Colbert's draft record holds up well

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With the Steelers off to a somewhat unexpected and most impressive 4-1 start, leading the AFC North by two games and looking at a near-certain fifth win Sunday at beyond-hapless Cincinnati, what is there to complain about?

Leave it to some Steelers fans -- a small faction that believes anything short of a Super Bowl appearance is failure -- to find something amiss in this near-perfect season. And they call the media negative.

What's bothering these people is their perceived belief that Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, has been a dud in the draft room. They'll cite chapter and verse on Colbert's blunders on draft day.

Here are some of the points they fail to make:

• Since Colbert joined the organization in 2000, the Steelers are 86-45-1. That's an average of 10.5 wins a season.

• Over the past five seasons, the Steelers have been 15-1, Super Bowl champions, 8-8, 10-6 and 4-1.

Lots of teams would love to have drafts that bring those kinds of results.

The focus of the negativism is on Colbert's failure to add significant talent in the late rounds of the draft. It's true, the Steelers have not had great success in rounds four through seven. But the fact they are having success on the field more than counterbalances any late-round deficiencies.

No team consistently will do well in all seven rounds of the draft. What Colbert has done is select exceptionally well in the first round, which is, of course, the most important place to do well.

Here are the first-rounders selected in Colbert's era: Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons and Rashard Mendenhall.

Burress, Hampton, Polamalu and Roethlisberger are Pro Bowl players and among the elite of the game. Simmons, Miller and Holmes are solid starters. Holmes, who led the league in yards per catch last season, figures to be a Pro Bowl player in the near future. Timmons, although still not starting, is a major contributor and another probable Pro Bowl performer. It's too early to make a judgment on Mendenhall.

The importance of drafting well in the first round goes well beyond those players' contributions. If a team doesn't do well with its first pick, it not only wastes a lot of money but it usually is forced to hang on to the draft choice for several years and, in that process, perhaps cut players that should have been kept.

With his excellent first-round work, Colbert has kept the Steelers out of those bad areas. As for those later rounds:

2000: Clark Haggans, multi-year starter, fifth round.

2001: Chukky Okobi, occasional starter, fifth round; Rodney Bailey, backup, sixth round.

2002: Larry Foote, multi-year starter, fourth round, Verron Haynes, multi-year backup, fifth round; Brett Keisel, multi-year starter, seventh round.

2003: Ike Taylor, multi-year starter, fourth round.

2004: No one

2005: Rian Wallace, backup, fifth round; Chris Kemoeatu, starter, sixth round.

2006: Willie Colon, starter, fourth round.

2007: Daniel Sepulveda, starter, fourth round; William Gay, backup, fifth round; Dallas Baker, backup, seventh round.

The 2002 class represents excellent second-day drafting. For the rest, could they be better? Perhaps, but until someone does a study of how the other 31 teams fared on the second day, it is difficult to level legitimate criticism. The draft has become so refined that most of the good players are taken on the first day.

Part of the criticism of Colbert's second-day selections had to do with the team's poor play on special teams, with the thinking being that late-round draft choices should fill key roles on those units. There was validity to those criticisms last season. This season, however, the coverage teams have been excellent.

What the critics are really missing is what Colbert and his staff have done on the "third day" of the draft. By that we mean the players signed after the draft. The Steelers have been extremely successful in finding quality players.

Undrafted players who have made or still are making contributions to the Steelers include Willie Parker, James Harrison, Jeff Reed, Darnell Stapleton and Dan Kreider. Parker and Harrison are Pro Bowl players and along with Reed and Stapleton start for the Steelers. Kreider was a valuable multi-year starter and still plays in the NFL.

Add those five to the late-round picks, and the back end of the draft looks a lot better.

A general manager, and that's what Colbert is without the title, needs to be judged by the record of his team and the talent he puts on the field -- and certainly not solely by what he does on draft day.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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