Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Free Agent Defense

Defense defined both of the Steelers Super Bowl eras as well as Bill Cowher’s contenders of the 1990’s. Steelers Nation is justly proud that defensive stars like Greg Lloyd, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu were home grown.

  • Since 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted exceptionally well on defense.

But free agency has played its own role in Steelers defensive history, even if it was easier to fill out the Steelers All Time Free Agent Offensive team. Yet, you can field a Steelers All Time Free Agent Defense: 

Steelers All Time Free Agent Defensive Lineman

Defensive End: Ray Seals
The original Steel Curtain was home grown. As were the biggest stars on the 1990’s Steelers squads. Likewise so was the trio that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl’s XLIII.

But free agents have played a role in the defensive lines that manned all four of the Steelers Super Bowl runs of the Post-Noll era.In fact, one of those injected “60 Minute Men” into the lingua franca of Steelers Nation.

  • That man would be Big Play Ray Seals.

When the free agent signing period started in 1994, Steelers Nation clamored for the Dallas Cowboy stars Alvin Harper and Darryl Johnson.

They instead signed Ray Seals from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who made an immediate impact, registering 7 sacks in his first year – only two less than the combined 1993 total of his predecessors Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson.

Seals sacked the quarterback 8 times for an encore in 1995 and kept his head in the game throughout the season that saw him lose his cousin Sam Gamgee who was suspiciously killed during a routine police stop in Brentwood.

Sadly, Seals tore his rotator cuff during the 1996 preseason, and never played another down in Pittsburgh.

Defensive End: Travis Kirschke
The only other free agent defensive end of note for the Steelers was Travis Kirschke, whom Kevin Colbert brought in from Detroit (after a stint in San Fran) in 2004.

Krischke played for the Steelers until 2009. During that time he made appeared in 92 games, made 18 starts, registering 9 sacks and recovering 2 fumbles. All in all, Travis Kirschke proved to be a capable back up.

Honorable Mention:  Nick Eason, Nolan Harrison

Nose Tackle: Kimo von Oelhoffen
Kimo von Oelhoffen earned his claim to fame making a run as the Steelers starting Steelers defensive end that began in 2001 and ended in Super Bowl XL.

However, his first season in Pittsburgh was spent as a nose tackle. During that season Kimo von Oelhoffen didn’t put up a lot of gaudy statistics, but he did cog up the center of a defense that finished 7th in the NFL and did not allow a touchdown during a five game stretch at mid-season.

Steelers All Time Free Agents Outside Linebackers

Outside Linebacker: Kevin Greene
The 1993 off season brought free agency to the NFL for the first time, and many fans and most of the media thought that the Steelers would sit idly. And while the Steelers did decline to enter into bidding wars, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney quietly went out and made a big splash in the form of Kevin

Greene.

  • They didn’t start calling it Blitzburgh until Greene arrived and with good reason.

From 1993 to 1995 the Steelers absolutely terrorized NFL quarterbacks, with Greene registering 35.5 sacks alone in just a three year period.

After Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers let Greene go in favor of Jason Gildon, which was a mistake, as Greene played for four more years and added another 41.5 sacks to his career total. Still, for a long time Greene held the title as the Steelers biggest impact free agent signing.

Outside Linebacker: Chad Brown
Playing opposite him is Chad Brown. Brown of course was drafted by the Steelers in 1993 and departed via free agency after the 1996 season.

Tom Donahoe, who while doing a lot of good things as Steelers Director of Football Operations, took a very parochial view to departed free agents, much they way a high school coach might approach players who quit mid season only to want back later.

  • Once you left as a free agent, Tom Donahoe made it clear you would never be welcomed back.

Fortunately, and wisely, Kevin Colbert has a different attitude, and ten years later the Steelers would turn to him again in 2006 when injuries depleted the linebacking crops. Brown didn’t get a start, but did register a sack and he earns his spot on Steelers all time free agent defense as a celebration of Colbert’s “you can come home again” philosophy as much as anything else.

Steelers All Time Free Agents Inside Linebackers

Inside Linebacker: James Farrior
Headlining the Steelers all time free agent inside linebacker list is James Farrior. Farrior was drafted as an outside linebacker by Bill Parcells and the New York Jets in 1997 and played well, but not spectacularly.

But Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher saw see that Farrior could do more, and they signed him in 2002 as the Steelers inside linebacker. For the next ten years Farrior played fearlessly, only missing six games to injury and functioning as the “quarterback” of the defense.

He may not have gotten the attention and praise heaped upon players like James Harrison, Joey Porter, and Troy Polmalu but James Farrior was a veritable one-man wrecking crew in the middle of the defense:

  • registering 30 sacks
  • intercepting 8 balls
  • scoring one touchdown
  • defending 61 passes
  • forcing 12 fumbles and recovering 10

Beyond these on the field achievements, Farrior was a locker room leader, and by all accounts his presence was missed in 2012.

Inside Linebacker: Keyaron Fox
Farrior’s compatriot at inside linebacker pales in comparison, and is arguably the weakest member of the unit.

  • The Steelers signed Keyaron Fox in 2008 to play on special teams and provide depth at linebacker.

While most fans remember him for his egregious  penalty at the end of Super Bowl XLV, Fox played fairly well during his first two years in Pittsburgh. Fox even started 4 games in 2009, pushed Lawrence Timmons for playing time an had an incredible, tell your grandkids about it, 84 yard pick six vs. the Brett Favre led Minnesota Vikings.

