By BOB LABRIOLA
There was no more fervent believer in the NFL Draft than Chuck Noll. Hired by Dan Rooney in January 1969 because the two men shared the conviction that the way to build a championship team was through the draft, Noll used this annual selection meeting as the vehicle to transform a perpetually losing team into a four-time Super Bowl champion during a six-season span in the 1970s.
The successes early on were unprecedented. Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood came in the 1969 draft; Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount in 1970; Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes and Mike Wagner in 1971; Franco Harris and Gordon Gravelle in 1972; and then the 1974 haul of Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. All starters on Super Bowl winning teams, nine of them members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But even Noll understood that the NFL Draft was something never to be conquered. No matter how thorough, how diligent the preparation, no matter how thoughtful the picking, the NFL Draft was not some mathematical problem where there's always a correct answer. Noll knew enough about the draft to understand it was not a science.
If there is no simple formula to ensure that every draft choice turns into a contributing pro, time has shown there is a way to minimize the risk.
Pick your board.
Every team concludes its preparation for the annual draft by putting together a board on which it ranks every player scouted during the entire process. If a team is honest with itself when arranging its board – that is if a team diligently ranks the players without prejudice as to the positions they play or its own areas of need – once the draft begins it simply becomes a matter of picking the highest rated player on the board when the team's turn comes.
But picking the board can be a difficult thing to do, especially from a discipline standpoint, and it gets even harder in the later rounds of a draft.
Does the cornerback really deserve to be rated higher than the linebacker, for example, or was the cornerback just put above him because there is a need there? Or maybe the linebacker is rated higher on the board, but the team ends up picking the cornerback anyway – it's called reaching – because of a need. In the final analysis, if the cornerback gets picked to fill a need and ends up not being good enough to make the roster, then in a couple of seasons there will not only still be a need for a cornerback but there probably will be one for a linebacker, too.
Here's an example:
In 2004, the Steelers used their first three picks to select Ben Roethlisberger, Ricardo Colclough and Max Starks, and they had to spend their fourth-round pick to move up in the second round to get Colclough. So as the second day of the draft began, the Steelers had a need for depth at outside linebacker, where they had starters Joey Porter and Clark Haggans and nothing else, and no picks until midway through the fifth round.
As the fourth round began, Reggie Torbor and Shaun Phillips, both outside linebackers, were the first two players off the board, which thinned the pool of talent there quickly. By the time the Steelers got another chance to pick, seven more linebackers had been selected, further thinning the herd, but the team reacted to its need and took Nathaniel Adibi, instead of sticking closer to its board and choosing Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner.
In 2004, the Steelers had signed Duce Staley as an unrestricted free agent and still had Jerome Bettis, so running back wasn't a need. But Adibi wasn't good enough to get through training camp and was waived, while Turner developed into a guy who rushed for 1,699 yards with a 4.5 average and 17 touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons last season.
Carrying this forward, the Steelers still were in need of linebackers and ended up picking two at the top of the 2007 draft, and then they also found they needed a running back and used a No. 1 pick at the position in 2008.
Reaching for a player at a position helps nothing except that particular training camp's depth chart.
"We always go back and try to review on what we did do well and what we didn't do well," said Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert. "If we take a player at a certain point, that player is not saying he is that value, we are. If that player fails then we failed to evaluate him correctly. If a player gets picked in the second round and he doesn't contribute, that is not on the player that's on us, because we were the ones who said that he could contribute."
Since being hired to his position in 2000, Colbert has presided over drafts that have yielded many of the key ingredients in the teams that have been in 14 postseason games and won two Super Bowls over that span, so it's not as if the Steelers are bumbling through the draft every April. It's just an example of what can happen even to the best of teams if they succumb to the temptations that crop up in every draft room in every NFL city.
And the best way to resist those temptations is simple. Pick your board.