View Full Version : Steelers seek 'special draft,' and history proves they can find quality picks

04-21-2009, 12:47 AM
Steelers seek 'special draft,' and history proves they can find quality picks
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Heath Miller, talking with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger yesterday, is one of the Steelers' finds late in the first round of the NFL draft.

Kevin Colbert put the heat on himself and his troops in the scouting department yesterday with one bold statement.

"We need for it to be a special draft," the Steelers' director of football operations declared.

He stated they hoped to get ultimate starters in the first three rounds, contributors in rounds four and five, and potential practice squad players in rounds six and seven and as free agents after the draft.

The chances of that occurring would seem to be long because of a twofold whammy -- many scouts have declared this draft a weak one, and the Super Bowl champions select at the end of the round.

Or, perhaps that's a good thing. The Steelers have a nice track record when they draft late. The previous time they were scheduled to draft at No. 32, they traded to move up in the first round and selected wide receiver Santonio Holmes at No. 23 in 2006. They chose Heath Miller at No. 30 in 2005. They moved up in 2003 from No. 27 to No. 16 and picked safety Troy Polamalu. They drafted guard Kendall Simmons, a longtime starter, at No. 30 in 2002. And in 1998, with the 28th pick, they drafted guard Alan Faneca.

Among others they chose later in those same drafts were tackle Willie Colon (2006), cornerback Bryant McFadden, tackle Trai Essex and guard Chris Kemoeatu (2005), cornerback Ike Taylor (2003), receiver Antwaan Randle El, safety Chris Hope, linebacker Larry Foote, fullback Verron Haynes and defensive end Brett Keisel (2002), and receiver Hines Ward and cornerback Deshea Townsend (1998).

And the best draft in any team's history occurred when the Steelers selected four Hall of Famers in 1974, picking 21st of then-26 NFL teams.

Only one of those mentioned drafts, however, produced starters in the first three rounds, and that occurred in 2002 (they had no third-round pick in 1974). So, Colbert set the bar high yesterday.

There's a different dynamic when a team drafts late as the Steelers will do Saturday and Sunday.

"They've already shown how to have success," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who also has had success drafting near the bottom of rounds. "They've been in that position before. I'm sure Kevin and Mike [Tomlin] are prepared for that.

"You have to be patient when you're picking at that junction in the draft. Also, you have to have some flexibility because when you're picking that late there can be the opportunity to trade back. Someone at the top of the second round could get antsy and is trying to fill a position and you're sitting there. You can take advantage of trading back."

The only time the Steelers traded back in the first round since Colbert's arrival in 2000 came when they moved from 16th to 19th in 2001 and selected nose tackle Casey Hampton.

"I think the Steelers feel the way we do," Newsome said. "There are certain positions at the bottom of the draft -- like center, tight end and safety -- where you can probably get the highest-rated guy at that position. You can get a solid starter picking there at the bottom of the round."

There's something else that goes into picking late.

"The first thing you do is cross your fingers and hope somebody falls to you," said Gene Smith, general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Sometimes that happens late in the draft.

"What people don't understand is in most drafts there are not 32 'first-round' players. You get into 'second-round' players at the bottom. There can be value in that."

The value comes because the player drafted No. 32 won't be paid anywhere near those drafted in the top half.

Because no two teams' draft boards are the same, the team drafting last might have the opportunity to select a player they have rated much higher than No. 32.

"You still set the board based on value on the quality talent, and then you see who falls to you," explained Tom Modrak, Buffalo Bills' vice president of college scouting. "He may have been 15th on your board and you're picking 23 and you can get him there. That's setting the board properly. There also are times you have to move up."

The lack of a consensus about players at the top of this draft also may help the Steelers. It's not the best year to have a high draft pick.

"This year there are really good players down there at the bottom of the draft, the 31-40 players are really solid football players there," said Gil Brandt, longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel man who is a senior analyst and columnist for NFL.com. "And Pittsburgh does a pretty good job of identifying them and developing them."

Tom Donahoe, former Steelers director of football operations who drafted Faneca in 1998, said "the biggest issue with that is being patient and sitting around and waiting until other teams make their picks."

"Sometimes," Donahoe said, "it's hard to do. You get itchy and maybe think of moving and that costs you draft picks and can hurt your overall draft."

But, as shown in the cases of Holmes and Polamalu, it can also help you draft what scouts like to call "difference-makers." Polamalu has made the past five Pro Bowls and Holmes delivered a Lombardi Trophy.

"I am a degenerate gambler," Tomlin said yesterday, then nodded toward Colbert sitting next to him. "This guy has to talk me off the ledge. We will see what happens. I am impulsive by nature. He's got a lot more patience than I do. I am going to detail my training camp schedule while we are waiting to pick 32nd."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on April 21, 2009 at 12:00 am