Steelers All Time Free Agent Cornerbacks

Cornerback: Dewayne Washington
After the 1996 season Tom Donahoe concluded that Rod Woodson’s Hall of Fame caliber games were behind him and figured he could upgrade the position by letting Woodson go and replacing him with

Donnell Woolford and by drafting Chad Scott.

Donahoe was of course wrong about Rod Woodson, but sorely mistaken about Woolford. As a result the Steelers had no choice but to go back out into the free agent market and sign Dewayne Washington.

Washington, like Ike Taylor, was known more for the interceptions that he dropped as opposed to the ones he caught save for a late season victory over Jacksonville in 1998 where he ended and closed the scoring with pick sixes. (Incidentally, that was the last great win of the Cowher-Donahoe era.)

Washington played with the Steelers for six years, providing serviceable coverage at cornerback.

Cornerback: Randy Fuller
The Steelers brought in Randy Fuller as a fourth or even 5th cornerback in 1995 after Fuller had been cut by the Denver Broncos. Fuller the good fortune to be in exactly the right place at the pivotal moment of the Steelers Cowher-Donahoe era:

  • Fuller had one task he had to accomplish and he had a nanosecond to to it in. Even then it was touch and go.
steelers, colts, AFC championship, hailmary, randy fuller

Photo credit: AP. 1995 AFC Championship finale

The Steelers went to Super Bowl XXX as a result. That alone earns him a spot on this list. Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, the video is no longer available, so you’ll have to relive the image. Fuller is number 40.

Steelers All Time Free Agent Safeties 

Strong Safety: Brent Alexander
By 1998 Carnell Lake was on the downside of his career, and the Steelers let him go, replacing him with Travis Davis. Davis turned out to be a worse replacement for Lake than Woolford had been for Woodson.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first orders of business upon arriving in 2000 was to fix that, and he did so by signing Brett Alexander.

Pittsburgh was good for Brent Alexander, and Brent Alexander was good for Pittsburgh making 64 straight starts at free safety during which he intercepted 15 passes, sacked the quarterback 5.5 times, and forced three fumbles.

Free Safety: Ryan Clark
Chris Hope’s departure for Tennessee following Super Bowl XL left a void in the Steelers secondary. To fill it, the Steelers signed Ryan Clark.

At time the conventional wisdom was that Ryan Clark a place holder while a younger player, such as Anthony Smith, developed into a starter.

  • The conventional wisdom was dead wrong.

Ryan Clark has started for seven straight years in Pittsburgh and developed into one of the NFL’s most underrated players.

Ryan Clark’s 10 interceptions, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries in seven years as a starter are respectable, but they don’t convey his full value to the team.

  • Ryan Clark was a vocal leader both on and off the field.

His aggressive, hard hitting style sets the tone for the entire defense. He’s always around the ball and steps up when the game is on the line.

Perhaps value is best measured by his the play of the defense in his absence. Clark suffers from the sickle cell trait which prevents him from playing in Denver. In fact, when Clark fell injured in Denver 2007, the Steelers were unable to hold a lead in his absence.

The same story repeated itself at other moments in the 2007 season in the playoffs vs. Jacksonville. The Ryan Clarkless defense have also seen leads slip away in Denver to the likes of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. This is no coincidence.

Honorable Mention:  Mike Logan

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The Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Free Agent Offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency.  “The Steelers Way” is to build with the draft and promote from within.

  • But that doesn’t mean that the Steelers have ignored free agency.

Whether it was Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher, or Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin calling the shots, the Steelers have deftly dipped into the free agent market to fill much-needed holes or reinforce key roster areas. Here is a look at the Steelers All Time free agent offense:

Steelers All Time Free Agent Quarterbacks

Tommy Maddox
Tommy Maddox
failed to realize the greatness he flashed in 2002. But Maddox saved that season, and gave Pittsburgh one of its most electrifying playoff wins in history.

  • Clearly, one of Kevin Colbert’s most astute free agent pick ups.

Charlie Batch
Detroit surprised the NFL in July 2002 by cutting Charlie Batch, but Kevin Colbert wasn’t caught napping, snapping him up instantly. Since then Batch has helped stabilize the Steelers depth chart at quarterback for a decade.

Honorable Mention:  Mike Tomczack

Steelers All Time Free Agent Running Backs

Erric Pegram
The name “Erric Pegram” likely elicits a response of “who?” It shouldn’t.

When Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cast off the formidable but flaky Barry Foster they brought Pegram in from Atlanta as an insurance policy.

When Bam Morris became more interested in illegal activities than winning football games, Cowher and Donahoe’s investment handsome dividends to the tune of 831 yards in just 11 starts as Pegram saved the season.

Erric Pegram might not have earned a spot for himself alongside great Steelers running backs such as Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, but he role should not be overlooked.

Duce Staley
When Amos Zereoue decided he couldn’t share the backfield with Jerome Bettis, the Steelers brought in Duce Staley. Staley started the season like gang busters until injuries got the better of him.

Injuries aside, Staley teamed with Bettis to give the Steelers Nation a glorious afternoon of smash-mouth football vs. the Jets in the 2004 Divisional Playoffs.

