Labriola on the NFL Draft

* [History of the 31st pick in the NFL Draft - chart

](http://www.steelers.com/news/article-1/History-of-the-31st-pick-in-the-draft/c4fa0a29-fa2b-4e87-afd4-c3ac033ba1c4)The Steelers are pretty good at this. 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: Greg Hawthorne vs. Merril Hoge.

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 for the team that do not.

One year ago, the Steelers had 10 picks over the seven rounds, and following a season in which they finished with a playoff-less 9-7 record, their pressing needs were being identified as offensive line – primarily at tackle – and in the secondary – primarily at cornerback – with a lesser hole at wide receiver. Plus, 10 picks were considered to be too many, just drafting guys to cut at the end of the preseason, so using some as trade bait was predicted and even expected.

One year ago, the Steelers made all 10 draft picks, they picked as many wide receivers as offensive tackles and cornerbacks combined, and they picked more linebackers than anything. But the draft was a success because all 10 of the guys they chose went to training camp and showed they belonged, nine made the 53-man roster, five of those nine made legitimate contributions to a team advancing to the Super Bowl, and the No. 1 pick is a Pro Bowl player already.

That's an excellent draft.

This year, the Steelers have one pick in each of the seven rounds, each being the 31st choice in the round, and following a season in which they lost Super Bowl XLV, 31-25, when the Green Bay Packers passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times and hurried five times, their pressing needs again are being identified as the secondary – primarily at cornerback – and on the offensive line – primarily at tackle – with a lesser hole at defensive line.

It can feel as though the outcome of the Super Bowl, and the particulars that led to it, are compelling arguments for the Steelers 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, which is the definition of improvement. It's all well and good to acknowledge there is a need at 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.

This draft will be a unique one in that it's the first since 1993 to come off without a free agency period preceding it, and so it stands to reason that the whole "need" thing is going to be viewed differently. Without free agency, teams didn't have a chance to fill holes in their roster before the draft, and so the temptation to pick primarily on the basis of need will be greater, and that could turn out to be a benefit for the franchises able to resist.

Getting specific: the Steelers are drafting 31st, and yes, they need cornerbacks. But if the top talent there 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 nickel back, at the expense of a better talent at a different position who grows into a quality starter?

The Steelers have had success picking late in rounds by going for the best players in a particular draft's lower-profile positions. Guard Kendall Simmons in 2002, tight end Heath Miller in 2005, defensive end Ziggy Hood in 2009. Even Santonio Holmes – for whom the Steelers traded up from 32nd to 25th to pick in 2006 – was the best of what was considered a very marginal group of wide receivers. All of those guys started for the Steelers in at least one of their three Super Bowls over the last six years.

The teams that got the most support as "winners" of the 2010 draft were Carolina, Miami, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa Bay. Only the Seahawks made the playoffs, and they did it as the first sub-.500 team in league history.

It's not about winning the NFL Draft. It's about using it as a tool to win the Super Bowl.
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