The Steelers are pretty good at this drafting business. Have been for a while. Some classes have been better than others, sure, and there have been as many slumps as hot streaks over the course of the last 40-plus years. But a franchise that committed itself in 1969 to utilizing the draft as its primary method of team-building also has won more Super Bowls than any other. Yes, the Steelers are pretty good at the NFL Draft.
When the Steelers are doing it well, they are adhering to the most boring strategy that can be employed in this high stakes version of schoolyard pick-'em.
Best athlete available. That's what it's always been called, but more accurately it's best football player available. The distinction is not insignificant, because this is not a decathlon, and there aren't any three-cone drills on Sundays in the fall. To put names to it: Steven Conley vs. Joey Porter.
Anyway, this approach rarely generates much buzz, and it'll probably get you a C on the Monday after it's over. But even the guys handing out those grades know deep down that they're issuing them about three years too early anyway, and the best-player-available approach really is the way to maintain a roster capable of consistently contending for championships.
The Steelers did a good job of executing during an NFL Draft as recently as last April, and they would do well for themselves this time to show the same patience and resist the same kinds of temptations that seem to have a way of derailing the process.
One year ago, the Steelers had seven picks, one in each of the seven rounds, and following a season in which they finished as AFC Champions but seven points shy of a seventh Lombardi, their pressing needs were being identified as cornerback, offensive line, cornerback and offensive line. After all, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 61.5 percent for 308 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XLV while Ben Roethlisberger had been sacked three times and pressured five times, with one of those five resulting in an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
One year ago, the Steelers made all seven of those picks; they picked a defensive lineman first for the second time in three years and didn't get around to cornerback until the third round. But the draft was a success because all seven of the guys they chose went to training camp and showed they belonged – even without the benefit of an offseason program – five of the seven made the 53-man roster with a sixth spending the season on injured reserve after a promising start in training camp. One member of that class already is a starter and another could be joining him as soon as the start of this regular season.
That's a solid draft.
This year, the Steelers have one pick in each round with three compensatory selections at the end of the seventh round for a total of 10, and following a season in which they lost twice to the Baltimore Ravens to cede control of the AFC North and then were Tebowed out of the playoffs in the Wild Card Round, their pressing needs are being identified as nose tackle, inside linebacker and guard, and not necessarily in that order.
It can seem as though the outcome of that Wild Card Game, and the particulars that led to the Steelers having to play it on the road, are compelling arguments to abandon the best-player-available approach this year. Instead they should use it, from start to finish, to fill their needs.
Sounds good, but it's more about picking players who can make the team, because if he makes the team he's replacing somebody who was an inferior player, and that is the definition of improvement. It's all well and good to acknowledge there is a need at, say, cornerback, and then make a move to trade up in an early round of a draft to address that need. But if you do all that and then choose Ricardo Colclough, there still is a need at cornerback.
Getting specific: the Steelers are drafting 24th, and yes, they need help at inside linebacker with James Farrior gone and they need another injection of top talent along the interior of the offensive line and they need to consider whether Ziggy Hood and/or Steve McLendon truly are options at nose tackle or whether they're deluding themselves by believing that.
But if the talent at those areas already is picked over before their turn comes, how is it better to add a lesser prospect whose top end in the NFL is as a role player at the expense of a better talent at a different position who grows into a quality starter?
The Steelers have had their greatest draft successes by going for the best player, but doing that just isn't sexy. For example, the Steelers' 1974 draft class is considered the best in NFL history, for it brought Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster – Hall of Famers all – plus Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie. But after the team had picked Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, cornerback Jimmy Allen and Webster with its first five choices, the following analysis appeared in the next morning's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the (1974) draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn't get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn't get a punter, although none of the nation's best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn't get an offensive tackle who might've shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks."
The teams that got support as "winners" of the 2011 draft were Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Kansas City. None of them made the playoffs, and three of them fired their coaches.
It's not about winning the NFL Draft. It's about using it as a tool to win the Super Bowl.