By BOB LABRIOLA
The first-round pick is the one that attracts all of the attention. Fans, media, anyone and everyone with an interest in the NFL either wants to know, or believes they already know, which player will be the No. 1 pick of their favorite team.
That's no different with Steelers fans in the days leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft, but if they're truly interested in judging the team's performance during the April 26-27 exercise they would get a more accurate picture by looking beyond the first round.
Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert has been on the job since 2000, and there hasn't been a bad first-round pick in the bunch. Of the eight No. 1s this century, three have been voted to the Pro Bowl – Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger – and seven have been starters on Steelers teams that made the playoffs. Only Plaxico Burress is no longer with the team, and he helped the New York Giants upset New England in Super Bowl XLII, and only Lawrence Timmons, 2007's first-round pick, has not yet started a game for the team.
"No. 1 picks, when you are picking from so many guys at that stage, you should hit on those guys," said Colbert. "The higher the pick then really the higher the evaluation so they should be good players. You hope to avoid mistakes, and that's not to say that we won't make them, but we have had some good No. 1 picks. Again, they are supposed to be good."
As exemplary as the Steelers' performance in Round 1 has been, they admit there is room for improvement during the later rounds. Up until this year, the first day of the NFL Draft included three rounds, and it has been Rounds 4-7 where the Steelers have had difficulty finding players who developed into starters or quality backups.
From 2000-06, the Steelers made 20 picks in the first three rounds; 12 of those 20 were starters and another three earned significant roles on either offense or defense. By contrast, the Steelers made 33 picks in rounds 4-7 during that same span, and while five became starters there were 16 who never played a down for the team.
Certainly, it is more difficult to find NFL starters when drafting in the later rounds, but the Steelers have been able to add quality players as undrafted free agents, which proves they can get the evaluations correct. Their past two team MVPs – James Harrison in 2007 and Willie Parker in 2006 – both entered the league as undrafted rookies. And this is said to be a class where there are going to be quality players available deep into the draft.
"Prior to the combine and our meetings, we really said this was a strong draft," said Colbert, "and coming away from the meetings, we still feel it is very strong. There have been a few kids who have been eliminated either for medical issues, character issues, or maybe we over-evaluated him to begin with, but to offset that, there have been a lot of kids we have upgraded. So we still think it's strong."
The Steelers would be wise to exploit that strength, because if this is a team without any glaring holes to fill in its starting lineup via this draft, it's also a team in need of reinforcements at every position except quarterback and tight end.
"I think there are lot of kids who can go in the second or third round who can definitely help us," said Colbert.
And that's exactly how the New York Giants went from an 8-8 team in 2006 that made very few moves during the following unrestricted free agency period into a team that beat the Packers in Green Bay for the NFC Championship and then upset the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The Giants had seven picks in the 2007 NFL Draft, and every one of those rookies made a contribution in the 17-14 win that earned the franchise its third Lombardi Trophy.
"(Rounds) 1, 2, 3 – you can't miss on those kids," said Colbert. "If those kids aren't pushing for starting positions at some point while they're here, then they weren't evaluated correctly. Rounds 4-7, you're looking for depth. If those guys turn out to be starters, then credit goes to them and to their coaches for exceeding what we thought they could do."
The Steelers have had some success in the later rounds of recent drafts, because that's where they added Larry Foote and Verron Haynes and Clark Haggans and Brett Keisel and Willie Colon and Ike Taylor. But they haven't had enough success, and very little of it has come lately.
"Quite honestly, the mistakes we have made, the players that haven't worked out for us have been taken on the second and fourth rounds," said Colbert. "For whatever reason – maybe we had too much time to think about the fourth-round picks – those players weren't properly evaluated and we made some mistakes. So we have to be careful."