There isn't much that Kevin Colbert hasn't seen in his 30 years evaluating player personnel for three different NFL teams. Until this year, that is.
"I'm telling you," said the Steelers' GM about the talent available in this draft class of 2014, "it's as deep across the board as any draft I've seen in 30 years."
But as always, the actual drafting of the players come May 8-10 will remain a high-stakes guessing game.
"A lot of (the depth of talent in the draft class) is due to the influx of the underclassmen," said Colbert, "but what I will also say in regards to that is, although it's a talented group, it also has a bigger chance of failing because you're going to get a lot of kids who aren't physically or emotionally ready for (the NFL). We're concerned about how many of those players came out prematurely and won't be ready for this next challenge. I think that we have to be able to sort through them, because they're not all ready for this."
The NFL Scouting Combine begins next week in Indianapolis, and that event serves as the unofficial kickoff to the pre-draft process, and Colbert and the Steelers' scouts have been meeting throughout this week to prepare for that. But there are a number of other personnel issues that will crop up for the Steelers before the NFL Draft, which was moved back two weeks to May 8-10, and today Colbert addressed some of those.
In chronological order, starting Monday, Feb. 17 and running until March 3 is the window in which teams are permitted to place the franchise tag or transition tag on one of their free-agents-to-be. Each team is permitted to use either the franchise tag or the transition tag, but not both. Colbert described the chances of the Steelers tagging one of their free agents as "doubtful."
Following that window, the next significant date on the NFL's offseason calendar is March 11, which is when all teams will have to be in compliance with the 2014 salary cap, March 11 is also the opening day of free agency.
"As always, we have some work to do to be in compliance by March 11," said Colbert. "Looking at it, we think everything will be manageable within that time frame. But again, you have to discuss terminations, restructurings, and extensions, and try to accomplish that. Then, are we a dollar under the cap or are we $3 million under the cap? We won't know that really until we get to March 11. You hope to have maneuverability at that stage."
In the area of "terminations, restructurings, and extensions," Colbert said the Steelers are at the stage right now where they're exploring different ideas with different players. Colbert said "discussions" is a more appropriate word for what is happening right now in that regard than "negotiations."
Colbert also disagreed with the notion that the Steelers have mismanaged their cap situation over the previous seasons to the extent it created the problems they're having today.
"The goal was always to compete for a Super Bowl championship, and to win a championship, obviously, you've got to get in the playoffs," said Colbert. "We're never going to say, 'OK, we know we're not a contender. We're going to gut this thing and start over.' It will never be acceptable for this organization to gut it and start over. Our challenge is to compete and improve at the same time, and so we did what we thought we should do with the cap.
"That's our challenge again this year: to take what we have from a cap standpoint plus where we are from a record standpoint and improve them both. Can you look back on decisions and say, 'Boy, I wish I would have done this or that?' Sure, but you can do that with draft picks, with every signing. I don't fault this philosophy as to why we did what we did. There was a reason we did everything, be it short-term cap gain or for long-term security for a player."
Colbert would not discuss particular individuals, but he did say the Steelers would like to re-sign some of their own free agents, and he believed that signing some of their own free agents was a distinct possibility.
"You evaluate your own group (of free agents) internally, and then you evaluate your own group against the potential outside group," said Colbert about the process the Steelers go through. "We don't even have an accurate picture of what the outside group is yet. We are probably 90 percent accurate on who will be free agents, because some players will void their contracts and others might be re-signed. We have a general idea, but until March 11 comes, we won't have a concrete list."
Colbert said that it's possible to keep LaMarr Woodley and re-sign unrestricted free agent Jason Worilds from a salary cap standpoint, but he also acknowledged Woodley having missed 14 games over the last three seasons because of injuries is a concern.
"LaMarr has had some durability concerns over the past couple of seasons. They have been legitimate injuries," said Colbert. "Any time a player has an injury, if it extends beyond the season, it does become a concern. It has to be, because if the player is not on the field he isn't helping us. But it would be a concern for any player who has missed extended time."