Steelers go O, add big-play threats at RB, WR

Despite having Pro Bowl talent at those positions, Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed figure to make Pittsburgh more dangerous on offense.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall was linked to a number of teams before the NFL draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers were almost never mentioned.

So imagine the Big Ten offensive player of the year’s surprise when the Steelers, a team that hadn’t met with him for weeks — and one that already has a Pro Bowl running back in Willie Parker — made him the No. 23 pick in the NFL draft Saturday.

“Throughout this whole process, I didn’t have any idea that I was going to end up with the Steelers. ... The draft, you never know, it’s a poker game and you never show you what you’re going to do,” said Mendenhall, who ran for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 34 passes last season. “Pittsburgh wasn’t among them, Pittsburgh was out of nowhere.”

The Steelers insisted that Mendenhall fell out of nowhere to them, even though a handful of the countless mock drafts had him lasting until late in the first round. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert said the Steelers, seeking to add to the six picks they had going into the draft, seriously considered trading their first-round pick — something they haven’t done in 41 years.

However, the Steelers drew up a list of 15 players they would choose if available, and Mendenhall was one of them, Colbert said.

The Steelers went all offense with their two picks, choosing Texas wide receiver Limas Sweed on the second round. At 6-foot-4, Sweed is the tall receiver that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asking for.

“People were saying he was looking for a bigger receiver and now he has one,” said Sweed, whose senior season was ended after five games by a wrist injury that required surgery. “Ben’s a big, tall guy with a big, strong arm and can definitely deliver the ball.”

Knowing that Roethlisberger would be eager to hear the news, the Steelers called him even before the pick was announced.

“Those two have probably already talked,” wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner said.

Both Mendenhall and Sweed are seen as playmakers who could add a big-play element to the Steelers’ offense.

“We’ve got two guys who can put the ball in the end zone, and that’s important, the last time I checked,” Fichtner said.

The only surprise was that the Steelers rarely use a first-round pick at a position that already is a strength, and Parker was the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,316 yards when he broke his right leg Dec. 20 against St. Louis. Parker is healing on schedule and ran the ball several times during voluntary offseason workouts last week.

“Most teams have two productive running backs they can count on,” Colbert said. “This is one who’s a little bigger than Willie, and there’s things he can do to complement Willie and that can only help us.”

One factor that influenced the Steelers’ decision is that they had virtually no running game after Parker was hurt, rushing for only 43 yards in their 31-29 wild card playoff loss to Jacksonville. They also were worried what kind of offense they would have should Parker get hurt again.

“In all honesty, when you look back at last year, once Willie was injured it made a difference,” Colbert said. “Willie Parker is a Pro Bowl running back, and when you go from a Pro Bowl running back to anybody else, there’s going a dropoff unless you have another Pro Bowl running back. You want to try to add something to that backfield.

“Willie Parker is still going to be a great running back. We think Rashard Mendenhall is going to be a great running back as well.”

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.