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The execution of a virtual draft
Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert: ‘I was dead-set against the whole thing when it was starting’
By Bob Labriola May 17, 2020

From the time Dan Rooney assumed day-to-day control of the Pittsburgh Steelers and hired Chuck Noll in 1969, stability has been a hallmark of this franchise. Three head coaches in the 51 seasons from 1969-2019. A belief that the best way to build a championship contending team is through the draft. Physical over finesse. There are other guidelines, some that border on commandments, and they are based on the singleness of purpose that began with the relationship between Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll.

Since there are six Lombardi Trophies serving as proof of concept, this business model has survived the passage of time and the changes that came with it. Dan Rooney to Art Rooney II. Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin. Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr., and Dick Haley to Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak, to Kevin Colbert and Ron Hughes. The names changed as did some of the nuances of the process, but the basic recipe endured. And so when a global pandemic struck and forced the world to adapt, the Steelers had a firm foundation to rely upon as the NFL calendar moved into the heart of this year's pre-draft preparation.



"We were at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday, March 12, and the night before was when everything started to fold," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "The NBA was cancelling, the NHL, too, and you could just feel it coming. We went through the Pro Day at Clemson, and we flew back because Michigan cancelled its Pro Day before we got on the plane. We came back to Pittsburgh, and we were in the office when we made the Chris Wormley trade, and then we wrapped up some signings by Sunday (March 15).

"Over that weekend, you could feel it coming, and we knew we were going to get closed out of the office. (Vice President of Technology) Scott Phelps started working on being able to do a video-conference from our draft room, where we would be in the draft room and virtual it out to our scouts and we could hold our draft meetings. I told Mike (Tomlin) at that time, I don't believe there are going to be any Pro Days, so let's start these draft meetings, and if the Pro Days pop back up in April, then we'll be ahead of it."

The initial plan for the draft meetings was to have the Pittsburgh based personnel gather in the Bill Nunn Draft Room inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, while the regional scouts would participate from their own homes rather than travel to Pittsburgh as had been the procedure since forever.

"Originally, we were going to do it from the office," said Colbert, "because at that point it was still me and Phil Kreidler and Brandon Hunt and Dave Petett and Dennis MacInnis (from the scouting department), and Mike was still in the office and the coaches were lingering around. But when we got shut out that weekend, I told Scott that we weren't going to be allowed back in the facility."

And so while Phelps and his staff dove into the task of setting up a situation where every single individual who normally would have been crammed into the Bill Nunn Draft Room could do his job from his home, Colbert explained to his people that they were going to have to channel their predecessors who happened to author the greatest draft in NFL history, likely in all of professional sports history, some 46 years ago.

"We were intimidated, me personally, and I think a lot of my (fellow GMs around the league), only because it was, how are we going to do this?" said Colbert. "We don't have all of the information, and once we realized (the draft) was going to happen regardless, that's when I started hitting our scouts over the head with this: In 1974, the Steelers drafted four players (Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster) who went on to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, plus they signed an undrafted rookie (Donnie Shell) who also has been elected to the Hall of Fame. They did all that, and they didn't have Pro Days, they didn't have physicals, they didn't have a Combine. They still got it done, and they did it better than it has ever been done. So, we just have to pick football players."

Phelps wasn't necessarily intimidated, but he was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, which meant he understood that the NFL Draft has been a big part of Steelers history, and he has worked for the franchise long enough to have a firm grasp on the reality that the NFL Draft is a BIG DEAL to the Steelers.

"When this first started, it wasn't exactly known we were going to be (totally) virtual," said Phelps, "and I was trying to determine the best way to replicate having everybody in the draft room at the same time for meetings. This was right when everybody in the facility got sent home, and the only people in the office were Art, Kevin, Mike, (Vice President of Football Administration) Omar Khan, and me. I thought at that point that we were still going to be operating in the office, in the draft room, but that it would be just us."

Then came the stay-at-home order from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and Phelps' challenge ratcheted up a notch.

At the time, the most commonly utilized answer to a group of people having to work remotely was Zoom, but Phelps wasn't about to go with the simple solution, the most popular solution, just because it was simple or popular. In the NFL world, the information gathered in the run-up to the draft every year is tantamount to the "secret sauce" in the restaurant business. Its production cannot be interrupted, and the recipe has to be protected. The Steelers needed to be able to conduct their draft meetings efficiently and without disruption, and their work product had to be secured.

"I started to dig into the video-conferencing stuff right when the world was just starting to work from home, and there was a bunch of stuff crashing," said Phelps. "So the scenarios in my head were: How do I explain in the middle of a meeting or whatever that Kevin was conducting that I can't continue the meeting because this third-party company or this other entity was down. I didn't feel comfortable relying on somebody else. When I started to see Zooms going down in the world, and I also started to see hacks happening, I started thinking about a way to make it more secure and only running on things I maintain so I would know exactly what every connectivity was."

