The bonding experience continues for the new Steelers coaching staff and scouting department when they converge on Indianapolis starting Thursday.
Coach Mike Tomlin, hired one month ago today, and his staff have spent much of their time evaluating their players and potential free agents; now they have a chance to focus on this year's rookie crop when they camp out at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
The Steelers have the 15th pick in the draft and the stakes and talent increase in the first half of the draft, something the team has not experienced since it selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th choice in 2004. It's the second highest the Steelers are scheduled to select in the past seven drafts.
For sure, they won't draft a quarterback with their first pick this year. After that, everything's open, said their resident draft expert.
"It's hard to see locking out any position high except quarterback. Really, we wouldn't do that," said Kevin Colbert, their football operations director.
That, he said, would include wide receiver, a position the Steelers have spent draft picks and money trying to upgrade the past two seasons.
Two years ago, their only significant signing in free agency was wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Last year, they drafted two receivers in the higher rounds-- Santonio Holmes in the first and Willie Reid in the third.
That would not prevent the team from drafting a wide receiver with the 15th pick in April, Colbert said.
"At this point, I would say wide receiver is the strongest position," Colbert said of the draft. "After that, probably safety."
In spite of their recent attempts, the Steelers might not believe they have enough depth at wide receiver to use four of them on first and second downs, as new coordinator Bruce Arians has said he would like to deploy. Hines Ward and Holmes are the starters with Wilson and Nate Washington filling out the top four.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson is rated the top prospect in the draft by Tom Marino of scout.com. Coincidentally, the next receiver listed by Marino is Holmes' former Ohio State teammate Ted Ginn -- at 15th. Ginn, who injured his ankle celebrating his opening touchdown in the national championship game, will attend the Combine but will not run. They are two of four wide receivers listed in the top 32 by scout.com.
NFLDraftScout.com's pre-Combine ratings also list four wide receivers as first-round picks and two as possibilities to go in the first round.
Both scouting services also give four cornerbacks first-round grades and each has Pitt junior Darrelle Revis rated No. 1 -- 13th overall by scout.com.
Free agency begins a week from Friday and, considering the Steelers will lose no starters as unrestricted free agents and have only one restricted (tackle Max Starks), there are no obvious holes for them to fill. But they do have potential problems, particularly looking forward to 2008.
The Steelers have a star-studded lineup of players entering the final year of their contracts in 2007. They will try to negotiate extensions with many, but history shows they can't sign them all.
Among the starters headed into the final year of their contracts are four current or former Pro Bowl players -- guard Alan Faneca, safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Joey Porter and defensive end Aaron Smith. Other starters working on their final contract year are guard Kendall Simmons, linebacker Clark Haggans and fullback Dan Kreider.
It's possible the Steelers could lose both outside linebackers, both guards and two of their best defensive players a year from now. The critical year is not this one but in 2008. They can take steps toward strengthening it this year, though, by signing some of their players and adding one or two in free agency and through the draft.
"You know, I'd like to strengthen all the positions, but at the same time I'm a realist," Tomlin said. "It's not necessarily what positions need to be strengthened, it's about prioritizing what positions you want to focus on. That's what we're in the process of doing. It's sincerity when I say I'd like to strengthen all positions, but you have to prioritize."
The group at this week's Combine was propped up by the junior class. The top three running backs, five of the top six receivers, the best quarterback, the top two tight ends, three of the first five defensive ends, the best defensive tackle, the best cornerback and two of the four top outside linebackers -- as judged by NFLDraftScout.com -- are juniors.
"It was enhanced by some of the juniors, as it is every year," Colbert said of the draft quality. "That class wasn't available in the fall when we were evaluating, so maybe it didn't look particularly strong. Once those kids are added to it, it's back to where it probably needs to be.
"We'll have chances at good players, no question. I think you do every year."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com .