Lately, younger is better

It began in 1969, the year that signaled the time in franchise history when the Steelers began to embrace the notion of using the annual NFL Draft to build a dynasty, and the team referred to the principle as the "best athlete available."

That has changed somewhat now, and maybe it's because of the variable of free agency or maybe it's only semantics, but now it's referred to as the "best player available." And when it's being applied to guys the Steelers nowadays consider drafting on the first round, maybe it needs to be adjusted further to the "best young player available."

Kevin Colbert has been the Director of Football Operations since 2000, and in the 11 drafts he has officiated in that role, the Steelers have not missed with their first-round pick. Sure, some have been better than others, but 10 of the 11 made contributions as starters on teams that won a Super Bowl or two, and the other – Plaxico Burress – was a starter in two conference championship games before leaving the team via free agency for the New York Giants, for whom he caught the game-winning pass in Super Bowl XLII.

The collaboration between Colbert and Mike Tomlin began in 2007, and while the success on the first round continued, it did take on a bit of a different turn.

Tomlin shed some light onto this during a recent interview when he was asked what he has learned during the four drafts in which he has participated as the Steelers coach.

"That I probably am attracted to young guys, and even though there are growing pains that come with that, it's something I embrace and enjoy," said Tomlin. "I like helping players grow and develop, and I think our track record indicates that. Lawrence Timmons was a 20-year-old, Rashard Mendenhall was a 20-year-old. Maurkice Pouncey was a 20-year-old, Jonathan Dwyer was a 21-year-old. I like guys with upside. I don't mind bearing the responsibility of helping guys develop."

There are plusses and minuses to this practice, as Colbert explained.

"The difference I can see is that emotionally – and most of the time from a maturity standpoint – the underclassmen aren't ready for this," said Colbert. "We had a guy like Maurkice Pouncey last year who proved us wrong in that theory because he was above and beyond, but for the most part that's not the case. These kids are still young guys and we always say that when we draft an underclassman, we are getting him for his senior year. I think we take that into consideration."

Those are the negatives, but there also are advantages to looking at younger people, because professional sports are jobs that exact a physical toll on the body.

"You are also getting a young guy who's probably fresher, healthier, hasn't progressed physically so there is probably more potential for him to improve," said Colbert. "But emotionally, and from a maturity standpoint, we really don't think they are ready."

Because Colbert's job depends upon the ability to identify and draft players who can help the Steelers win games and compete for championships consistently, he obviously would like to make the process as exact a science as possible. But no matter how much research is done, the draft is about making projections.

"Just in general for me, it's an attractive endeavor," said Tomlin about picking young. "As Kevin mentioned, almost in all cases those guys are ready from a football standpoint, and they are probably not ready from any other way you look at it. Personally as a coach, and as someone who is involved with young people, you like to be a part of that growth and maturation process in all the other areas. I think it just strengthens the upside that they have as football players."

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