By BOB LABRIOLA
In some mock drafts, they have been linked to defensive linemen because of the age of the current players at the position they have on the roster. In others, they have been linked to offensive linemen because Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times last season. They have been linked to cornerbacks because they lost one in free agency, and they have been linked to wide receivers for the very same reason.
Their fans and other observers of the draft to be held on April 25-26 are trying to figure out who the Steelers will pick based on the positions they play, and on Monday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex the media will try to get some insight into the Steelers' plans during the annual pre-draft news conference.
But instead of focusing on players at particular positions, Coach Mike Tomlin and Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert will make decisions based on the kind of people those players are.
To some, it may seem to be a backward approach. But to Tomlin, it's really the only one that makes any sense.
"I see it with increasing clarity the longer I have my job," said Tomlin. "I'm looking for guys who are talented and have humility, because the guys who are humble and even-keeled are the guys who will come into this thing and fit in, they'll continue to grow and get better, they'll take the criticisms of their game, they'll be accountable."
This will be the third draft of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and the players who were added in the first two installments fit the criteria. In 2007, it was Lawrence Timmons on the first round and LaMarr Woodley on the second.
"His football character is what we seek. He is a guy who loves the game," said Tomlin just minutes after the Steelers picked Timmons. "He has a quiet confidence about him. I mentioned the fact earlier that he was 20, but he presents himself as a mature person, particularly from a football standpoint. He's a very grounded young man."
Woodley had led Michigan in sacks in each of his last two seasons there, and on draft day Colbert had said about him, "He's a man, a very serious player."
Since then, Timmons and Woodley have done whatever has been asked of them, and by the end of their second NFL seasons both were important contributors on a team that would win Super Bowl XLIII.
One year ago, the Steelers went into the draft with seemingly glaring needs along both lines of scrimmage, but when it came time to make their first two picks they selected a running back and a wide receiver. Not positions, but people.
About Rashard Mendenhall, Tomlin's first words were, "First and foremost, he's a quality human being. A very humble, blue-collar worker. Those types of individuals don't have any problem fitting in. In terms of what he brings to the table – he's a complete back. He can run inside, he can run outside. He's a powerful runner. He's elusive, and of course he has the speed to go the distance. It shouldn't be too difficult finding ways he can contribute to this football team."
Receivers typically are the divas of the NFL, but Limas Sweed didn't project any of that on the day he became the team's No. 2 pick.
"Whatever coach needs. If he needs me to play a lot or if he doesn't need me to play a lot," said Sweed, "I'm going to be the guy to do what he needs."
Neither of those two played a lot as a rookie. Mendenhall landed on injured reserve after breaking his shoulder in a Sept. 29 game against the Baltimore Ravens, and Sweed never really became more than the No. 4 receiver. But through it all, Mendenhall and Sweed did what they were told and kept their mouths shut. Neither ever made himself a distraction to the team, and both have been regular participants in this offseason program to become the caliber of players the Steelers believed them to be by making them high draft choices.
"The things that helped us win in 2008, the collective personality of our football team in 2008, are some of the characteristics I'm looking for in terms of individuals in the draft," said Tomlin. "In terms of specific positions, I'm not so concerned about that."