Steelers seeking impact players in NFL Draft
Steelers (AP graphic / April 23, 2012)
""Need is not a good word," Colbert said. "It's want. We want players. We don't necessarily need."
Maybe, but the Steelers have holes that need to be filled following an extensive roster overhaul. A mass exodus that included wide receiver Hines Ward, defensive linemen Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke and linebacker James Farrior began days after the 2011 season ended with a 29-23 overtime upset at the hands of the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Colbert called the loss of so many locker room leaders "substantial" but isn't looking to find new ones in the draft. Instead, he's focused on finding impact players early and ones who can provide depth late.
The Steelers have the 24th overall pick and 10 picks total in the seven-round draft that begins on Thursday night.
Few teams have been as effective as the Steelers in selecting the right players and turning them into key contributors. Pittsburgh's first round picks since 2000 include quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Toss in Pittsburgh's reluctance to pursue high-priced free agents and it puts even more an onus on the franchise's ability to identify the right players to fit a system that rarely changes.
"If you miss on those (first-rounders) then it can set you back for years," Colbert said.
The Steelers would prefer to keep the winning streak going. Though Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin declined to talk about specific players, they are aware the team is vulnerable at several positions.
Hoke's retirement and a knee injury to Casey Hampton leaves Steve McClendon as the only nose tackle with any real experience on the roster. The move by many college teams to either 4-3 defenses or a 3-3-5 stack has thinned out the supply of nose tackles trained in the classic 3-4 scheme used by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
"It creates more competition for a similar-type guy," Colbert said.
Penn State's Devon Still — who at 6-foot-5 and 303 pounds can eat up a lot of space — could be attractive at that spot, though there's also been late buzz that the team could opt to grab Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower as an eventual successor to Larry Foote.
Hightower has the size — 6-2, 265 pounds — to withstand taking on offensive linemen. Even better, he helped the Crimson Tide win a pair of national titles during his tenure despite missing most of the 2009 season with a knee injury.
"I believe there's intrinsic value in winning," Tomlin said. "Obviously, we've put a premium on that."
While playing coy about specific desires, the Steelers stress they're not going to use the current status of their roster to determine where they go in the early rounds of the draft.
Translation? Don't expect the Steelers to look for a wide receiver in the first round to be a backup plan if restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace opts to test the open market next spring. Wallace was a restricted free agent during the offseason but no teams made him an offer, meaning he has a one-year deal with Pittsburgh on the table.
Though Wallace has yet to sign the tender, Tomlin brushed off the idea of the Pro Bowler eventually moving somewhere else.
"We're not worried about reports," Tomlin said. "There were reports he was going somewhere every day in restricted free agency and he's still here. So, we'll deal with it day to day."
Colbert continues to maintain his goal is to sign the 25-year-old speedster to a long-term deal. The Steelers have already re-signed veteran Jerricho Cotchery to join Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Any receiver would likely be taken in a later round in hopes of providing the position with depth.
There are more pressing concerns along the offensive line. Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu — who won a pair of Super Bowls in Pittsburgh — are gone, at least for now.
Willie Colon will be back at his right tackle spot after suffering a torn triceps that kept him out of all but one game a year ago. His return will allow second-year man Marcus Gilbert to move to left tackle.
The questions are at guard. Doug Legursky and Trai Essex both re-signed with the Steelers, but neither have been able to stay healthy or become a permanent fixture at any position.
Pittsburgh would like to do a better job of protecting Roethlisberger, who was sacked 42 times and pounded countless others, leading to a myriad of minor injuries that piled up as the season went on.
Roethlisberger's gutted it out, but wasn't sharp down the stretch, one of the reasons why the Steelers failed to chase down Baltimore in the race for the AFC North title.
When Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers are among the best teams in the league. Keeping him upright is a priority for a team whose only measure of success is Lombardi trophies.
"There's no (draft) scorecard," Colbert said. "Never will be. Never has been. The only thing we concern ourselves with is: Is (our team) good enough to win a Super Bowl?"