Steelers pick them better than Eagles

Associated Press
Associated Press
Posted: February 04, 2011

DALLAS - They call it the Steeler Way, and believe it or not, in concept at least, it's really not all that much different from the Eagle Way.

Build through the draft. Replenish through the draft. Approach free agency with the same caution as a diabetic does chocolate.

"The draft always has been the bloodline here," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of operations. "That's an organizational philosophy. It speaks to what they've always done. You can't miss on your draft picks because that adds to your continuity, especially if you're not going to be a big free-agent team.

"Our free agency is spending on our own players. We'll go after the occasional guy here and there. But we're going to stick with our philosophy."

So why then, you're asking, if they're so damn similar, are the Steelers going after a record seventh Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, while the Eagles will be spending yet another Super Bowl Sunday in the La-Z-Boy?

Simple. Because they've proved to be much better at evaluating talent than the Eagles. The Eagles have been OK drafters in the Andy Reid era. They've had their share of hits, but also have had their share of misses.

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have drafted nine Hall of Famers. On Sunday, eight of their last 10 first-round picks will be starting for them when they take on the Packers in Supe XLV.

The Eagles? Just two of their last 10 top picks started their playoff loss to the Packers last month - wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (2009) and defensive tackle Mike Patterson (2005).

Much has been made of the fact that the Steelers have had just three head coaches since the merger - Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and, for the last 4 years, Mike Tomlin.

Not nearly enough has been made of the fact that they've also had just three personnel chiefs in the last 40 years as well - Dick Haley, Tom Donahoe, who lost a power struggle with Cowher in 1999, and Colbert.

Colbert's drafting prowess over the last 11 years has been phenomenal. Sixteen of their 22 starters this season were drafted by the Steelers. Despite the fact that the Steelers have drafted higher than 15th only twice in Colbert's 11 drafts, he has yet to miss on a first-round pick.

In addition to the eight who will be starting Sunday, his other three first-round selections were wide receiver Santonio Holmes (32nd, 2006), who was the MVP in Super Bowl XLIII before being traded to the Jets, offensive lineman Kendall Simmons (30th, 2002), who was a 6-year starter for the Steelers before getting injured in 2008, and wide receiver Plaxico Burress (eighth, 2000).

"Kevin is, without question, one of the best in the NFL at his job," said Steelers president Art Rooney II.

"He's one of the best in the business," former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "They've already won two Super Bowls with mostly the talent that he acquired. And what he's done in the middle rounds has been exceptional."

In addition to batting 1.000 in the first round, Colbert also has found a lot of gems in Rounds 4 through 7 and beyond, including cornerback Ike Taylor (fourth round, 2003), defensive end Brett Keisel (seventh, '02), guard Chris Kemoeatu (sixth, '05), offensive tackle Willie Colon (fourth, '06), cornerback William Gay (fifth, '07) and linebacker James Harrison, who incredibly was an undrafted free agent.

Colbert, a Pittsburgh native, came to the Steelers from the Lions, where he was the team's pro personnel director. In Detroit, he worked for Ron Hughes, who was fired in 2001 when the Ford family got the bright idea to hire Matt Millen.

Colbert eventually brought Hughes with him to Pittsburgh, where he is the team's college scouting director. That's right. The top two personnel men for a team that might win its third Lombardi Trophy in 6 years Sunday came from the Lions.

One more reason to never buy a Ford.

While the Steelers and Eagles both have the same build-through-the-draft philosophy, Colbert and the Steelers don't share the Eagles' enthusiasm for trading up and down. They're big on playing the hand they're dealt.

"Just stay with your board," Colbert said.

In the nine drafts since the Eagles made Andy Reid king, they have traded up or down in the first round in six of them. Jumped up 15 spots in 2003 to select defensive-end bust Jerome McDougle. Jumped up 12 spots a year later to take enigmatic offensive lineman Shawn Andrews.

Traded out of the first round in 2007 and '08. Traded up two spots in 2009 to get Maclin and 11 spots last year to selected undersized defensive end Brandon Graham. The only one of those moves that really looks good right now is the move-up to get Maclin.

The Steelers? In the 41 drafts since the 1970 merger, the Steelers have traded up just twice. Worked out pretty well both times. They moved up to get reigning Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu in 2003, and moved up again in '06 for Holmes.

Only twice in those 41 drafts did they trade down, and even then they came away with Pro Bowl keepers - tight end Eric Green in 1990 and nose tackle Casey Hampton in 2001.

Colbert is an excellent consensus-builder who worked well with Cowher when he was the Steelers' coach, and works well with Tomlin.

"Kevin is very easy to work with," Tomlin said. "He and I share the same attitude in that we don't care who gets the credit. We simply want to win.

"He is very innovative, very outside-the-box in his thinking in regard to the things we need to do. I love the guy. And when you have that type of relationship on a personal level, it makes business that much easier."

Colbert and Packers GM Ted Thompson are longtime scouting pals who are cut from the same cloth. They spend most of the fall on the road doing their own scouting.

"In a lot of ways, Kevin and I look at teams in the NFL and how you get to where you want to go in the same way," Thompson said. "He's certainly been more successful at it than I have. But in a lot of ways, we've tried to pattern ourselves in the way they do their business."

The Steelers don't rush their draft picks. Five of their last eight first-round picks - defensive end Ziggy Hood (2009), running back Rashard Mendenhall ('08), linebacker Lawrence Timmons ('07), tight end Heath Miller ('05) and Polamalu - didn't start as rookies.

"We're big on patience," Colbert said. "We're not upset if a rookie doesn't contribute. We're actually surprised if they do. When they are ready, they play."

The Steelers can afford to take that approach because they draft so well that they usually already have people in place, which allows them to bring the young draft picks along slowly. When you guess wrong too many times, that's when you have holes. And that's when you have to dip into free agency or force-feed a rookie who might or might not be ready to play.

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