Pitt rarely has the on-field success that its fans want, but one thing is certain: The school has a great reputation for getting players to the pros. That didn't change this season, as the Panthers had five players selected in the NFL Draft.
Pitt produced another first-rounder in wide receiver Jon Baldwin. Baldwin, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 26, had a good, but unspectacular junior season in which his numbers dropped. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard went a short time later to the Cleveland Browns at No. 37 in the second round. But it's the players who were selected after Baldwin and Sheard that could turn out to be excellent late round picks.
Dion Lewis was the next to go at No. 149 in the fifth round to the Philadelphia Eagles. Lewis will, coincidentally, back up LeSean McCoy, Pitt's star running back before him. As I wrote over at Cardiac Hill over the weekend, McCoy and Lewis were the best two running backs at Pitt since Tony Dorsett. Their numbers will wholeheartedly back up that argument as in two seasons, each put up stats superior to those Craig Heyward, Curtis Martin, and Curvin Richards. It's no secret that Lewis' numbers were down in 2010 from his 1,799-yard campaign as a freshman. But part of the problem was that he was running behind an inexperienced line and also dealt with an injury. There were times (for example, the Cincinnati game where he had four touchdowns and ran for 261 yards) when he looked like the All-American candidate he was heading into the season. Even in his disappointing final season, he still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and averaged nearly five yards per carry. In the fifth round, he could be a solid bargain for the Eagles.
By the way, Lewis' backup at Pitt, LaRod Stephens-Howling, played in the NFL last year with the Arizona Cardinals, averaging just under five yards per carry. Stephens-Howling has a build similar to Lewis', but frankly, he isn't as good. If he can produce in the NFL, there's no reason to think Lewis can't.
Jason Pinkston went with the very next pick to the Cleveland Browns. Pinkston was a very good lineman at Pitt and a two-time All-Big East player, having made the squad each of the past two seasons. In 2009, he was a second-team Sports Illustrated and Rivals All-American. He was even given a little hype as a potential first-rounder before the season. Pinkston is going to start out as a guard in the pros as he might not yet be good enough to be a left tackle, his position at Pitt. But a fifth-round pick could be a pretty inexpensive price to pay for a starting lineman ... and Pinkston should get his chance to become just that.
Rounding out the Pitt draft picks might be the biggest steal of all. Defensive end Greg Romeus, who missed most of the 2010 season, was selected by the New Orleans Saints at No. 226. Romeus was another first-round candidate before back and knee injuries forced him out of action for the majority of the season. He was a monster at Pitt, totaling 15 sacks as a sophomore and junior.
Romeus was one of the more decorated defensive players at Pitt in recent memory. As a freshman, he was voted to several All-American Freshman teams including those of the Football Writers, Sporting News, Rivals, and Scout. In 2008 as a sophomore, he was an All-Big East player. The following season as a junior, Romeus was again named All-Big East, was the conference's Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and was named to three NCAA All-American teams. Despite the injuries, I was surprised that no one took a chance on him earlier than the Saints. He was healthy his first three seasons at Pitt and didn't miss a single game, so I don't think he's a fragile player.
I'm not sure that all of these players will have great NFL careers, but each has the chance to stay in the league for a long time and cause teams to regret not choosing them.