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2014 NFL Draft: A Q&A With Behind The Steel Curtain About MAC Draftees

Were Steelers' fans surprised by the pick of Dri Archer? How will he be used? And what about Rob Blanchflower? We posed those questions (plus a few more) to the Steelers' SB Nation blog Behind The Steel Curtain.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

From Miami's Ben Roethlisberger to Central Michigan's Antonio Brown and many others in between, the Pittsburgh Steelers clearly love players from the Mid-American Conference.

That love continued in the 2014 NFL Draft when the team drafted two players to add to their collection.  The Steelers selected Kent State Golden Flashes running back Dri Archer in the third round, then picked up Massachusetts Minutemen tight end Rob Blanchflower in the seventh.

To unravel some of the mystery behind how Archer and Blanchflower will be used, we talked with Neal Coolong, managing editor for our sister SB Nation blog Behind The Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain).

(This interview has been condensed/edited.)

Hustle Belt: The Steelers had well-documented needs on defense going into the draft. They addressed some of those in the first two rounds but not at cornerback.  They also had a need at wide receiver that had not been solved by pick #97. What was your reaction when they selected Archer over a CB or WR?

Behind The Steel Curtain: I was surprised. I thought they would address the running back position later in the draft, particularly one that could contribute on special teams. I did not think they'd do it in the third round. Outside of surprised, I wasn't particularly thrilled with it (although some of that might have had something to do with the fact I'd written something like 30 articles in two days. I was a tad fried). Calmer heads eventually won out, and looking back on it, the reality is there wasn't another player available with the 97th pick who had the same kind of immediate opportunity to make an impact on this team. Yes, that sounds an awful lot like someone trying to rationalize a pick that is fairly questionable, but at that point and now, it's still true.

HB: Were you disappointed, and did your perception of Archer pick change when they selected (WR) Martavis Bryant in the 4th and (CB) Shaquille Richardson in the 5th?

BTSC: I was disappointed with the pick, and my perception really was that a player like Bryant simply may not fall into the fourth round. I had a discussion with readers regarding Bryant and said that he's probably a fourth round talent right now but will be taken in the third because everyone else will want him in the fourth. Turns out I was wrong. After that pick, looking at what the Steelers had, my thought was more that they're just going to have to find a cornerback somewhere in this draft and develop him.

HB: What did you know about Archer's skills and abilities coming into the draft, and did you consider him a possibility for the Steelers at any point? BTSC: I knew what everyone knew; he was really fast. I also knew the level of excitement Steelers fans had over Chris Rainey - a similarly built speed demon who proved to be probably the weakest player in the NFL in 2012. I don't like comparing rookies to pros, but with just two years removed, it's extremely difficult to not see him as a Rainey-esque player - all special teams, no offensive production, easy to plan for and likely will fumble a bit.

That's more of the Caveat Emptor piece of any post-draft evaluation. Archer is probably a better route-runner than Rainey will ever be, and while little can be done about his size, I think the plan for him will involve him getting the ball on the edge from the slot a bit more than they did with Rainey. Call it the Steelers learning from past mistakes, but we'll have to wait and see what kind of role they really intend for him. They gave him No. 34 for rookie minicamp, so clearly they see backfield duties as part of it.

HB: Have you studied Archer since the draft and, if so, what have you learned about him that you previously did not know?

BTSC: Everything, really. He was completely new to me. He ran a lot tougher than I thought he would. Even if he's among the lightest players in the league, he fights. You need that, if he's a third round pick. Good vision, too. He doesn't run looking to achieve his top speed as quickly as possible. He runs with a good sense of purpose. In my mind, that's a vastly underrated role of a feature back. He's patient and will use his blockers while moving with good balance in space.

Some negatives: he's going to fumble. He did it in the MAC, how will it stop in the NFL? Along with that, guys like him are dependent on scheme and teammates getting him free in space. He's going to struggle to create much of his production on his own. To justify his roster spot he'll essentially have to perform on special teams, otherwise you've got a player that will require perfect execution from 10 other players in order to do anything, with no room for error.

HB: The Steelers are notorious on defense for limiting the playing time of rookies, but the opposite seems to be true on offense, particularly for recent picks like Maurkice Pouncey,and LeVeon Bell.  Do you envision Archer receiving much playing time in his rookie season?

