JW: Answer Man, you old coot, tell me about the Steelers' draft. What did you think? AM: I liked it…
Snapshot: Trai Essex
Can pass protect and play either guard or tackle spots. Yep.
Intelligent. No off-the-field problems. Solid family. Yep.
Grimm, Essex's new line coach with the Steelers, agrees with all of it. Except this: Soft body. Isn't strong. Inconsistent worker. Questionable maturity. Can be lazy.
"I don't know how that 'lazy' tag got hung on him," said Grimm. "I just don't see it."
Grimm said it's the same label that was inappropriately hung last draft season on Max Starks, who, like Essex, was a third-round pick.
"Let's just say a guy does come in and he's lazy," Grimm said. "In our (offensive line) meetings, we talk all the time about setting the tone for the offense in practice. It's something guys like (Jeff) Hartings and (Alan) Faneca and Marvel (Smith) and Big O (Oliver Ross) take pride in. They know the line sets the tone at practice and that that sets the tone for Sunday. When those five guys break the huddle, they're all business. And you know what? There's nowhere for them to hide. You understand what I'm saying? If Max Starks was lazy, and I'm not saying he was, but there's nowhere for him to hide. I expect the same to happen with Trai. He'll get caught up with these other guys. He'll play. I'm not worried about it."
Grimm raves about Essex's intelligence since he turned down Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.) for Northwestern because of its academics. Essex enrolled there as a two-sport star after leading Fort Wayne Harding (a rival of Rod Woodson's Fort Wayne Snider High School) to the Indiana state basketball title. Essex was the MVP of the state championship game because of his 23 points and state 2-A record 14 rebounds.
Essex also caught 51 passes for 857 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior tight end, as well as a touchdown in a national all-star game, and was among the bluest chips coming out. He also made the honor roll 10 times at Harding, so Northwestern was a good fit.
There, Essex started every game at tight end as a freshman before moving to left tackle in 2002. His coach, Randy Walker, once joked that Essex ate himself out of being a tight end, and the joke hung on Essex like a draft-day albatross. But Essex started 37 games at left tackle in Northwestern's zany misdirection-oriented offense. He played through an ankle injury as a sophomore and shook off a viral infection in his kidney as a senior. Perhaps Essex relaxed too much after his career ended because his combine times weren't up to what scouts expected.
At the combine, the 6-foot-5 Essex weighed 324, or 9 pounds over his optimum playing weight. He ran a 5.28 40 his first time and didn't run again because of a tight hamstring. It was the start of a plummet down draft boards.
Of course, the Steelers thought otherwise and took Essex in the bottom of the third round, ahead of such notables as Elton Brown and Ray Willis.
"He can play both positions, guard and tackle," said Grimm. "That's what we needed."
And how does Essex feel about being moved around as a swing man?
"Hey, I moved from tight end to tackle," he said. "So moving one place to the side or a couple places to the side won't really make a difference to me. I'm just happy to have this opportunity to play for a team that I've always wanted to play for."
"Yeah, I've always wanted to play for Pittsburgh. It's always been my team."
Since Rod Woodson?
"Since Barry Foster, way back when I was a little kid," Essex said. "Pittsburgh has always been my favorite football team."
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