Perhaps his biggest contribution came in 2005, when he came off the bench, along with Charlie Batch, to lead the Steelers to victory over the Packers – a victory that became crucial to the Steelers ability clinch a playoff spot and proceed to Super Bowl XL.

Honorable Mention:  Mewelde Moore

Steelers All Time Free Agent Fullbacks

Bill Cowher’s arrival signaled a sea-change in the Steelers rushing philosophy. Prior to 1992, both the fullback and the halfback carried the ball. Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt changed that, much to Merril Hoge’s frustration.

John L. Williams
But the ball carrying fullback saw an Indian summer during 1994 and 1995 as John L. Williams took over the position. Williams ran the ball 69 times in 1994 – an astronomical number for a fullback in the post-Noll era.  Injuries dropped Williams numbers in 1995, but they didn’t prevent John L. Williams making several critical plays.

The 1995 Steelers mid-season rally began the Jacksonville Jaguars traveled to Three Rivers Stadium and ended in Super Bowl XXX. The Jacksonville game was also the day that John L. Williams rejoined the line up. Those two events are no coincidence.

Williams also make some critical catches in the AFC Championship game that the Steelers won by the skin of their teeth. Again, no coincidence.

Honorable Mention:  Tim Lester

Steelers All Time Free Agent Offensive Lineman

Offensive Tackle: Oliver Ross
Oliver Ross will never be considered a “world beater” and in fact struggled when injuries forced him into the starting line up in 2003. But Ross rebounded to start 16 games on the 2004 squad that won 16 straight games.

Offensive Tackle: Flozell Adams
When Willie Colon was injured in the 2010 off season, Flozell Adams was the best free agent on the market. The Steelers approached him. At first he said “no.” But Flozell wanted a shot at a Lombardi, and Mike Tomlin convinced him the Steelers could get him that. The Steelers signed Flozell Adams. They didn’t get him the championship, but together they got close.

Offensive Guard/Tackle:  Will Wolford
Will Wolford was in fact brought in to play guard following the departure of Leon Searcy and the retirement of Tom Newberry after Super Bowl XXX. Wilford played his best football at guard and was supposed to stay there when the Steelers let another offensive tackle, John Jackson, go via free agency the thought was that Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins, or Chris Conrad could take his place.

But by the middle of the 1998 preseason it was clear none of these men were up to the task, and Will Wolford stepped in at left tackle, providing the Steelers with some stability at this much-needed position.

Offensive Guard: Duval Love
Duval Love is the first of two the Steelers “Plan B Free Agents” to make this list. Signed following the 1991 season as a stop gap measure in light of Terry Long’s substance abuse problems, Love bolstered an offensive line on an upswing and blossomed into a Pro Bowler in 1994. A great, below the radar screen pick by Tom Donahoe.

Offensive Tackle: Rich Tylski
The departure of John Jackson, the injury to Justin Strzelczky and the total bust that was Jamain Stephens threw the Steelers offensive line into havoc in 1998 and 1999.

One of the moves that Kevin Colbert made to add some stability to the line was to sign guard Rich Tylski. Tylski only played for two years and only started for one full year, but the Steelers offensive line was markedly improved in 2000-2001 and Tylski helped make that happen.

Honorable Mentions:  Tom Newberry and Todd Kalis

Center:  Jeff Hartings
It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, and Dermonti Dawson, but Jeff Hartings came from Detroit, switched from guard to center, and not only lived up to the Steelers legacy there, but added to it winning Pro Bowl honors in 2004 and 2005.

Steelers All Time Free Agent Wide Receivers

Yancey Thigpen
Most people think Yancey Thigpen is a home grown Steeler, but Thigpen was actually drafted by and played for the San Diego Chargers in 1991. In 1992 Thigpen got cut in training camp, cleared waivers and was on the street when Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher brought him in during the middle of the 1992 season.

Thigpen played on special teams in 1992 and it was only in 1993 that he got to play sparingly at wide reciever only catching 9 balls. Funny thing was, 3 of them were for touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and receivers coach Chain Gailey didn’t find that to be a coincidence

  • Thigpen ascended into rotation on the starting lineup in 1994 and became a full time starter before year’s end.

Thigpen had standout seasons in 1995 and 1997 although injuries marred his 1996 effort, as they did the rest of his career in Tennessee.

Courtney Hawkins
Courtney Hawkins. This is one player who drew his share of ire form the fans because he wasn’t a particularly good starting wide receiver. The rub is that he was never supposed to be a starter. Brought in 1997 from Tampa Bay to replace Andre Hastings, Hawkins performed admirably that year as third down receiver – the role he was brought into play.

In 1998, with Thigpen gone, Charles Johnson under achieving, and Will Blackwell failing to live up to his potential, Hawkins became the number one receiver. Hawkins contributed as a part-time starting in 1999 and took over when injuries ended Plaxico Burress rookie season in 2000.

Jerricho Cotchery
This selection is one of the Steelers most recent free agent selections, arriving during 2011 training camp. He hasn’t compiled a ton of eye catching statistics. He hasn’t started many games. But Jerricho Cotchery has responded when called upon, making tough catches and otherwise coming up with the ball when the team needs him.

Steelers All Time Free Agent Tight End

Steelers fans under 30 no doubt only remember Mike Mularkey from his “Inspector Gadget” tour as offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003. However Mularkey was the Steelers first “Plan B Free Agent” signing in 1989, when Tom Donahoe brought him in from Minnesota. Mularkey only caught 22 passes in the Steelers storybook 1989 season, but that was 20 more than his predecessor had caught.

