Another year, another NFL draft ... another puzzle

Even picking last, Steelers still figure to fill their wish list

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Thomas Wells, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP

Is Florida's Chad Jackson the answer to filling Antwaan Randle El's shoes?

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Need a safety to replace Chris Hope? A running back to groom for the next Bus? An outside linebacker to maintain that Blitzburgh attitude? Step right up, because this is the draft to do it.

More Coverage:

Super picks: Steelers' drafts

As for the Steelers


On the other hand, next weekend's draft may not have the kind of receiver to immediately plug in as the next Antwaan Randle El, especially for a team picking last in the first round.

The Steelers have built up a hope chest of 10 choices for the NFL draft, although they might use one or two of those in a draft-day trade to move higher in one of the first three rounds. They did that in 2003 when they jumped from No. 27 in the first round by sending Kansas City their picks in the first and third rounds for the Chiefs' 16th pick in the first round. That choice turned into All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu.

Kevin Colbert believes in making such moves and did so several times since he became the team's director of football operations in 2000. In '04 he traded his fourth-round choice to move higher in the second round to snap up cornerback Ricardo Colclough.

Moving up is a good idea according to Gil Brandt. He helped build the Dallas Cowboys into America's Team as vice president of player personnel from 1960-89. He's now a senior analyst for NFL.com and has studied the past decade of NFL drafts.


The Steelers have done a very good job of drafting. They started 16 draft choices and one free agent in the Super Bowl last year. When you do that, you've done very, very well."

-- Gil Brandt


Brandt's son, Hunter, studied the drafts the past four decades and discovered that since 1967, 47 percent of the Pro Football Hall of Famers were drafted in the top 10 and all but nine of 51 inductees were taken in the top 50 picks. Only three of those were selected at No. 125 or later -- Ken Houston at 214 in 1967, Mike Webster at 125 in '74 and Rayfield Wright at 182 in '67.

"When you say 47 percent out of the first 10 picks made the Hall of Fame, that's a high percentage," Brandt said.

The Steelers, though, have had good success through the years selecting below the top 10 and might have had the best success of all, factoring players they drafted who started for them with the success they've had on the field.

For example, Brandt notes that 1,280 players were selected in the past five drafts and of those, 302 have been regular starters, or 23.6 percent.

"The Steelers, over that same period, have 28 percent starters," Brandt said. "So they're one of the top teams as far as taking players and doing a good job."

Atlanta leads the group with 33 percent but the Falcons have not had the kind of on-field success as the Steelers during that time.

"The Steelers have done a very good job of drafting," Brandt said. "They started 16 draft choices and one free agent in the Super Bowl last year. When you do that, you've done very, very well."

In the past three weeks, the Steelers have interviewed as many as 30 prospects at their facility. Many of them were safeties, running backs and wide receivers. That does not necessarily tip off what the Steelers will do because many were players they did not interview previously or players from whom they wanted more information.

   
Facts & Figures: Draft data

What: The annual NFL player draft.

When: Begins noon Saturday and concludes Sunday.

Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York.

Schedule: Rounds 1-3 will be conducted Saturday; with 4-7 being completed Sunday.

First pick: Houston Texans, who are expected to take Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

Steelers: Will draft 32nd and last in the first round, which means they will likely not make their first choice until sometime around 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN will show the first eight hours from noon-8 p.m. Saturday, with ESPN2 picking up coverage until the completion of Round 3 Saturday night. ESPN will cover Day 2 Sunday beginning at 11 a.m.

Of note: This is likely to be the final draft conducted by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who announced earlier this year that he is retiring. A search has begun to name his successor.

   

For example, Southern California running back LenDale White has a hamstring injury. When he visited them Tuesday, he agreed to let their doctors give him an MRI, which confirmed a slight tear.

Still, the Steelers have drafted many players who visited them before the draft, including their past two first-round picks, Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger, as well as Colclough.

Among those who visited them this spring are running backs White, Laurence Maroney, Joseph Addai, Maurice Drew and Leon Washington; safeties Darnell Bing, Donte Whitner and Daniel Bullocks; receivers Demetrius Williams, Chad Jackson, Willie Reid, Jeff Webb, Akron's Domenik Hixon (a converted safety and good returner) and Ethan Kilmer, also a special teams ace at Penn State.

Also visiting Steelers' headquarters were a few outside linebackers such as Jon Alston of Stanford and John Busing of Miami (Ohio), and offensive tackles Daryn Colledge of Boise State and Willie Colon of Hofstra, none a top prospect.

The Steelers will draft a safety and a wide receiver to help replace the losses of free safety Chris Hope and slot receiver Antwaan Randle El. It's more likely they would take a receiver in the second round than the first. Because of their 3-4 defense, they're always searching for linebackers, and, while there are some good ones in this draft, they're mostly on the outside, not inside.

"There's some offensive linemen to be had," said Ron Hill, who has been the player personnel man for Denver, Jacksonville and Atlanta. "Linebacker is a pretty strong position. It looks like you can get some defensive linemen, but not a lot of them. Teams are going to different fronts and doing different things, so it creates more room for a different style of lineman. You'll take a different guy for a 3-4 team than you would a 4-3 team, so that creates a different look and view there. There are more of those 3-4 guys than there are 4-3 guys at end."

The tight ends are an extremely strong group, but the Steelers drafted Heath Miller in the first round last season, and he developed quickly into a strength on offense. So, they won't be looking for a tight end, at least not on the first day of the draft when the first three of seven rounds take place.

"Everybody has an opinion that it's either a good draft or a bad draft," Brandt said. "A lot of personnel guys always consider it not to be a good draft. That way if they make a bad choice, they can blame it on the quality in the draft.

"Here's how I see this draft:

"Right at the top of the draft, there's seven really good players; all of them could be Pro Bowl players and so forth. Then you come down to 8 to about 21 or 22, where there's a lot of good players; they'll be starters and play well.

"Then I think the next group is 22 to 42. The guy you pick 42 very easily could be 23. There's not much difference among those guys at all."

And remember one more thing, Brandt noted, as did Chuck Noll a long time ago when he said the draft is not a science:

"Last year, they said it was not a very good draft, and we had 785 game-starts by rookies. That's the most since I've been tracking it, about 10 years. It was a pretty good draft."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.


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