Labriola On

Labriola on what a reach in a draft looks like

Ready or not, here it comes:

• “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. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been a part of it in the past.”

• When General Manager Kevin Colbert uttered those words in the Media Room of the UPMC  Rooney Sports Complex on the Monday before the start of the NFL Draft, he was doing more than paying lip service to a concept. It was telling the truth; it was relating a personal experience.

• The year was 2004, and the Steelers had the 11th overall pick in the first round of that year’s draft because of a 6-10 record during the 2003 season. Because of the fact Buffalo and the New York Jets also finished 6-10, the NFL determined there would be a rotation system, with the Steelers picking No. 11 in Round 1, No. 12 in Round 2, No. 12 in Round 3, No. 11 in Round 4, No. 13 in Round 5, No. 12 in Round 6, and No. 11 in Round 7. Don’t ask why, but that’s the way it was.

• Anyway, the Steelers used their first-round pick on Ben Roethlisberger, which alone is a good argument to label the entire draft a success, but at the time they didn’t know he was going to be what he turned out to be. So the draft continued, with the Steelers then looking to fortify what had been an area of weakness in 2003 – their secondary.

• The remaking of the secondary was underway, with second-year pros Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor about to become starters, while veterans Chad Scott, Dewayne Washington, Brent Alexander, and Mike Logan being phased out. One of the hot prospects that spring was a small-college cornerback named Ricardo Colclough, and the Steelers had fallen in love.

• Colclough, 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, played in 25 career games at Division II Tusculum, and he posted 15 interceptions and 25 passes defensed in those games. He also had kickoff returns of 97 and 92 yards for touchdowns, and in the same game during his senior year he returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown and an interception 78 yards for a touchdown. He posted a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, and after getting a chance to play with the top NFL prospects in the Senior Bowl, Colclough was voted the North squad’s Defensive Player of the Game.

• There was some belief that Colclough could be a late first-round pick, but mostly he was slotted as an early second-round talent. As the second round began, the Steelers decided to get aggressive and go and get their man. They found a trading partner in the Indianapolis Colts, and for the price of their fourth-round pick, the Steelers moved up six slots in Round 2 and picked Colclough.

• Colclough turned out to be a bad pick, because he never was able to translate his small college success into the NFL, but he wasn’t a reach. The Steelers had to move up in the second round if they wanted Colclough because there were other teams waiting to write his name on an index card and turn it in to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

• On with the story. Back in 2004, the first day of the draft contained Rounds 1, 2, and 3, and with their final pick of the day, the Steelers selected mammoth offensive tackle Max Starks, from the University of Florida.

• The Steelers also wanted to come out of this draft with at least one outside linebacker, and at the end of the draft’s first day there was some discussion about making sure that happened on the following day, which would begin with Round 4.

• But the Steelers had no pick in the fourth round because of the trade for Colclough, and when the day began the first two picks of the fourth round were outside linebackers – Auburn’s Reggie Torbor to the New York Giants and Purdue’s Shaun Phillips to the San Diego Chargers.

• At that point, Coach Bill Cowher made it clear that he wanted an outside linebacker with the Steelers’ next pick, which was to be the 13th overall in the fifth round. Even though seven more linebackers were picked between the selection of Phillips in the fourth round and the Steelers’ turn in the fifth round, Cowher remained adamant. The fifth-round pick was to be an outside linebacker.

• And so it was. The Steelers used their fifth-round pick on Nathaniel Adibi, an outside linebacker from Virginia Tech, even though he wasn’t the top-rated player on their draft board. By some accounts, he was not even close to being the top-rated player on their draft board.

• One of the names at, or close to, the top of their draft board at that stage was Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner.

• A 5-10, 237-pound bruising runner, Turner finished his NFL career with 7,338 yards, a 4.5 average, and 66 rushing touchdowns. Starting in 2008, Turner turned in five straight seasons in which he posted double-digit rushing touchdowns, with his best season coming in 2008 when he was voted first-team All-Pro after rushing for 1,669 yards on 376 carries (4.5 average), with 17 touchdowns.

• In 2004, the Steelers depth chart at running back had Jerome Bettis in the twilight of his career, and it also featured recently signed unrestricted free agent Duce Staley. With those two veterans atop the depth chart, the case could be made that the Steelers didn’t “need” another running back, and there also was the matter of Willie Parker being a part of the class of undrafted rookies signed the day after the Steelers picked Adibi instead of Turner.

• So, no harm done, you say? Well, this is how quickly things can change in the NFL, because just when you think your depth chart is stacked at a position, suddenly it’s not.

• Staley was injured midway through the 2004 season and was never the same. He appeared in five games, with one start, in 2005, and made a cameo appearance in one game in 2006. Bettis announced his retirement after the 2005 season with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands, and Parker became the bell cow.

• After 658 carries in 2006-07, Parker’s 205-pound body had taken a beating to the extent that the speed that had made him a special player no longer was what it had been. Without his game-breaking speed, Parker was little more than a 205-pound target for defensive linemen and linebackers, and by the time the 2008 season rolled around, he was just a guy.

• And it was in 2008 when Turner’s career blossomed. In each of the four seasons from 2008-11, Turner averaged 297 carries for 1,320 yards (4.4 average) and 13 rushing touchdowns. During that span, Turner was voted to two Pro Bowls and was voted first-team All-Pro once.

• As for the Steelers, they found they had to address their running back situation, and they did it in 2008, which was the same year Turner's career hit high gear, by using a first-round pick (23rd overall) on Rashard Mendenhall, who was an OK player but never played in a Pro Bowl nor was he ever voted first-team All-Pro.

• And that became another unintended consequence of reaching for Nathaniel Adibi – the Steelers had to spend a first-round pick on the position they could have secured with a fifth-round pick four years earlier.

• Oh, and Adibi was cut before the start of the regular season in his rookie year. He never played a regular season down for the Steelers.

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