Mularkey played a strong number two tight end to rookie Eric Green in 1990, but his knees began to get the better of him, and he was out after 1991. Still, Mularkey was a great pick up on Donahoe’s part.

Honorable Mention:  Jonathan Hayes

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Plaxico Burress Return Takes Kevin Colbert Full Circle

Admittedly you can’t see a lot in that video.

And perhaps that’s fitting as its significance has largely been overlooked by Steelers Nation.

In case you’re unable to tell, what you can see is a clip of Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown to Plaxico Burress capping the Steelers season-ending victory over the Cleveland Browns.

  • But the pass holds deeper significance because it brought Kevin Colbert’s career with the Steelers full circle.

Dan Rooney named Kevin Colbert as Director of Football operations in January 2000, following a total breakdown in the relationship between Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher.

At the time many questioned the move, pointing to the fact that Colbert came from perennial loser Detroit.

More than a few scribes were suspicious that Colbert had graduated from North Catholic, a Society of Mary established high school in Pittsburgh that both Rooney and Donahoe himself had graduated from. (Full disclosure, I once volunteered for the MVSC, a great volunteer program run by the SM that fell victim to some petty internal Society of Mary politics.)

  • No one questions Colbert’s credentials today. Nor should they.

His resume comprises 13 rosters that have produced victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, an AFC Championship in 2010, 6 division titles, 8 playoff appearances and only one losing effort.

Plex Brings Kevin Colbert Full Circle

Plaxico Burress was Kevin Colbert’s first draft pick with the Steelers, initiating a Colbert’s unparalleled streak of success in the first round of the NFL Draft (OK, after finishing 2010 with a bang Ziggy Hood has been, “inconsistent” to put things charitably.)

  • But the drafting of Burress in wasn’t Colbert’s only feat in 2000.

Dan Kreider joined the team in 2000, starting a line of Colbert unrestricted rookie free agent steals that today includes Willie Parker, James Harrison, and Steve McLendon, to name a few (click here for a full look).

2000 was the year that Marvel Smith became the first rookie to start for the Steelers on the offensive line for the opening day since Tom Ricketts did so for the 1989 Steelers. Smith’s play was solid at right tackle but in rapid succession he fell to injury and then so did his back up Shar Pourdanesh. (Sound familiar…? And they didn’t even have Marcus Gilbert to blame.)

“Who?” you might ask? Excellent question question. “Larry Tharpe” has long been forgotten and wasn’t even close to a household word in Steelers Nation in 2000.

Larry Tharpe had played as a part time starter the Detroit Lions in 1992 and 1993, wasn’t on an active roster in 1994 or 1996 but did play for Arizona in 1995, and then returned to Detroit for 1997 and 1998 season after which Detroit did not invite him back.

  • Tharpe watched the 1999 NFL season from a couch somewhere, presumable out of football.

But Kevin Colbert thought enough of Tharpe to bring him to Pittsburgh, and during the middle of the Steelers 2000 season Tharpe started four games.

No one was considering Tharpe for Pro Bowl honors, but the blunt truth is that he out played both Chris Conrad and Anthony Brown, who’d rotated the starting right tackle’s job throughout 1999 in an effort to to see who was more ineffective.

With the selection of Burress in the draft, insight in bringing in players that no one else wanted such as Kreider and Tharpe, Kevin Colbert showed himself as an NFL personnel man who was both smart enough and able enough to add quality contributors wherever he found them.

Plaxico Burress had a decent season for the New York Jets in 2011, but he was out of football for the first three months of the 2012 NFL season. No one wanted him.

When injures robbed the Steelers of Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery’s services, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did not hesitate to bring back Burress.

Now Burress only played in three games for Pittsburgh and only caught 3 passes.

  • But one of those was for a touchdown.

A touchdown that sealed victory for the Steelers, a victory the Steelers needed to avoid a losing season.

Not bad for an NFL street free agent. Kevin Colbert couldn’t have scripted it any better.

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The Colbert Record: The Steelers 1st Round Draft Success under Kevin Colbert

IT may be an unmanly metaphor, but the Steelers of the ‘90’s were brides maids whereas the Steelers of the ’00 were brides.

The question is, why?

Several explanations exist, including the Steelers uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents, but one singular achievement pushed the ’00 Steelers over the top:

Kevin Colbert has never missed on a first round draft pick.

That my friends explains a lot.

Kevin Colbert vs. Tom Donahoe

Because he failed badly in Buffalo, most forget that Tom Donahoe spent the ‘90’s as one of the top 2-3 personnel men in the NFL. Indeed, Donahoe’s resume boasts of draft picks who went on to wear Super Bowl rings by the names of Hines Ward, Alan Fanaca, Aaron Smith, Deshea Townsend, and Joey Porter.

But of the above group, only Fanaca was a first rounder. Donahoe excelled at uncovering excellent value in the middle and late rounds, but he failed just as often as he succeeded with first round picks.

But doesn’t picking up guys like Porter and Smith in rounds 3 and 4 appears to compensate for picking Troy Edwards at #13? To an extent it does, but success in later rounds never mitigates the opportunity cost of a first round failure.

