By Teresa Varley
Steelers coaches, scouts and medical staff are in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, joining the rest of the NFL world in evaluating over 300 college players who are eligible for this year's draft.
And while 40 times and the ability to catch and throw will be looked at for some players the combine is a chance to get a feel for players to see if they fit in with the "Steelers Way."
The Steelers will have the opportunity to interview some of the draft eligible players, giving them a chance to know if that particular player fits the standard that has been set by the franchise dating back to the 1970s when they won four Super Bowl championships.
"They have maintained a consistent philosophy of the type of player they want," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert of the way the Steelers approach player evaluation. "Then you have had the continuity with Coach (Chuck) Noll, Coach (Bill) Cowher and Coach (Mike) Tomlin, and when you have that kind of continuity in the coaching end of things and you have an organizational philosophy that hasn't changed over time. It's easier to match the talent to the philosophy and to continue to groom players to eventually replace other players."
Like any team out there, the Steelers are looking for players who can contribute and help the team improve. Talent is definitely a factor. But if character is lacking, then it does become an issue.
"We always talk about the Steelers way and what is the Steelers way," said Colbert. "It's really just trying to do the right thing at the right time all of the time.
"There are certain people early in the evaluation or interview process you get a feeling that they would be a great fit for us or you get the opposite feeling – that guy probably doesn't fit in. Usually they separate themselves. Once they get with our team that philosophy and belief has been passed on from team to team. This year's team we had some guys left over from the previous Super Bowl championship team and they helped bring those young kids into that part of the organization that they might not have understood until they got here."
The Steelers admittedly didn't get much production out of their Class of 2008. First-round pick Rashard Mendenhall suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 29. Wide receiver Limas Sweed, the team's second-round pick, didn't get many opportunities playing behind Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington and beyond that for the picks, things were pretty quiet.
"We look at this draft class as a redshirt year," said Colbert. "Part of that was health, part of that was needing further development. We are optimistic that class will help us in the future."
With free agency just a week away the Steelers likely will focus most of their attention on signing their own players.
The team took the first step by placing the franchise tag on left tackle Max Starks. Starks came in to the 2008 season as the back-up behind Marvel Smith, but a nagging back injury sidelined Smith and Starks started 14 games, including three in the post-season.
The team's free agents include Smith, wide receiver Nate Washington, tackle Trai Essex, linebackers Keyaron Fox and Andre Frazier, guard Chris Kemoeatu, punter Mitch Berger, cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and Fernando Bryant, quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich and defensive end Orpheus Roye.
"We aren't going to be able to keep this whole team together," said Colbert. "We understand that. We will continue to negotiate with all of our free agents and see what comes together over the next few weeks."
The Steelers will also focus on players who have only one year left on their contract, such as safety Ryan Clark, linebackers Larry Foote and James Harrison, nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Brett Keisel, tight end Heath Miller, kicker Jeff Reed, cornerback Deshea Townsend and wide receiver Hines Ward.
Harrison, the NFL's defensive player of the year, is one player the Steelers definitely would like to keep around.
"He is an awesome player that helped us get where we got this year," said Colbert. "We would like to have James Harrison finish his career in Pittsburgh."