“They did all that, and they didn’t have Pro Days, they didn’t have physicals, they didn’t have a Combine. They still got it done, and they did it better than it has ever been done. So, we just have to pick football players.” Colbert on the Steelers’ 1974 draft

Zoom crashing might have been bad because of the delay it could cause to the draft meetings and therefore to the gathering of information on the prospects, but getting hacked could be a disaster. Remember back in 2014 when a bunch of celebrities had their phones hacked and the entities responsible for it released compromising/embarrassing photos of said celebrities to the world? In Phelps' mind, there was a corresponding disaster possibly sitting out there at this time, and if it happened he could expect that to be engraved on his professional tombstone.

"The intel from the league was telling us lots of other companies were being hacked and Zoom-bombed, so be careful if you're doing something important," said Phelps. "I was reading all kinds of stuff on these issues and I started thinking, if there is video of Kevin Colbert talking about a player that somehow gets leaked because some hacker figured out a way to get into a Zoom meeting because I didn't know every nuance of Zoom, then that would be catastrophic."

Once Phelps relayed his reluctance to Colbert, the decision was made to have the IT people come up with another way to conduct the draft meetings. The switch was made from Zoom to meetings that were hosted and maintained in-house, and then when Director of Video & Facilities Bob McCartney made all of the video easily available and accessible – from the Combine, from the prospects' college games, from the college all-star games, such as the East-West Game, the Senior Bowl, etc. – the Steelers were in business.

"Scott set it up where everybody had access to our scouting system and we all could be looking at the draft board," said Colbert. "Bob McCartney did a great job of setting up the video access, and after a day or two of the meetings, I thought, this isn't bad. And it wasn't. The meetings were fine. It went pretty much flawlessly, because everybody paid attention.

"We were fortunate, because this was the 14th time Mike and I had done this," continued Colbert. "It wasn't like, how are we going to do this, but more like, I'm here and you're there so let's get through it. We had Dennis call up the player, we'd read the report, and it was bang, bang, bang, just like we were in the draft room at the facility. After the second day of the meetings, I was like, OK, we can do this."



MOVING FROM TALKING AND GRADING TO THE ACTUAL PICKING

The difference between draft meetings vs. the actual picking of players and making trades while on the clock is no more significant than a training camp practice vs. a playoff game. Make a mistake during the former, and maybe it doesn't even matter based on the way things unfold. But make a mistake during the latter, and it could mean the end of the season and/or people losing their jobs.

"Once we were working completely from home and once we understood that the whole draft was going to be virtual, it still hadn't been determined whether teams' IT guys would be given the green light to be in our peoples' homes," said Phelps. "But I had to start planning ahead of time, so I started spit-balling through different technologies that could connect people. I was talking with (Network and Security Manager) Craig Pelat and (Business & Football Systems Manager) Jon Pugliano, and I said, 'What if we just got a suitcase, or one of those Pelican cases, or a briefcase, where we had everything inside of it already configured and set up, and then all we had to do was drop these off at their front doors so they could take them inside and then they would have to plug one thing into their home router and the whole thing lights up and everything is already configured and connected right inside the box for them?"

That was decided on as the plan for executing the draft, and Pelat began by assembling all of the pieces they would need. He bought the Pelican cases off Amazon, and whatever equipment Phelps didn't have on hand also was purchased, and all of it was shipped to Pelat's home. Then the IT guys went to work, cutting holes in the Pelican cases and customizing the foam in them so that everything each individual needed was contained and configured and protected within one case.

There still was anxiety, because the procedure was completely new and foreign to guys who had done things one way their entire professional lives. For the Steelers, a typical draft day always had gone something like this:

In the Bill Nunn Draft Room, Colbert would sit on one side of one of the tables and Tomlin would sit on the other side of the same table. Rooney would be between them, in the middle. Omar Khan and Brandon Hunt would be close by at all times, because they were the ones charged with working the phones in the event of a trade – whether the Steelers were in the market of wanting another team's pick, or whether another team was trying to trade into the Steelers' spot in a particular round. Mark Gorscak, one of the team's college scouts, also was close by because once the Rooney-Colbert-Tomlin triumvirate decided on the player to be selected, that decision would be communicated to the Steelers' staffers at the site of the draft by Gorscak and then the people on site would turn in the pick to the corresponding NFL official there. Also on hand in the draft room in Pittsburgh, or very close by, were Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig and the Steelers' medical team, usually orthopedic surgeon Jim Bradley, and neurosurgeon Joe Maroon, along with internal medicine specialists Tony Yates and Mark Duca.

In the virtual world of 2020, Gorscak's role was eliminated because there was no site of the NFL Draft and therefore nobody waiting there to write down a player's name on a card. Norwig was plugged in at his home and had access to the doctors if a medical opinion was needed. McCartney's end had been set up and operational from the start of the meetings. And the internal scouting program built by Applications Developer Joe Veltri, another member of Phelps' crew, handled a lot of the rest.

On Monday, April 20, the NFL held a mock draft involving all 32 teams, with the dual purpose of working with the new technology and with calming team executives. During this mock, each team was required to go through the process of picking a player as well as the process of executing a trade, and so by April 21 – some 48 hours before showtime – the league office had a better level of understanding and comfort that it could pull off a virtual draft seamlessly.