The Colbert Record – First Round Draft Picks

In contrast, getting a first round pick right can make up for a lot mistakes in subsequent rounds as this edition of The Colbert Record which reviews Kevin Colbert’s first round selections reveals. Scroll down or click on the links below for a capsule profile of each of Colbert’s first round successes.

2000 Plaxico Burress
2001 Casey Hampton
2002 Kendall Simmons
2003 Troy Polamalu
2004 Ben Roethlisberger
2005 Heath Miller
2006 Santonio Holmes
2007 Lawrence Timmons*
2008 Rashard Mendenhall
2009 Ziggy Hood
2010 Maurkice Pouncey
2011 Cameron Heyward

Plaxico Burress
Year/Position Drafted: 2001 (8)
Starts: 66
AFC Championship Appearances: 2 (’01, ’04)
Super Bowl Appearances: 0
Key Game or moment: October 29th 2001 in Pittsburgh vs. the Tennessee Titans – This was the founding game of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aries. It was also Burress break out game, catching 6 passes for 151 yards reminding everyone why Kevin Colbert had made him his first pick. It was the start of big things for Plaxico.
Overarching contribution: In Pittsburgh, Plaxico Burress perhaps did not quite live up to his potential as a number 8 overall draft pick, but he nonetheless played a key role in revitalizing a passing game that had been adrift since Yancy Thigpen’s departure.

Casey Hampton
Year/Position Drafted: 2001, (19th)
Starts: 157
AFC Championship Appearances: 5 (’01, ’04-IR, ’05, ’08, ’10)
Super Bowl Appearances: 3
Key Game or moment: Super Bowl XL. Seattle is on Pittsburgh’s 29, threatening to score. On first and 20 Casey Hampton throws Matt Hasselbeck down like a rag doll. Ike Taylor intercepts his next pass. Four plays later, Randel El is hitting Hines Ward for the closing score. It all begins with Hampton’s play, his lone sack in 16 post-seasongames.
Overarching contribution: Ed Bouchette has said that the success or failure of the 3-4 rises and falls on the play of the nose tackle. Consider these numbers: 1,7,9,1,4,9,1,1,5,2, and 1. Those are the Steelers defensive rankings in total yards since Casey Hampton joined the team. A lot of people get a lot of credit for that, but it all starts with Big Snack.

Kendall Simmons
Year/Position Drafted: 2001, (30th overall)
Number of Starts: 81
AFC Championship Games: 2 (’05, ’08-IR)
Super Bowl Games: 2 (’05, ’08-IR)
Key Game or moment: Starting 16 straight games as a rookie. Overarching contribution: Diabetes and a slew of injuries complicated Kendall Simmons’ career. Nonetheless his solid, if rarely spectacular, play at guard provided stability on the offensive line that has been absent of late.

Troy Polamalu
Year/Position Drafted: 2003, (16th overall)
Number of Starts: 107
AFC Championship Games: 4 (’04, ’05, ’08, ’10)
Super Bowl Games: 3
Key Game or moment: AFC Championship vs. Baltimore

(Available as of 4/21/12)

Overarching contribution: Every generation brings a handful of players who combine the athleticism, football talent, work ethic, and will power to give them the On the Field Presence necessary to make plays that single-handedly alter a game’s outcome. The play above represents just one example of how Troy Polamalu is one of those players.

Ben Roethlisberger
Year/Position Drafted: 2004, (11th overall)
Number of Starts: 113
AFC Championship Games: 4 (’04, ’05, ’08, ’10)
Super Bowl Games: 3
Key Game or moment: Super Bowl XLIII.

Overarching contribution: Success as an NFL quarterback is about more than arm strength, coverage reading, and accuracy. It’s also about courage, instinct and the ability to improvise. More than anything else, what separates quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings from the Jim Kelly’s and Randal Cunningham’s of this world is mental toughness.

Seven years into his NFL career, Ben Roethlisberger has already established himself as one of the most fearless, look the dragon in the jaws, big-pressure quarterbacks in the NFL.

Heath Miller
Year/Position Drafted: 2005, (30th overall)
Number of Starts: 106
AFC Championship Games: 3 (’05, ’08, ’10)
Super Bowl Games: 3
Key Game or moment: 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff game. Health Miller caught Ben Roethlisberger’s first two passes and, as he was catching his third, the Steelers were suddenly up 14-0 in a game no one thought they could win….
Overarching contribution: Health Miller is a player who lets actions speak for him. He might not get flashy statistics, he might not be the MUST HAVE on anyone’s fantasy team, but Health Miller is Mr. Dependable. Whether it’s been Hines, and El, Hines and ‘Tone, Hines and Wallace, or Wallace and Brown on the outside, having Heath Miller on as a threat in the middle has made the Steelers offense dramatically more dynamic.

Santonio Holmes
Year/Position Drafted: 2006, (25th, overall)
Number of Starts: 48
AFC Championship Games: 1 (’08)
Super Bowl Games: 1
Key Game or moment: Super Bowl XLIII. (Available as of 4/21/12)
(Available as of 4/21/12)

Overarching contribution: Santonio Holmes time in Pittsburgh was bookended with off the field incidents, and by all accounts he was no locker room favorite. But the truth is he delivered throughout the 2008 playoffs especially in Super Bowl XLIII when it counted the most.

