Thursday will be the start of General Manager Kevin Colbert's 22nd draft during his tenure with the Steelers, and it will be the 15th time he and Coach Mike Tomlin have done it together. That also means Thursday's 11 a.m. pre-draft news conference at Heinz Field was the 22nd time Colbert has tried to be accommodating yet not giving away any critical information while answering questions about the three-day selection process that begins in a little more than 72 hours.
A lot of it was vintage Colbert.
"Going into the draft, we're wide open," he said early in his opening remarks. "We're not going in looking for any one position. We're going to be wide open to anything and see where this thing goes. There is good depth, we believe, on the offensive line, the wide receivers, the running backs, the linebackers both inside and outside, and the cornerbacks. There's OK depth at tight end, quarterback, and the safety position. Being totally up front and honest, there's very limited depth in this year's draft along the defensive line. It's probably as lean as it's been in recent memory."
Colbert went on to say it's very doubtful the Steelers would trade up in a round because they value the eight total picks they have over the three days of this draft, and then he explained what would have to fall into place to entice the team to trade down. But even the best poker player develops a "tell" if he's studied long enough, and when a savvy general manager is being quizzed about specific plans and practices it's often revealing to pay attention to how he says what he says.
As an example, the Steelers are coming off a season during which their running game ranked last in the NFL, plus James Conner recently signed with Arizona as an unrestricted free agent. Speculation has been rampant that the Steelers will use a premium pick on a running back in this draft, but conventional NFL wisdom is it's unnecessary to do that because quality at the running back position can be had as late as the third of the three-day draft.
"I don't think you can ever underestimate the value of a quality player at any position, and running back is no different," said Colbert. "I understand the game has changed, and that it's now more of a horizontal game than it is a vertical game and people don't play traditional football (anymore), with two-back sets and power games and so on. It has changed, but if you have a dynamic player at any position, that player should make a difference. If you look at the Hall of Fame runners, most of those guys were high draft picks. I don't ever place a value – high or low – on a given position. I place the value on who the player is, and what that player can do to help us."
Translation: The Steelers aren't going to pick a running back in the first round just to pick a running back in the first round to show the world they're addressing a team weakness in 2020, but if one is there who's judged to be a difference-maker they're not going to allow the pretense of the position being devalued by the way the game currently is being played in the NFL stand in their way.
Even though Thursday's news conference was an in-person, rather than virtual, gathering, the pandemic was addressed several times in several different ways. The first time it came up had to do with how the Steelers would view college players who opted out of the 2020 season in comparison to those players who didn't.
"As I stated last summer, if a player chooses to opt out, for whatever reason, that's their decision and we will respect it," said Colbert. "But if a player played in 2020, and those players are of equal value – one who didn't play and one who played – we'll take the one who played because we don't know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football. We believe it's hard to sit this game out. Sometimes it happens because of injury, but this time it was pandemic-related for the most part. But we will take the players who played, again, if it's close. It's not to say we wouldn't draft somebody who opted out – I wouldn't say that – but if we have a choice we'll the take one who played if the value is close."
The pandemic also impacted the way the NFL went about its information-gathering business during the pre-draft process, with the most significant change being the absence of the NFL Combine, which is where comprehensive medical information is gathered on around 330 prospects and shared among all 32 teams. It also impacted the Steelers in a way that just might have been unique to the other teams in the league because of the way Colbert and Tomlin do some of their best work, but as is typical of the two men neither would tolerate using that as an excuse.
"It goes beyond the Pro Days, because we as scouts couldn't get to the colleges except in a game setting, and even in a game setting we couldn't go on the field during the pregame," said Colbert. "We had to sit in the stands or the press box if that was allowable. So a lot of times in those situations when you're doing games, you'll see a coach sitting on the bench before a game and you'll have a conversation. None of that was available to us. We couldn't visit the schools and have the day-to-day interaction our scouts have when we do a school visit – visit a campus and spend the day watching film and talking to folks – we didn't have that this year. But that's not to say it was totally negative.
"Coach Tomlin and I got to nine Pro Days, and we think we got to the ones that had the most quality players so that we could both see them up close and in person. Our interaction with them was limited, though. We could not take them out to dinner the night before. We couldn't talk to their parents. We couldn't have a meeting with them during the Pro Day setting. We had to do all of that via Zoom. Coach and I did over 100 Zoom calls, and we're comfortable with the results, because we got to spend a little more time with them and we feel good about that information."
Even if Colbert and Tomlin did their typically efficient job of revealing none of it to the media.