AUBURN, Ala. — Sammie Coates ended Auburn's drought in the NFL draft Friday, as he became the first former Tiger taken. And he has the Pittsburgh Steelers to thank for that. The NFL's only six-time Super Bowl-winning franchise took Coates with the 23rd pick in the third round, the 87th overall.
"I’m very excited to be a part of it. The wide receivers they have make plays," he said in a conference call hosted by the team shortly after he was selected. "They’re playing good. I’m just ready to get up there and start learning from all of them."
Coates was also asked about the biggest criticism of him entering the draft: his tendency to drop passes.
"Yeah, I had one dropped in the end zone that should have been a touchdown," he said. "I was really ticked about that. But other than that, there were a few plays I was supposed to make, and I didn't come down with them."
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His problem with dropped passes is about the only thing NFL talent evaluators don't like. At the combine, he had a 131-inch broad jump and a 41-inch vertical, placing him among the top four receivers in both categories. And he also clocked in at 4.43 in the 40-yard dash.
With those types of numbers, it's easy to see why he was the Tigers' top downfield threat the past two seasons, which saw him catch 76 passes for 1,643 yards and 11 touchdowns. And per a tweet from the ESPN College Football Twitter account, Coates had 24 receptions of 30-plus yards in the last two years, which tied for most in the FBS.
Richard Mann, the Steelers' receivers coach, can't wait to start working with his newest player.
"I thought it was a great selection. From what I saw on tape, I think we got a guy that needs some work but is a great athlete," the coach said. "He has good speed and can take the top off of the coverage. He’s a guy who can track the ball down field very well. He has some problems straight ahead catching a football, but that’s why we have drills. With a chance to coach him up, we feel like we can make that better. The thing that you can’t coach up is his athleticism."
Another aspect of Coates' game Mann liked was his comfort level blocking.
"He will block and he will dig out safeties," Mann said. "We have a concept we call 'insert,' which means that is part of the running game. He will be good at that. We've seen him do it on tape. What you see is what you get. He has good size. I think football — and especially when you play receiver, that strong side receiver has to have some girth on him."
One thing that Coates will have to adapt to is playing in the slot. The past two years, he played almost exclusively on the outside. But the Leroy, Ala., product doesn't think it will take him too long to get a feel for the position.
"(Auburn's coaches) moved me inside on certain routes," he said. "The second half (of last season) I was doing it (and) I’m willing to do it."
And Mann believes it will be an easy transition.
"We've seen him tracking the ball down the field. That’s what we've seen him do consistently on the tape that we look at," he said. "He’s had some drops, but they all drop it. We've just got to work with him a little bit and make sure that we give him confidence and that we drill him up. ... We will put him in spots that he can excel. We won’t put him in spots that he won’t do well."
As for Coates' inconsistency catching the football, Mann wasn't worried. In fact, Mann admitted he went out of his way "to find an excuse" for Coates, since he believes the draftee is a capable pass-catcher. When asked why he thought Coates dropped so many passes, Mann chalked it up to a lack of focus. In the film he watched, he noticed Coates didn't play every down. He would come on and off the field constantly.
Sometimes, that can disrupt a player's rhythm.
"Players have a tendency to lose concentration simply because they weren't involved and then you bring them back in the heat of battle. ... I've been around a lot of players. If you’re not using them, they lose focus. I think that might have been some of it," Mann said. "I don’t know that. He just drops balls, so it might be that concentration drops off. Or a lot of people have trouble catching the ball underneath. To play inside takes savvy. Some guys are just not inside receivers, but the thing is, I've never seen any bad body language. So he’s not afraid and that’s a good thing."