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Tim Benz: I don’t like the Mason Rudolph and James Washington picks. I love them.

April 28, 2018

I don’t know if this is the right plan. But these two are the right guys.

That’s how I view the headline-grabbing evening the Steelers pulled off on Day 2 of the NFL Draft.

After raising eyebrows in the first round by drafting a safety many projected as a mid-second-rounder at best, the Steelers did it again Friday, taking the most prolific passing tandem in college football last year.

In the second round, they selected wide receiver James Washington from Oklahoma State. In the third round, they took his quarterback, Mason Rudolph.

Washington led the country in receiving yards. Rudolph led the country in passing yards.

In the span of about an hour, Kevin Colbert had selected Martavis Bryant’s replacement for this year. And maybe Ben Roethlisberger’s in a few years.

I don’t like it.

I love it.

Stop twitching, Pitt fans. It’s OK. Rudolph and Washington can’t hurt you anymore. They play here now.

I admit it. Seeing these two hook up for 14 catches and 420 yards and three touchdowns over two games against the Panthers in 2016 and 2017 probably has inflated my opinion of Rudolph and Washington.

After all, c’mon. It was just Pitt’s awful pass defense on the other side of the ball.

But just about every college team struggled to contain this tandem. Rudolph broke 300 passing yards 11 of 13 times last year. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was 37:9. Washington won the Biletnikoff Award as a senior.

So their resumes shouldn’t be in question. But doubters have wondered if their talents will be translatable to the NFL. Perhaps the Cowboys’ wide-open system and the Big XII’s offense-friendly atmosphere are the real reasons why the their numbers are so good.

“His system isn’t a short system of a lot of quick, small, short throws,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “They asked him to sit in the pocket and throw seven-step passes and attack intermediate zones.”

So the players are worth the picks. But is the timing right to have grabbed them?

That’s another question entirely, given the team’s defensive needs and current Pro Bowl talents on offense.

Yes, I wanted to see an inside linebacker taken to replace Ryan Shazier as he has been lost for this season with a spine injury. Based on the signing of Morgan Burnett and the first-round selection of Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers have apparently decided to fill that hole with safeties who can play like linebackers instead of linebackers who may be able to cover.

For all of those who are being critical of the Steelers going too heavy on offense while the inside linebacker hole exists, questions remain at corner and pass rushing depth is thin — well, uh, it’s a strong argument.

You can say that drafting Washington is just a way to fill a hole they created by trading Martavis Bryant away in the first place to take a quarterback who may never start.

Again, point taken.

But Washington is a potential upgrade over Bryant. What he lacks in size and footspeed compared to Bryant, he makes up for in strength, combativeness for the ball and polish.

“You gotta be able to put the word ‘receive’ into ‘receiver.’ This is a guy who catches the football,” Fichtner said. “This is a tough, big, strong, hands catcher. A guy who is actually going to fight for the ball and secure it.”

Washington will also now be here for four years as opposed to Bryant, who would likely have left after 2018. Furthermore, he may be a familiar target for Rudolph if he is in fact the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger.

Just because Roethlisberger said he intends to play for the next three years or so, that doesn’t mean it’ll happen. He tends to change his tone on that topic from time to time, doesn’t he?

Plus, we haven’t seen a restructure to his contract yet. And what if it’s a matter of “want to” continue playing versus “can’t” continue playing due to injury sometime soon?

For the first time since Roethlisberger took the starter’s job, the Steelers have something they’ve never had before: a potential successor whenever Roethlisberger decides to leave Heinz Field and start walking towards Canton.

“Our job is to win a championship in ’18, but it’s also to secure this franchise’s ability to do it in the future,” Colbert said before the draft. “You have to have a great player at the quarterback position, in our eyes, to have the best chance to win a championship.”

In Rudolph they have that. In Washington they have a weapon for his partner in crime for the future. And for Roethlisberger immediately.

Now then, if they can just find a few guys who can cover and tackle.

OK, many guys.

Then everything will be great.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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