Lawrence Timmons*
Year/Position Drafted: 2007, (15th overall)
Number of Starts: 46
AFC Championship Games: 2 (’08, ’10)
Super Bowl Games: 2
Key Game or moment: Antonio Brown, Tory Polamalu and James Harrison made the highlight reels for the Steelers upset victory over the Tennessee Titans in the second week of 2010, but Lawrence Timmons was simply all over, raising hell on every part of the field. His accomplishment to what was one of the greatest defensive efforts in franchise history should not be underestimated.
Overarching contribution: Lawrence Timmons earns an asterix on this list simply because his play has been by inconsistent.

Because of injuries he struggled to get on the field in 2007. His play in 2008 made everyone wonder why he wasn’t starting, but too many missed opportunities in 2009 led many fans and, perhaps management, to wonder if letting Larry Foote go was an error. He started out 2010 gangbusters and overall had a very good year, but in 2011 he disappeared from the defense.

Rashard Mendenhall
Year/Position Drafted: 2008, (23rd, overall)
Number of Starts: 44
AFC Championship Games: 2 (’08-IR, ’10)
Super Bowl Games: 2 (’08-IR, ’10)
Key Game or moment: AFC Championship game vs. the Jets. When Rashard Mendenhall focuses he is one of the top backs in the league. And Mendenhall has never been as focused as he was in the AFC Championship game, where he tore through the Jets defense for 121 yards on 27 carries, including a 35 yard burst. While those numbers are good, they do little justice to the fire and determination which Mendenhall displayed that night.
Overarching contribution: While Rashard Mendenhall has been less consistent that one would like, he has run well for the Steelers often without the benefit of quality run blocking. When Mendenhall shuns his shuffle routine and commits to a hole, he runs with power, authority, and is a threat to go all the way.

Ziggy Hood
Year/Position Drafted: 2009, (30th, overall)
Number of Starts: 25
AFC Championship Games: 1 (’10)
Super Bowl Games: 1 (’10)
Key Game or moment: When injury felled Aaron Smith in 2010 everyone wondered whether Ziggy Hood was up to the task. It took some time for Hood to find his legs, but he registered three sacks in December 2010 and added two more in the playoffs, stepping up when he was needed.
Overarching contribution: The Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII did nothing to alter the fact that their aging defensive line needed an injection of youth. Ziggy Hood was the man tapped to begin that rejuvenation. While Hood’s play is no where near par with the likes of Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, he’s provided quality play and still has room to grow.

Maurkice Pouncy
Year/Position Drafted: 2010, (18th, overall)
Number of Starts: 30
AFC Championship Games: 1 (’10)
Super Bowl Games: 1 (’10-IR)
Key Game or moment: Anchoring the Steelers offensive line for 18 straight starts as a rookie.
Overarching contribution: When Willie Colon tore his Achilles in June of 2010, the word was that the Steelers had lost their best offensive lineman and the Steelers were still 3 months away from training camp. By opening day Muarkice Pouncey had established himself in the role, a fact that Colon’s brief return in 2011 did little to alter.

Cameron Heyward
Year/Position Drafted: 2011, (31st, overall)
Number of Starts: 0
AFC Championship Games: 0
Super Bowl Games: 0
Key Game or moment: The Steelers wasted little time in getting Cameron Heyward on the field, and he made his first splash play in week 5 vs. the Tennessee Titans by registering his first sack and his first forced fumble.
Overarching contribution: Steelers Nation hasn’t seen a lot of Heyward yet, but he got thrown into the mix early and has responded well thus far.

12 First Round Success But 13 Must Also Be Lucky for Colbert

A string of 12 straight successful first round picks is an extremely impressive record for an NFL personnel man in any era.

As has been shown above, each of these players not only have a history of solid, and for the most part consistent play, but each player faced critical moments in critical games and delivered when called upon.

As important has that past success has been, Kevin Colbert must continue to deliver. While the Steelers roster remains solid, there is not a single position area that the team does not either need to improve now and/or lay a foundation for future success.

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The Colbert Record: Undrafted Rookie Free Agents

Prologue…

Future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis started the 2000 season with Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Jon Witman backing him up. Never in franchise history, perhaps, have the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted a deeper backfield.

Things changed fast. First fullback Jon Witman fell to injury and then Fuamatu-Ma’afla followed.

Injuries are always inopportune, but Pittsburgh headed into a mid-season show down with the Baltimore Ravens having to activate a little-known rookie free agent from the University of New Hampshire, football power house that it is.

Dan Kreider buckled his chin strap and challenged Ray Lewis head on, the Steelers rushed for 100 yards, Pittsburgh dealt the Ravens their last loss of 2000 and Kevin Colbert now had one of his biggest calling cards – uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents.

The Colbert Record – Rookie Free Agents

With the NFL lockout heading to its conclusion one of the first orders of business will be to sign unrestricted rookie free agents. No one knows how the layoff will affect teams.

Previous installments of The Colbert Record dealt with his draft record. Today attention turns to Colbert’s success after the draft, success which has historically given the Steelers an advantage.

The list below contains the Steelers most prominent rookie free agents from the Kevin Colbert era. Click on the player names, each listed in the order of their appearance on the active roster.

