By Kevin Colbert's own estimation, they have taken a list with hundreds of names on it and whittled it to about 150, and from there the Pittsburgh Steelers will make 10 selections in the 2012 NFL Draft that will be held on April 26-28. He will tell you that all of the picks are important, that all of the picks are made based on the extensive work the team has done.
And he'll also tell you that missing on the first-round pick is unacceptable.
The NFL, based on its own scheduling of the draft, has set the first round above every other. The first round is the only one that has its own day all to itself, the first round is the only one that has players on hand for a photo-op with the Commissioner, the first round is the one where even a casual observer has a decent chance to recognize every name called.
To Colbert, the first round is the one you need to get right.
"As I said many times, you can't miss on Nos. 1, 2 or 3," said Colbert during a pre-draft news conference on April 23. "Those are premium picks. You shouldn't miss on a first-rounder. To me, that's a given. The No. 2 and the No. 3, if you miss on one of those, it sets you back, and you better hope that you got lucky in a later round to compensate for that. So the higher the pick, the better chance of him being an impact player. That to me is a given."
What also is a given – and has been since Colbert was hired by the Steelers in 2000 – is the way the team approaches the first round. No matter where the Steelers are drafting in the first round, the team always has at least that many players it would be comfortable picking on the first round. That means this year, the Steelers have 24 players they would not hesitate drafting on the first round.
And while it sounds simplistic, the procedure has been remarkably successful. The list of No. 1 picks since 2000 includes Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward. The Steelers traded up to get Polamalu in 2003 and Holmes in 2006; they traded down to get Hampton in 2001. Up, down, stay – none of it matters as long as the correct pick is made.
Of that list, five of the 12 have played in at least one Pro Bowl while with the Steelers, seven have started in at least one Super Bowl – and Pouncey would have were it not for an injury sustained in the AFC Championship Game – and eight have their name inscribed on at least one Lombardi Trophy.
"When we talk about the best drafting teams in the league, Pittsburgh is on the short list," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "Kevin Colbert, whether it's with Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin, they continue to go to Super Bowls and win games because the personnel side of the house continues to provide good players. They don't move up and down the board a lot. Their philosophy is to promote from within and re-sign their guys. The way you have to look at it is when they are spending dollars to re-sign their own homegrown players, that's better than free agency because you know what you're getting."
Of those dozen No. 1 picks, the only two the Steelers chose not to re-sign were Burress and Holmes, and the reasoning was different in each of those cases. Burress' rookie contract expired during the same offseason that Hines Ward's second professional contract ended, and the team was left to decide between the two. With Holmes, off-the-field issues had become a factor that could not be ignored.
"Yeah, when you don't get the first-round guy right, that sets you back for probably four years because that's a slot you're going to try to fill at some point," said Colbert, "be it with another draft pick or free agent, and, yes, we are not big spenders in free agency and never will be because we want to keep our own. But if we missed on a pick that we would want to be keeping as our own, it will set us back and distract us from what we need to be doing."
And in Colbert's mind, "what we need to be doing" is working toward winning the Super Bowl.
"Super Bowl championships, that's it," said Colbert when asked how the team decides whether a draft was successful or not. "There is no scorecard. Never will be, never has been. With our current roster, it is: Is it good enough to win a Super Bowl? And have they won (one)? If they have, great. If they haven't, we have to do better."