Connor drafted because he can contribute

PITTSBURGH — Many decades ago the Steelers would have drafted a player from Pitt with the idea of appeasing the fans, getting some publicity and ultimately selling some tickets.

Those days are long gone.

Theirs is not an organization that leans on sentiment or panders heavily to ticket buyers. They have thousands of names on a season-ticket waiting list, so goosing sales isn’t a factor.

They drafted Pitt’s James Connor because they think he can be the complement to Le’Veon Bell. Connor hits the line like a tight end, but he has some speed and moves when he’s in the open field. He can catch the ball.

After his fight against cancer, his work ethic is unquestioned. The Steelers are counting on his health improving even more so he can contribute as the replacement for DeAngelo Williams.

If Connor had any edge in being drafted by the Steelers, it’s the proximity he enjoyed in their shared training facility on the South Side. The two teams interact, and the Steelers have seen the evidence of Connor’s character first-hand.

Fans are going to love the choice, and that’s fine. But the Steelers saw a player they think can help them win rather than a hometown favorite.

The process

Watching the draft coverage on the NFL Network, two thoughts come to mind:

1. How far has my life gone off the rails to watch wall-to-wall coverage of the draft?

2. How much time is spent discussing draft status of players being affected by those nagging off-the-field issues?

It seems like every other draftee has a police record or a sketchy drug test or some allegation of domestic abuse clouding his record.

So it’s not a matter of a player’s stats or his size as much as it’s the gamble a team has to assume to draft someone with possible character issues.

While the Steelers were taking Conner, the Cincinnati Bengals chose Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, who was banned from the NFL Scouting Combine after league officials saw the video of him punching a woman in the face.

Fear not, though. The Bengals will provide an environment in which he can be mentored by responsible professionals like Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones.

Give credit the NFL Network for a very candid interview with Mixon, conducted by former New York Times writer Judy Battista. She didn’t pull any punches, didn’t make any veiled references to “issues” or use the “some have said” disclaimer on the tough questions.

It was a very straight forward approach that wouldn’t ordinarily be expected from a league-operated outlet.

Language barrier

It wasn’t exactly a proud moment for the league when Atlanta’s No. 1 choice, Takkarist McKinley of UCLA, dropped a heavy duty obscenity while reacting to his selection.

McKinley was carrying a giant sized portrait of his late grandmother and speaking emotionally about the promise he’d made to her shortly before her death. Through the tears, he somehow inserted the bad word, then said, “excuse my language.”

The NFL Network interviewer counseled him to calm down. Who was this settling influence? None other than Deion Sanders, who in a previous life skulked around the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse to dump a bucket of water on Tim McCarver.

Filling holes

Is it possible some good may yet come from the gaps the Pirates have in their lineup?

It did before. In 2006, the Dave Littlefield-Jim Tracy administration had cast Freddy Sanchez as a utility player, primarily to back up an over-the-hill Joe Randa at third base.

Randa was injured, Sanchez got the opportunity and wound up winning the batting title with a .344 average. That helped launch a career that made him more than $32 million.

While Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte sit out games for their misdeeds, can someone step up and make the most of an unexpected chance?

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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