In Kevin Colbert's eyes, it always has been "want" instead of "need," and so the next three days are going to come down to balancing want vs. the concept of best player available, all the while paying proper respect to today without forgetting about tomorrow.
Steelers fans might tend to judge the draft class the Steelers are going to put together between tonight and Saturday evening based on whether it includes a coverage inside linebacker, a safety who makes plays on the football, and maybe some depth along the offensive and defensive lines – on whether it filled some NEEDS – but Colbert is more likely to judge it based on whether they stuck to the guidelines and followed their own procedure.
"It's always going to be relative, the best athlete availability vs. the so-called need," said Colbert. "Again, we don't like to use the word 'need,' we use the word 'want.' We recognize it in any given situation. Any given year there will be players who will have a better chance of contributing (quickly) than others, and if those players are equally graded, or graded closely, sure you'll gravitate towards those. But if you reach to take a player who might play quicker, even though he is not of the same quality as the one you are passing up, you'll make a huge mistake that you will someday regret."
This is a nice concept to discuss – want vs. best available – and it can be much easier to conduct such a discussion academically when your team is not on the clock, but starting tonight the Steelers are going to find themselves in some very real situations where they could be tempted to compromise their principles.
When those situations might arise is an unknown at this point, but the "why" sure appears to be obvious. With a 36-year-old franchise quarterback who is on record as saying he's interesting in playing for a few more seasons, it would seem to behoove the Steelers to utilize whatever draft capital they possess to try to help those years be as successful as possible.
"When you pass up a highly-rated player to take a player rated lower, a player rated significantly lower, you'll end up regretting it," said Colbert. "I've seen it happen. I've been a part of it in the past. It happens, and we're all guilty of focusing on one year. The upcoming 2018 season is what we are focused on, but we are never going to lose sight of 2019 and beyond, because when you do that you will end up in a rut that you may not get out of. Fortunately, we've only been in one of those ruts when we had that losing season (in 2003), and fortunately, we got a franchise quarterback out of that. The success we've been able to have was relative to that offseason we had, but we want to be able to compete for championships every year. The 2018 season is most important, but we'll never lose focus on 2019 and beyond in trying to be champions next year."
But what does that mean? Specifically? Is Colbert saying the Steelers would actually spend their first-round pick tonight on a quarterback to succeed Ben Roethlisberger? That they would select a running back based on the suspicion the 2018 season could be Le'Veon Bell's last one in Pittsburgh?
And while each of those scenarios could be possible, what would have had to happen through the first 20-plus picks in tonight's first round to entice the Steelers to go down that path and actually pull the trigger? What would have to be the disparity on their draft board between the highest rated "want" player and the highest rated player overall for the pick to be a guy who has little chance to see the field for his first couple of NFL seasons?
"We never predict when a kid can play until we get him in here and see him working with our team in the spring and in training camp," said Colbert. "Sometimes they get opportunities quicker than others. Troy Polamalu is probably a Hall of Fame safety who didn't (start) as a rookie. Ben played because of Tommy Maddox's injury. We certainly didn't plan on him playing as early as he did, so it varies by player. If they play, it's really more relative to the opportunity that's there and how they prepare themselves for the opportunity."
The opportunity for a rookie to play in the NFL is directly tied to the alternatives the coach has at the rookie's position. Colbert remembers Roethlisberger playing because Maddox was injured in the regular season's second game, but Roethlisberger only was in a position to be in the position to play because veteran backup Charlie Batch sustained a season-ending injury during the early stages of training camp, which created a significant increase in practice repetitions for the rookie. Polamalu didn't start a game as a rookie in 2003, but when defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was fired after that season and Dick LeBeau returned for a second stint with the Steelers, the talent/athleticism differential between Polamalu and the older veterans on the roster was too glaring to ignore.
Also to consider is whether the position is one where multiple individuals can earn playing time and contribute, such as defensive backs, linebackers, and wide receivers, or is it a position where only one plays at a time, such as quarterback.
"Look, Ben is a Hall of Fame quarterback. We're very lucky to have him," said Colbert. "He has stated his intention to play for at least a few more years, and that's awesome. But as I said, our job is not only to win a championship in 2018, it's to secure this franchise's ability to do it in the future, and you have to have a great player at the quarterback position, in our eyes, to have the best chance to win a championship. Fortunately, we have one who's still a very highly productive, highly effective quarterback, and part of our job is to surround him with the best talent as well. So, we have to weigh that in, and we will weigh that in throughout, but we haven't eliminated any positions in this draft whatsoever."
In other words, it's all going to be about finding the proper balance.