Steelers' Draft: Colbert knows who to tap in draft
Let's just hope he does it again this year also
Ten years ago, Kevin Colbert approached his first NFL draft with the Steelers and Bill Parcells wanted their first-round choice for the New York Jets.
It was Parcells, among the biggest names in the league, vs. the new guy in the new job with the eighth overall draft choice. Colbert was on the job only two months by the time of the draft, having replaced Tom Donahoe, who was dismissed as director of football operations after the 1999 season.
Parcells pushed and pushed, Bill Cowher remembers. And the Jets had ammo with four first-round draft choices available.
"I knew Parcells wanted him," Cowher said.
"Him" was Plaxico Burress, a 6-foot-5 1/2 wide receiver at Michigan State who looked like every quarterback's dream. In order to get him, Parcells was offering a quarterback. Even after the Steelers resisted the Jets' trade invitations before they drafted, Parcells suggested a trade later that day that would send his first draft pick, quarterback Chad Pennington, and other considerations.
Colbert and Cowher refused.
"The value was unbelievably disproportionate," Cowher said. "I was born at night but not last night."
Burress and Pennington have had their moments, good and bad. Burress has been by far the better player, sometimes spectacularly so with the Steelers and Giants, where he caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLI. But he now is lodged in a jail cell in the middle of a two-year sentence on weapons charges. Pennington never fulfilled his promise, partly because he has been injured so often. The Jets released him after the 2007 season and now he must fight for his starting job with the Miami Dolphins.
Ten years after that first-round intrigue, Colbert remains the Steelers' director of football operations and is preparing for this week's draft, which takes place Thursday through Saturday. He has more time and much more experience entering this draft than he did his first one. Yet, for all his inexperience in the job back then, the Steelers' draft 10 years ago stands the test of time as a good one. And Colbert gets rave reviews from others on the job he has done the past decade.
"Petty amazing," said Cowher, who left as Steelers coach after the 2006 season. "He's done a great job. I think Kevin Colbert is one of the best at what he does.
"Kevin's got great foresight for the future, he has a great feel for that, he's a great listener and has a great feel for the game. He has an objective viewpoint. He can see things clearly and cleanly and not be swayed. He's very objective when he looks at video. And he can make an assessment whether a player is in decline or has a number of years left. Those are qualities not everybody possesses."
Others who have not worked with Colbert believe the same way as Cowher. Longtime NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi -- who held those jobs with the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns and old Baltimore Colts -- brought up Colbert's name while speaking on another topic at the past Super Bowl.
"Your guy is one of the best in the business," Accorsi said, talking about Colbert.
"They've won two Super Bowls with mostly the talent he acquired, and what he's done in the middle rounds has been exceptional."
Among Colbert's successes in those rounds or later are Ike Taylor (fourth round), Brett Keisel (seventh), Larry Foote (fourth), Chris Kemoeatu (sixth) and Willie Colon (fourth), all Super Bowl starters. William Gay (fifth) became a starter last year. Free agent rookies Colbert has signed included Chris Hoke, James Harrison and Willie Parker.
He has also never missed on a pick in the first round, never had a bust with the most valuable and costly choice in each draft. That cannot be said of any previous decade of the Steelers, dating back to when Chuck Noll arrived in 1969 (although they missed on only one in the 1970s, running back Greg Hawthorne).
"Kevin has done a great job," said longtime NFL scout Tom Marino. "He's not the typical guy, he's an old-school general manager, not one of the new-type GMs who are all basically cap guys. He's a football guy. He has a scouting background, which really helps him."
Colbert, a North Catholic High and Robert Morris College graduate, coached several sports in college briefly before going to work for the Blesto scouting combine for a year. He scouted college players for the Miami Dolphins for five years and served as the Detroit Lions pro scouting director for 10 before the Steelers hired him.
He had to quickly become familiar with college talent in just two months after joining the Steelers.
"He walked into a situation late and we were replacing a guy, Tom Donahoe, who had been with us for a long time, and just the year before we lost Tom Modrak," Cowher said, the latter having left as the Steelers college personnel coordinator to become general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Kevin really did a good job being a good listener. A lot of the work was done, a lot of reports were in. He did a good job of trying to implement a board we all could understand. He didn't try to change the whole grading thing; it would have been too much to overhaul in a short time."
Colbert and Cowher decided to travel together to player workouts in those two months, which served a dual purpose.
"We were traveling together, getting to know each other," Cowher said. "It is so important for that guy to know what type of players we were looking for in the thirty-four defense and what our offensive philosophy was."
Ten years ago this month, it all came together in Colbert's first draft. After resisting Parcells and the Jets, the Steelers selected Burress with the first pick. With their second, they chose Marvel Smith, their only Pro Bowl left tackle since the NFL-AFL merger. Their two third-round picks, defensive lineman Kendrick Clancy and cornerback Hank Poteat, never became regular starters with the Steelers but were still playing in the NFL in their 10th seasons. Fourth-round pick Danny Farmer was a quick washout at receiver, but fifth-rounder Clark Haggans became a starting outside linebacker.
That's not a bad draft for anyone at any time, and it helped the Steelers turn the corner after two consecutive losing seasons heading into that draft. One season later, they reached their first of four AFC championship games of the decade.
"That's an impressive group of players," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. "Marvel Smith and Clark Haggans are the two that jump out at me.
"With Plaxico Burress' problems aside now, he was a spectacular player at times with the Steelers. To take him where they did and still address more traditional football concerns with the tackle and linebacker in the later rounds shows the depth of the Steelers' scouting and Colbert's in particular. We've seen the linebacker and offensive tackle positions rise in importance since 2000. He was able to find them back then."
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