At NFL scouting combine, Steelers have their eyes on more than stats
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert: “There’s always a chance to improve a player’s playing ability. But sometimes a personality is very difficult to change.”
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Beginning this week, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and position-specific assistant coaches will conduct 60 private interviews, lasting a mandatory 15 minutes, with players who will enter the NFL draft.
The purpose of the interviews is to confirm that what they hear from a college prospect matches favorably with what they have seen on the field.
Sometimes it doesn’t always sync.
“Most of the time we have a good lead on them,” Colbert said, but then added, “there will probably be a few we don’t like.”
The annual NFL Scouting Combine — a market district of collegiate talent displaying its wares for every coach and GM in the league — begins Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and so begins the process for the Steelers to identify the players who will help strengthen them in 2016.
They won’t take a player in the April draft until the 25th pick, but they will expect that player, especially if he’s a cornerback or safety, to be an immediate contributor, if not a starter. Only slightly less will be expected from players selected in the second and third rounds, where, Colbert said, it’s reasonable to find prospects who can be starters.
But, for all the running, jumping, benching and throwing that goes on for the six days of testing, perhaps the most understated aspect of the combine is the interviews. That’s when the Steelers find out about the makeup, character, intelligence and mindset of a player, which can’t be measured with a stopwatch or yardstick.
“There’s always a chance to improve a player’s playing ability,” Colbert said. “But sometimes a personality is very difficult to change.”
In most instances, it’s the first time Tomlin and his assistant coaches will get to sit down and talk to a player — something scouts and even Colbert likely have had a chance to do in the fall or at postseason all-star games.
The Steelers talked to 58 prospects at the Senior Bowl and can invite 30 players to their South Side facility after the combine. By the time they are finished, they will have conducted nearly 150 interviews, some with the same player twice. But those 60 interviews at the combine, with Tomlin and other assistants in the room, can lay the groundwork for how the Steelers proceed when they get back home.
“I will update the coach, and he will have a sheet in front of him that says this is what we think we know about this player,” Colbert said. “He may come in and confirm that. We’ve given him an opportunity to maybe overcome or sway us from what we were thinking, but they just kind of confirm it and you move on. That will happen.
“It can go the other way, too. All of a sudden, you don’t anticipate much and you come out and you are super impressed.”
But there is one problem: Because the process becomes very tedious for the players — he goes from room to room, answering many of the same questions for 20 to 30 teams — sometimes their responses aren’t always fresh and genuine.
“The problem with the interviews is the horn sounds every 15 minutes and it’s really hard in a short amount of time to get off the rote responses they’ve been coached to say by their agents and everyone else,” said Mike Mayock, draft expert for NFL Network and NFL.com. “It’s nice to get an impression, it’s great to get the coaches involved and get a feel, but the interviews aren’t as valuable as they used to be because [the players] are so well-rehearsed.”
Look for the Steelers to conduct a majority of their interviews with defensive players, particularly cornerbacks and safeties. And it’s a good year to do so. Colbert said secondary talent is a “deep position, both at safety and cornerback at this point.”
Mayock agreed, especially with cornerbacks.
“There’s quality at the top with Jalen Ramsey [Florida State] and Vernon Hargreaves [Florida], and then you’ve got a whole group of guys who could be third corners like Eli Apple [Ohio State] and Mackensie Alexander [Clemson]. It’s a better class than I initially thought.”
A cornerback on the rise, Mayock said, is William Jackson III of Houston, who has the size (6 feet 1, 195 pounds) NFL teams desire. Jackson had 14 pass breakups and three interceptions, including two for touchdowns, last season.
“He could be in the conversation for the third cornerback [drafted], let alone the top five,” Mayock said. “I just watched his Temple [game] tape and he had seven pass breakups in one game, which is a season for some players. I’m anxious to see him run at the combine.”
Mayock said there are not as many good safeties as cornerbacks in the draft, but the two he has rated as the best are West Virginia’s Karl Joseph and Vonn Bell of Ohio State. Right behind them are Darian Thompson of Boise State and hard-hitting Miles Killebrew of Southern Utah.
“I’ve never seen a safety on tape knock more people backward,” Mayock said of Killbrew (6-1, 219). “I’m not sure if he’s a safety or will linebacker or a dime backer, I don’t know. This kid’s got a heavy thud.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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