By BOB LABRIOLA
It has come to be as much a part of the annual NFL Draft as first rounds that last longer than "Gone with the Wind."
Within hours after the completion of a draft, each team's performance is assigned a letter grade, and because instant analysis by definition can contain little insight, making trades and moving up and down in rounds to pick players often is viewed more favorably than simply standing pat and choosing based on the value of the draft board.
It's typically the kind of grading scale where, for example, the New England Patriots would get a higher grade for making three trades over the first two rounds and picking nose tackle Ty Warren, safety Eugene Wilson and receiver Bethel Johnson, as they did in 2003, than for sitting still in round six and picking quarterback Tom Brady, which is what they did in 2000.
The scouts and personnel guys responsible for the draft hate this kind of instant analysis, because it often takes at least three years before a draft class can be evaluated properly, but they also are among the first to fire up their computers on Monday morning to see their grade, and then complain about it if it's not at least a 'B.'
Thanks to Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, Steelers fans now at least have some criteria upon which to base an eventual assessment of each draft class, even though it still can't be done the morning after with any certainty.
"We really feel that in the first three rounds we can get players who may eventually be starters somewhere, somehow," said Colbert during a Monday news conference at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. "In rounds four and five, I think we can get some contributors; in rounds six and seven you are probably looking at potential practice squad guys. We hope to get lucky with a couple of free agents who end up being better than we think they are.
"If we come out of it with that, and we get good, healthy people, then we will have a chance."
The Steelers have nine picks in the seven-round draft to be held on Saturday and Sunday, April 25-26, with one in each round plus extra picks in the fifth and seventh rounds.
Based on Colbert's own standards, the Steelers have done fairly well in the nine drafts conducted since he was hired to his post in 2000. Not including 2008 because it's too early to make any definitive determinations on that class, the Steelers have met the goal for their picks in rounds one-through-three the majority of the time.
Between 2000-07, the Steelers have made 23 picks over the first three rounds, and 15 of those players (65.2 percent) have become starters for a franchise that played in 14 playoff games and won two Super Bowls from 2001-08.
But because past performance doesn't guarantee future success, Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin will need to gear it up again if the Steelers are to compete for another championship in 2009 because this is not a franchise that believes in using free agency to build its roster.
"We need for it to be a special draft because we lost a couple of guys in free agency from a good team," said Colbert. "We get the majority of our players back, but we still have to account for some players who aren't going to be with us any longer. And there could be further deletions based upon how our cap situation continues to evolve."
Lost via free agency were No. 3 receiver Nate Washington and sometimes starting cornerback Bryant McFadden. Colbert has identified cornerback as one of the deepest areas in this draft, and there will be high expectations placed on Limas Sweed, the No. 2 pick in 2008, to step up and fill the vacancy created by Washington's departure to the Tennessee Titans.
As always, Colbert will entertain options to trade down, as the Steelers did in 2001 when they picked Casey Hampton in the first round, and he will be open to the idea of trading up to get a player of particular interest, as the team did in 2003 to get Troy Polamalu and in 2006 to get Santonio Holmes.
"We have been successful following this pattern, and we will continue to use it," said Colbert. "This is our third draft together – myself and Coach Tomlin – and I think we have a better understanding of each other. We are going to continue to follow the same approach, and really, the same guidelines that this organization has used since long before I got here."