PITTSBURGH — Before the 2023 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin tried to set aside the notion that his personal connection with Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. would sway his and the team’s judgement when it came time to make a decision on draft night.
Tomlin said that he’s gotten to know most of the local players through the draft process, and not just Porter, the son of his former star linebacker and assistant coach.
“There’s guys in every draft, particularly for me in recent years, that I have similar background with,” Tomlin said. “Maybe the Pittsburgh guys. Maybe they’re in a similar age group as my sons. The Skyy Moore discussion a year ago. (Damar Hamlin); the guys that played next door (at Pitt.) All the 412s. Because I’ve been a part of this community so long, I’ve essentially watched those generations of guys grow up. Seeing them play little league football, high school football. I’ve probably met them at some point during their development because guys like me meet talented young athletes.”
Tomlin and the Steelers have plied the local talent pool repeatedly over the year, grabbing James Conner out of Pitt in 2017 and Kenny Pickett from “next door” in 2022. But they’ve also passed on plenty of others like Tyler Boyd, Moore and Jordan Whitehead.
They haven’t gotten all the best local players, but they’ve done a good job of identifying the top talent that’s close to home.
The Steelers decided in the first round that they wanted to address the tackle position first, trading up to land Broderick Jones with the 14th pick, and in all likelihood, taking Porter off their board. Instead, Porter fell farther than expected and was still available for when the team picked at No. 32 in the second round.
In an appearance on Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio Morning Men on Wednesday, Tomlin talked about the process of thinking that they were passing on Porter, only to have him come back around to them.
“It was really something to balance, because obviously, I’ve got strong feelings for that young man, besides the relationship that me and his father have,” Tomlin said. “He’s one of my oldest son’s best friends. Joey spent a lot of weekends at my house growing up and doing the things that kids do.
“But business is business, man. You know we’re going to do what’s appropriate for the Pittsburgh Steelers specifically and our team build. The beautiful thing about it is, this young man fit all the boxes that we needed.”
One of the other things Tomlin and general manager Omar Khan talked a lot about before the draft was the idea of trading down from pick No. 32. With a big gap between the last pick of the first round on Thursday and the first pick of the second round on Friday, the Steelers had plenty of time to field lots of trade calls about teams interested in trading up, especially with Kentucky quarterback Will Levis unexpectedly still on the board, in addition to Porter.
But the presence of the big, athletic corner that the team had a first-round grade on threw a wrench into those plans. Instead of shopping that pick to the highest bidder, Tomlin and Khan patiently waited for an overwhelming offer. When one didn’t come, they took a player they easily could have drafted in the first round.
“One of the more difficult things was weighing our potential options going into Day 2,” Tomlin said. “We were holding the golden ticket, the first pick of the second day and people had a desire to move. We were open to listening, but it was going to take some significant moves by others to get us out of that spot, knowing the level of confidence we had in him in the things that you can’t measure. We know where he comes from. We know his values. We know how he was raised. We know his relationship with football and all of those things.
“Plus, it fit a very specific need. We needed to infuse some young, long corner talent into our defense. It checked all the boxes. It’s just doubly cool when it can check some of the interpersonal boxes and create a cool story. Make no mistake, the decision making, the nuts and bolts of it was, this is highly regarded cornerback who surprisingly was still on the board at 32 and we were thankful for it.”