for third overall in all of college football.  He was voted onto two All PAC-10 teams (2006 and 2007), was named the PAC-10 Offensive player of the year in 2007, was a finalist for the Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Awards in 2007, and finished fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.

With his impressive resume tucked under one arm, Dixon went on to impress scouts during Oregon’s Pro-Day workouts and in his own sanctioned private workouts prior to the 2008 Draft.  With starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dealing with both personal and injury issues, long-time backup QB Charlie Batch on IR for 2008, and newly-signed backup QB Byron Leftwich just getting his feet wet in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were looking to add a young quarterback who would potentially take over as the primary backup to Roethlisberger in the long run.  Due to concerns over his injury, NFL teams passed on Dixon all the way until the fifth round, where the Steelers were able to select him at 156th overall.

After an impressive 2008 preseason that included a combined 12-for-24 on passing attempts and an impressive 47-yard touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills, Dixon was deactivated for most of the regular season.  He was active in Week 17 and completed his first NFL pass to WR Hines Ward – the 800th career reception for the all-time great.  For his contributions to the team in 2008, Dixon received a Super Bowl ring following the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII victory over Arizona.  All told, it was not a bad way to start a promising NFL career for the sleek young quarterback.

In 2009, the Steelers were dealing with injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, giving Dixon the opportunity to start on November 28 in a pivotal AFC North road clash with Baltimore.  Dixon played admirably in that game, finishing with a 12-for-26 line, 145 yards passing, a touchdown and a game-deciding interception late in the forth quarter.  He also ran for a touchdown on a spectacular planned QB run.

The 2010 season started with a four-game suspension for Ben Roethlisberger, and Dixon battled with Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch in the preseason for the right to start in the absence of #7.  After starting the first two games of the season, Dixon suffered a knee injury against Tennessee during the week two game and eventually landed on IR for the season.  In 2011, Dixon did not play following his knee surgery and was eventually placed on IR once again, possibly ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Dixon is currently an unrestricted free agent and is free to sign with any team.  He is intent on signing with a franchise that will enable him to compete for a backup job, with the possibility of a future starting role.  The Steelers seem content with re-signing Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch to back up Roethlisberger, also scouting mid-round quarterbacks for the upcoming draft.  Dixon has the skill set to be an intriguing pick up by any team with an unsettled QB situation.  While being drafted by the Steelers enabled him to win a Super Bowl ring in his rookie season, being drafted by Pittsburgh also placed him in a situation where he would forever be behind a future Hall of Fame quarterback.  When given the opportunity to play extensively on any team, Dixon could eventually mature into a solid #2 QB for many years to come.

This is a large write-up for a fifth round pick, but the drafting of Dennis Dixon was one of the more intriguing Steelers picks of the past five years.  Originally it was thought by Steelers fans that Dixon could have transitioned to the old Antwaan Randle-El role as a WR who can line up at QB and catch defenses off guard.  Those types of players always catch the eye of Steeler Nation.  While Dennis Dixon may never be a starting quarterback in the National Football League, he is a prime reminder of the type of talent that can be had in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft.  The Steelers made a solid selection with this draft pick and it is the type of pick that fans would like to see more of – bold.

Round Six – 188th Overall – Mike Humpal – Linebacker – 6’3″ 244 lbs. – Iowa

Personally, I love when the Steelers draft players from the Iowa Hawkeyes.  Besides the fact that Iowa looks like a college version of our beloved Steelers, Hawkeyes players are always hard-nosed, blue collar types.  The exact sort of athletes that are always welcomed with open arms in the Steel City.

Humpal was a solid college linebacker, recording 123 tackles and 3 interceptions in his senior (2007) season.  The team envisioned him as a player that could provide solid depth on the inside in the 3-4 defense.  Humpal was injured prior to his rookie season and did not play a down for the Steelers before being released.  He was re-signed and placed on injured reserve in 2009, a gesture of good faith by the Steelers to a player they felt could eventually get healthy and become a solid addition to the depth chart.  Humpal was never able to get over the “humpal” (pun so sadly intended) so to speak, and was released for good on February 26, 2009.  He is currently out of football.

Round Six – 194th Overall – Ryan Mundy – Safety/Cornerback – 6’1″ 205 lbs. – West Virginia

The Steelers capped off their 2008 Draft by selecting a Pittsburgh product, Woodland Hills High School graduate Ryan Mundy.  Mundy had started his college career at Michigan, playing for the Wolverines in both 2004 and 2006, with a medical redshirt season in 2005.  After graduating from Michigan, Mundy utilized his final year of eligibility by enrolling at West Virginia.  He started for the Mountaineers and had his best college season (59 tackles/3 interceptions).

Mundy was not invited to work out at the NFL Combine, but did so at the West Virginia Pro Day.  His work out numbers were not eye-popping, but his 4.55 40-yard dash time and 21 reps of 225 lbs. on the Bench Press was enough for the Steelers to give the local product a shot to make the roster.  Mundy was cut before the regular season, but was almost immediately re-signed to the practice squad.  He ended up being active for all 16 games in 2009 and has played in 48 total games for the Steelers as the primary backup to both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.  He has started two games due to injuries to the starters during that time, including the 2011 AFC Wild Card game in Denver which saw him and now-former teammate CB William Gay attempting to chase down Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas on the game-winning touchdown in overtime.  Overall, Mundy has been a valuable backup and special teams player for the Steelers – about what the team would expect from a late sixth-round pick.  Furthermore, Mundy continues a tradition of local products living out their childhood dreams as active members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, something that has always been important to the Steelers organization and their fans.
2008 Draft Summary

The second draft by Head Coach Mike Tomlin saw the Steelers draft a potential superstar running back who has made significant contributions to both a Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl losing team.  The Steelers also drafted an exciting young quarterback project in Dennis Dixon, and a long time piece of their defensive secondary and special teams depth in S Ryan Mundy.

Unfortunately, that pretty much sums up the high points of a very disappointing Steelers draft class.  The total value of this class hangs on the long-term ability of RB Rashard Mendenhall to return from a serious ACL injury and regain the form he showed in 2010.  Limas Sweed and Mike Humpal are completely out of football just four years later, and Bruce Davis is searching for another practice squad job for 2012.  Tony Hills is an active member of the Denver Broncos, but has yet to play in a game for the team.  Hills held zero value for the Steelers in his time here.

The toughest aspect of this draft to swallow for Steeler Nation is the failure of Limas Sweed to develop into the tall wide receiver that has been so coveted by QB Ben Roethlisberger.  Sweed never seemed to get over the dropped touchdown pass in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, as he dropped another sure TD the following season and within six months was no longer a part of the organization.  His immaturity was a concern for teams heading into the draft, and the Steelers took a gamble that did not pay off.

Dennis Dixon will continue to play in the NFL, however he will more than likely not be in black and gold.  His years with the Steelers will be forgotten in time, despite the potential he showed in limited duty when it was given to him.

As far as the past five Steelers drafts go, 2008 should be deemed the least successful of the Tomlin Era.

Tomorrow, we will review the 2009 Steelers Draft.  The 2009 class included a now-starting defensive lineman, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, a potential starting cornerback for 2012, and a valuable late-round tight end pick that has turned into one of the best seventh round picks of the past five years in the NFL.


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