BTSC: On offense, rookies have probably seen the field a bit more over that time, largely because the offense can scheme specifically to one player. That said, the Steelers are going to be in a really tough spot carrying Archer as a running back. If they keep fullback Will Johnson, that's four running backs on game day - Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Archer and Johnson. Unless Archer can gain the confidence of the coaches to run the ball between the tackles, their offensive game plan will change quite a bit if Bell gets hurt in the middle of a game.

Blount would be it with no breaks, and Blount isn't half the receiver Bell is. In other words, if Archer is in the game, they're throwing or running wide. If Blount is in the game, they're running. That's a tough gamble, but one I can understand. But you don't draft a running back who can return kicks in the third round to not suit him up on game day, so I'd say it's a gamble they're willing to take.

HB: What type of role do you envision Archer filling -- what can he do for the Steelers' offense?

BTSC: I think they're gonna have to use him from the slot. Putting that kind of speed on the field is important, but they're at a tactical disadvantage if that speed is coming from behind the line of scrimmage if he's not a threat to run the ball through the 0-4 holes. I'm not convinced he can do that at the NFL level, but he's also a rookie - we really shouldn't be convinced any of them can do anything at the NFL level yet. They need to show it. Archer will get his chance, but he's gonna need to show his worth on bubble screens too. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a designated check in place, depending on the defensive alignment, to throw a quick screen. It was more or less the Steelers' running game last season and the main reason why Antonio Brown caught 110 passes. Brown's probably 10 pounds heavier than Archer, so it's not like there's a significant drop between the two. If Archer can show he can run effective routes, he could become a dynamic weapon.

HB: Some experts have compared Archer to 2012 Steelers' draft pick Chris Rainey, who was very similar in stature to Archer.  Given Rainey's failure with Pittsburgh, the comparisons are unfavorable.  Do you think those comparisons are valid, and how do you think Archer will be different?

BTSC: It's impossible to not compare the two; both are insanely fast, really small NFL running backs who return kicks. The Steelers drafted both of them. Not sure how it can be avoided. It's too early to say, beyond that, how comparable they really are.

What's interesting is the Steelers have tried the dynamic running back/kick returner in each of the last two years. Rainey in 2012 was used out of the backfield and had little to no success. They dumped him (for various reasons) and signed LaRod Stephens-Howling, who has a bit more weight than Archer does but he was expected to be used in a similar specialty role. Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in the third quarter of the Steelers' opening week, so I'm not even sure if we have a good parallel for how Archer will or won't be different. He's going to largely define his role on his own.

HB: Rob Blanchflower was selected in the 7th round, and historically, late-round picks have a very low success rate in the NFL.  However, Steelers' starting tight end Heath Miller is getting older.  Can Blanchflower make the team and, if so, in what role?  Can he be Miller's eventual replacement?

BTSC: I see Blanchflower more as another David Johnson - a seventh-round pick of the Steelers in 2009 who, minus a bad run of injuries, had a very solid career as a blocking tight end in Pittsburgh. I like Blanchflower's potential in that kind of a role. He gets after it in the run game, and that's really what he's going to have to lean on to make this team. Miller's job and that of Matt Spaeth are secure heading into camp. The two other tight ends on the roster, David Paulson and Michael Palmer, present challenges to Blanchflower, but not overwhelming ones.

Paulson is clearly more athletic and can be seen as a receiving option in certain packages, but he is a poor blocker, as he's shown in two seasons with the team. Palmer is a solid blocker but is a limited athlete, and he won't catch passes unless something goes wrong on a field goal or extra point attempt. Blanchflower will have to have an outstanding camp in order to make the team, which could include reps as a fullback in order to save a roster spot. While it's unlikely, if the Steelers can save an extra running back spot by using Blanchflower in a fullback role (Will Johnson played about 11 snaps a game last season), they could keep him on the active roster. But that's a stretch. I think the practice squad is in his future, barring injury.


UPDATE: BTSC has a report from the Steelers' rookie mini camp with some very interesting information about Archer and how the team might be developing a role for him.  It's definitely worth a look.