But the Steelers had an extra advantage. Their first-round pick of the 2020 NFL Draft had been used to bring Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh, and that meant they already had added a first-team All-Pro safety to their mix. Not only did that provide an added level of comfort, but sitting out the first round also allowed the Steelers to observe 32 picks in real time, which helped them go into the draft's second day with confidence.

A procedure that had evolved from their draft meetings was completely operational on the Friday and Saturday of the 2020 NFL Draft. Phelps was plugged in to everyone and everything from his home, and he operated as a de facto air traffic controller. And the analogy is appropriate, because his most important job was avoiding a disaster.

"During the meetings process, once Kevin got rolling – and he was good after the first hour, because like every other entity in the world right now, he initially was trying to have a group of 30 people have a conversation as if they were in the same room when they weren't," said Phelps. "So what ended up happening was a lot of me muting people during the meetings, and eventually what it turned out to be was Kevin was the maestro of the meetings, and he was calling on individuals and telling them when it was their turn to talk.

"When we got to the draft," continued Phelps, "I essentially ended up playing air traffic controller (from my house). For example, Mike would say, 'I need a view of X-Y-Z,' and I'd get him a view of X-Y-Z because I was controlling the machines at his house, at Kevin's house, and at Art's house. I was better off with all of the connectivity and everything from my house."

A lot of questions and needs during the draft were provided by that internal scouting program built by Veltri. "Within that program are different views of prospects, a list in real-time of draft picks, our grades on players, all those kinds of things are in there," added Phelps. "We can provide a bunch of different views you can watch of real-time information coming in that you could refer to during the draft. You could see who was being picked by team so you could track the needs of different teams, or you could see who's being picked in what order and then see how that corresponds to our grades. There were a bunch of times during the mock drafts and during the actual draft, when Art, Kevin, or Mike might say, 'I can't see this,' or, 'I want to see the picks by round,' and I could remote control their machines and change it for them. They each had giant, multiple, big-screen displays in a room in their houses.'

And so once it got around to pick No. 49, once it was time for the Steelers to step off the sideline for the first time and execute, everything went smoothly.

“Mike and I would talk, and as an example we’d say, ‘We’re going to take Claypool.’ Then we would tell Brandon to get Chase Claypool on the phone. I was able to watch and hear Mike talk to the player. Then Mike would give me the thumbs-up, and then I’d give Omar the thumbs-up to turn the pick in to the league.” Colbert on executing draft picks virtually

"What Scott set up for the drafting was we had real-time video where me, Mike, Art, and Omar were on there," said Colbert. "We also had a party line with the assistant coaches and scouts on it, and we had another party line where Norwig was our contact if we needed to track down the doctors. Mike and I would talk, and as an example we'd say, 'We're going to take Claypool.' Then we would tell Brandon to get Chase Claypool on the phone. Hunt would track him down and get the player to Mike, who would ask him if he was healthy and ready to be a Steeler. I was able to watch and hear Mike talk to the player. Then Mike would give me the thumbs-up, and then I'd give Omar the thumbs-up to turn the pick in to the league. Really, that's how it came off."

That was what was happening behind the scenes when the Steelers made each of their six picks, and there also was a whole lot happening for the ESPN/ABC network cameras that was viewed by an estimated 47.5 million people over three days.

"The bottom line is (the general managers') fears were real, and I don't think we were alone in that feeling, because it was an unknown," said Colbert, "but the IT folks were awesome in getting it all set up and they had never done it either. No one knew if it would work. But I also believe it was welcome entertainment for fans, and it gave the league a little more of a human feel than we have portrayed in past drafts, because instead of a red carpet, glitz and glamour event, the cameras brought fans into 50-plus homes and showed the players sitting there with more family than they probably could have taken to the site of the draft. We also got to see GMs and coaches in their home environments, and the public liked it."



MAYBE NECESSITY TURNS OUT TO BE THE MOTHER OF INVENTION

There have been some changes to rules, dates, and procedures governing the draft, but with those exceptions the Steelers have prioritized and conducted their drafts pretty much the same way since Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in 1969.

"I was dead-set against the whole thing when it was starting," said Colbert, "but once we started the process I came around to believe, hey, this isn't too bad. We all will learn that some of what we thought were necessities probably can be met through this virtual mechanism. I don't think it'll ever completely replace what we all like to do with our draft meetings, but there are some other meetings – like when we fly the scouts in for eight days of meetings before the Combine, for example – we can do those from home. The 30 pre-draft visits when we bring prospects in, as another example – this year instead of that we did 37 video interviews. No, it's not the same as spending a whole day with the guy and having lunch with him and watching video with him, but Mike and I just decided to do it this year like a Combine interview and do as many of those as we can. We did Claypool at the Senior Bowl, and we did Alex Highsmith and Kevin Dotson and Carlos Davis on these virtuals. The other guys we interviewed either at the Senior Bowl or the Combine. I think we're all going to learn that this way could be better or more efficient.

"But again, we were fortunate, because this was the 14th time Mike and I had done this."

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