Steelers 2000 Rookie Free Agents – Dan Kreider, Ainsley Battles
Steelers 2001 Rookie Free Agents – Keydrick Vincent, Chris Hoke
Steelers 2002 Rookie Free Agents – James Harrison
Steelers 2003 Rookie Free Agents – None
Steelers 2004 Rookie Free Agents – Willie Paker
Steelers 2005 Rookie Free Agents – Nate Washington
Steelers 2006 Rookie Free Agents – Anthony Madison
Steelers 2007 Rookie Free Agents – Gary Russell
Steelers 2008 Rookie Free Agents – Patrick Bailey, Darnell Stapleton
Steelers 2009 Rookie Free Agents – Stefan Logan, Doug Legursky,Ramon Foster, Isaac Redman
Steelers 2010 Rookie Free Agents – Steve McLendon

Kevin Colbert’s 2000 Rookie Free Agent Class

Dan Kreider – the “Sixth Offensive Lineman”
After getting his practice squad promotion in 2000 Dan Kreider went on to play in 113 games, starting 67 of those. Those numbers are impressive, but not as impressive as these: 4528 yards rushing and 4198 yards rushing.

Those are the rushing totals that Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker accumulated with Dan Kreider paving the way. Kreider is Steelers Football type who delivered down in the trenches time in and time out when victory or defeat lay in the balance.

Ainsley Battles
An unheralded member of this list, Ainsley Battles made it as a rookie free agent in 2000 and played in all 16 games, starting two of those.

When the history of Steelers safeties is written, Battles name will seldom noted or remembered. But he did record a sack and two fumble recoveries, and returned for spot duty with the Steelers in 2004 after two years as a part-time starter in Jacksonville.

Kevin Colbert’s 2001 Rookie Free Agent Class

Keydrick Vincent
Kevin Colbert plucked Keydrick Vincent out of the rookie free agent pool in 2001 and Vincent went on to start 27 games while appearing in 38. He even made starts as a rookie and as a sophomore, and then saw his value to the team soar in 2003 when injuries ravaged the offensive line.

Yet his greatest moment was in 2004, when a training camp ACL tear to Kendall Simmons threatened to derail the season. Vincent stepped up, and started 16 games in a season that saw the Steelers finish 15-1. Not bad for a guy whose phone refused to ring on draft day.

Chris Hoke – the Perpetual Unsung Hero
The record reflects that Chris Hoke joined the Steelers the same year as Casey Hampton, but with a lot less fan fare. If there is an unsung hero among Kevin Colbert’s rookie free agent signings, that man is Chris Hoke.

Hoke held a roster spot for much of his first three years, but only dressed twice, until dressing regularly in 2004. At mid-season the man who was less than an afterthought stepped in when Casey Hampton tore his ACL – and the Steelers did not miss a beat in route to a 15-1 season.

Hoke gets little press, but he’s arguably the most valuable back up the team has. 108 games played and a ‘mere’ 16 starts might seem pedestrian over 10 years, but Chris Hoke does what’s asked of him and delivers when his number has called.

Kevin Colbert’s 2002 Rookie Free Agent Coup — Silverback!

James Harrison – Silverback Attack
James Harrison actually made the active roster in 2002. The stories of his dismissals, recalls, and stint with the Ravens are now legendary. Since then he’s played in 107 games and started in 71 of them, but my God, do those numbers fail to do him justice.

Images can only suffice.

Harrison hinted that he was something special as early as 2004, when he laid down the law with a drunken Browns fan:

Harrison chose the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game against the Baltimore Ravens for his coming out party, a day when he exploded for 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble, and an interception.

And, just in case Ed Reed had any illusions about who was the baddest defender on the field that night, James Harrison erased any doubts:

James Harrison’s biggest play as a Steelers is perhaps the most over looked, which is especially rare given that it’s the longest run in Super Bowl history. While Ben Roethlisberger’s game-ending drive rightly draws rave reviews, James Harrison’s pick six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII amounted to a four point swing in a game that finished 27-24.

Oh, yeah, James Harrison has racked up 49 sacks, 5 interceptions, and forced 25 fumbles. And James Harrison was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

James Harrison accomplished these things in spite of the fact that he gets held more than any other pass rusher in the NFL. Not bad for a guy whose name was never called at a podium in New York, Silverback’s current foot-in-mouth attack notwithstanding.

Kevin Colbert’s 2004 Rookie Free Agent Fast Find

Fast Willie Parker
Not only did Willie Parker fail to be drafted, he barely played in college.

Parker went from non-entity to training camp sensation, to the man who relegated Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to the bench, to authoring the then longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history in just two years.

A true work horse, “Fast Willie” played in 79 games starting 60 of them, and rushed for 5,378 yards and 24 touchdowns. What’s all the more impressive is that Willie did this in 6 years earning him the number 3 spot on the Steelers All-Time rushing list, and his 4.3 yards per carry average career rushing average ties Barry Foster as the best for a Steelers running back.

Who knows which Steelers scout uncovered him, Dan Rooney Jr. lives near Fast Willlie’s stomping grounds in the Carolinas, but who ever it was deserves a medal.

Kevin Colbert’s 2005 Rookie Free Agent Protégée

Nate Washington
Nate Washington cut his teeth as an unrestricted rookie free agent on the 2005 Super Bowl XL championship team. Washington’s best play as a rookie may have been the pass defense he made to save an interception in the AFC Championship game against Denver.

Year-by-year Washington got better, his hands became steadier, and he make himself into an integral part of the Steelers offense to the point where yours truly suggested that the Steelers might dump Santonio Holmes in favor of Washington after Holmes 2008 arrest.

