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Old 04-20-2009, 11:23 PM   #1
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Default First-round picks can make, break NFL GM

First-round picks can make, break NFL GM
By Scott Brown
Monday, April 20, 2009

Drafting college players is an inexact science, and the margin for error on first-round picks can be minimized but not completely eliminated.

But given the resources teams put into scouting and the abundance of quality players, Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said there is no reason teams should make a mistake in the first round of the draft.

"If you miss on a first-rounder," Colbert said, "to me, that's something that's inexcusable."

Fortunately for Colbert, he has not had to berate himself for botching a Steelers first-round pick. Since Colbert returned to his native Pittsburgh in 2000 he previously served as the Detroit Lions' pro scouting director the Steelers have taken quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, nose tackle Casey Hampton and wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round of the draft.

Colbert sees such selections as the Steelers simply doing their job. Yet, the Steelers' recent success in the first round is a major reason why they have added a pair of Lombardi Trophies to their burgeoning collection in the last four years.

Indianapolis is another team that has hit it big in the first round. Not coincidentally, the Colts won five consecutive AFC South titles from 2003-2007 as well as a Super Bowl.

The Colts' success is an example of why it is vital for teams to make the right decision in the first round, particularly if they are picking near the top of it.

Consider what Indianapolis' fortunes may have been had the Colts taken Ryan Leaf instead of Peyton Manning with the first overall pick in 1998, and if they had bypassed Edgerrin James for Ricky Williams a year later.

Other first-round picks the Colts have made in the past decade include franchise cornerstones such as wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Dwight Freeney, tight end Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai.

"We've been fortunate where our ones have really been an illustrious group of contributors, and since they haven't been high ones over the last decade, that makes it even more important," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "Boy, it's important to hit on ones and certainly for the Colts and Steelers, in particular, because we're a team that's built through the draft."

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said "90 percent" of the talk and speculation leading to the draft is about the first round. Translation: the other six rounds are too often overlooked.

While that may be true, general managers ultimately are judged by their first-round picks.

"You'd like to have success all throughout the draft," Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said, "but when you miss on those early picks, particularly in the first round, that can cost you your job."

That proved to be the case with Matt Millen in Detroit.

The Lions' first-round picks, as a whole, were disastrous during Millen's reign as president from 2000-08.

Detroit picked wide receivers in the first round in three consecutive years (2003-05), and two Charles Rogers and Mike Williams were colossal flops. The Lions also missed in 2002 when they took quarterback Joey Harrington with the third overall pick.

The sorry state of the Lions, who last season became the first NFL team to go 0-16, shows what the ramifications can be if a team strings together ill-advised choices in the first round.

"You're without a guy that you were probably considering a starter that season and definitely the next three seasons," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "You're looking at a guy you were hoping to emerge as a starter his rookie year and then two, three, four years beyond and then you hope to re-sign him."

Reasons for teams making mistakes in the first round vary. The most common one is when a player is overvalued because he fills a needs.

Colbert said the Steelers abide by the philosophy of taking the best player available in the first round, though need isn't totally discounted.

Need, Colbert added, serves as something of a tiebreaker if the Steelers are considering two players that they have given similar draft grades.

The Steelers have the last pick in the first round of this year's draft, but Colbert made it clear that won't serve as an excuse if they make a bad choice.

"As the draft widens there's less to pick from," Colbert said. "When you're picking from wherever you're picking in the first round, there's 32 guys. You should be able to say 'This guy' and the players that are picked high, they're supposed to be special players."

Long line of success

The first round of the NFL Draft has been a good one for the Steelers in recent years. Here is a look at the last 10 first-round picks that the Steelers have made.

1999 Troy Edwards, WR, Louisiana Tech (13th): Most recent "oops" pick the Steelers have made in the first round. Steelers rebounded later in draft getting outside linebacker Joey Porter and defensive end Aaron Smith in third and fourth rounds, respectively.

2000 Plaxico Burress, WR, Michigan State (eighth): Followed up disappointing rookie year with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Steelers opted to sign Hines Ward to a long-term contract over Burress and the latter emerged as a top deep threat for the Giants but also has been plagued by off-the-field troubles.

2001 Casey Hampton, NT, Texas (19th): The squat and powerful Hampton has been an immovable force on the Steelers' defensive line for years and has played in four Pro Bowls. "Big Snack" is the prototypical nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.

2002 Kendall Simmons, G, Auburn (30th): Started immediately at right guard for the Steelers and proved to be a solid addition to the offensive line. Simmons had started 30 consecutive games before a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his season last September. The Steelers released Simmons in March.

2003 Troy Polamalu, S, Southern Cal (16): Steelers moved up 11 spots in the first round to take Polamalu, and the five-time Pro Bowler has proven to be a draft-day steal. The Steelers take advantage of Polamalu's athleticism and range by lining him up all over the field.

2004 Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (Ohio) (11): The third quarterback taken in the draft may be the best of them, and that is saying something considering the success Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have also experienced. Roethlisberger is one of only 10 quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls, and he is only 27.

2005 Heath Miller, TE, Virginia (30th): Has quietly developed into one of the more complete tight ends in the NFL. Gets overshadowed in the Steelers' offense but he is a key cog in both the running and passing game.

2006 Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State (25th): The Steelers again hit it big after trading up in the first round. Holmes made one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history in February on the way to game MVP honors.

2007 Lawrence Timmons, LB, Florida State (15th): One of the Steelers' hardest hitters, Timmons came on strong in 2008 after playing sparingly as rookie. His versatility will have him on the field plenty this season even if he does not unseat starting inside linebacker Larry Foote.

2008 Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois (23rd): Mendenhall played just four games in 2008 before a broken right shoulder ended his season but the Steelers are still high on the former Illinois standout. If healthy, he could team with Willie Parker to give the Steelers a 1-2 punch at running back this season.

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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