Kevin Colbert’s astute pick up of Washington paid handsome dividends in Super Bowl XLIII as Nate Washington’s last pass as a Steeler came during the game winning drive.

Kevin Colbert’s 2006 Rookie Free Agent Special Teams Stud

Anthony Madison
Anthony Madison may have only played in 59 games and started none of them for the Steelers, but those numbers by no means measure his importance to the team. Madison is an outstanding special teams player and, as John Harris from the Tribune Review predicted, the team suffered mightly when they tried to do without him in 2009.

The Steelers brought him back, and their special teams improved accordinglyu.

Kevin Colbert’s 2007 Rookie Foster Free Agent Signing

Gary Russell
As a rookie in 2007 Gary Russell ran with the power and decisiveness that led Ed Bouchette to compare him to Barry Foster. And like Foster, Russell seems to have had attitude problems which lead to his dismissal following Super Bowl XLIII.

Nonetheless, during his time in Pittsburgh, Russell filled a badly needed short-yardage specialist role and scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert’s 2008 “Flash” Rookie Free Agent Class

Patrick Bailey
Ultimately, Patrick Bailey disappointed, but his sharp special teams play won him 2008 rookie of the year honors.

Darnell Stapleton
Darnell Stapleton may not have had the staying power of some of the other offensive lineman on this list who made the team as undrafted rookie free agents, but he did step into the starting role when Kendall Simmons was injured against Baltimore in 2008.

And if his post-season performance and his knee injuries at Latrobe in 2009 made the coaches leery of bringing him back, Darnell Stapleton was good enough at right guard for 14 games on a Super Bowl championship team, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Kevin Colbert’s 2009 Rookie Free Agent Foursome

Who would think that four free agent rookies would make the roster of the defending Super Bowl Champions? It happened with Colbert’s 2009 free rookie agent class, and a year later three of those four would play a vital role in bringing the Steelers to the brink of capturing the team’s 7th Lombardi.

Stefan “Joystick” Logan
Stefan Logan aka “Joystick” was another 2009 training camp sensation who did a commendable job as a kick returner in 2009. The emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown made Stefan Logan expendable in 2010, but he was a bright spot on an otherwise dismal special teams unit.

“Mr. Versatility” Doug Legursky
Mike Tomlin has routinely praised “position flexibility” and perhaps no player has epitomized that more than Doug Legursky throughout is 24 games played and four starts. After making the practice squad in 2008, Legursky cracked the 53 man roster in 2009 seeing spot duty.

But in 2010 the team needed every bit of of Legusrsky’s versatility, and Legursky lined up at Center, Guard, fullback, and it would surprise me none to learn that he perhaps played a few snaps at tackle.

Ramon Foster
Ramon Foster found no love on draft day 2009, but the Steelers had plenty of love for him in late 2009 when injuries thrust him into the starting line up. He began 2010 on the bench, but by mid-season Mike Tomlin sent Trai Essex to the pine and Foster again joined the starting line up all the way through Super Bowl XLV.

Isaac “Redzone” Redman
Perhaps never has a Steelers player been move of a sensation without even taking a regular season NFL snap. Isaac Redman came out of no where in training camp 2009, and even held a roster spot for one game. In 2010 he earned a full roster spot, scored the game winning touchdown against Baltimore in the regular season.

At this point the only question about Redman is why don’t the Steelers give him more carries? Not bad for a Bowie State alumni.

Kevin Colbert’s 2010 Rookie Free Agent Signing

Steve McLendon
Steve McLendon’s stats will impress few, but McLendon saw serious playing time on a brutally hot Tennessee Sunday afternoon contributing to a defensive line that shut down Chris Johnson. McLendon only saw acting in 6 other games he has shown promise.

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents – Pittsburgh’s Competitive Differentiator

Normally undrafted rookie free agents fill out training camp rosters, play special teams, and perhaps grow into role players. If a rookie free agent holds his own in spot duty then he’s considered a success. Developing into a number one back up or unheralded starter is a decided plus.

Over the past decade Colbert, his scouts, and the Steelers coaches have developed just shy of one starting-caliber rookie free agent per season, and his two greatest finds, James Harrison and Willie Parker, authored the two of the most dramatic plays in history.

The Steelers success in staying competitive speaks for itself. Outsiders marvel at their record, asking “how do they do it?”

Those on lookers need do nothing more than browse the list above.

Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have drafted well, but their consistent success with rookie free agents has pushed Pittsburgh over the top. Lombardi’s number five and six offer proof.

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The Colbert Record: What (Can) the Steelers Get for Santonio Holmes?

A trade of a Super Bowl MVP for a 5th round pick might seem lopsided. But as Steel Curtain Rising asserted in Part I of this article, it is not when you draft but who you draft.

Which is to say that there are quality starters, if not Pro Bowlers, available in every round. Part I reviewed the Steelers history with fifth round picks, detailing some of the steals they made during the Chuck Noll era, and some of the good value picks Pittsburgh made in the 5th under Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher.

All of that history is nice, but it tells us little about the immediate future.

To that, this latest edition of The Colbert Record examines his record fifth round.

Kevin Colbert and the Fifth Round

Never an addition to the Steelers linebacker legacy like Lloyd, Lambert, or Woodley, but a four year starter who saw his sacks come in bunches, peaking at 9 in the 2005 Super Bowl Season. Colbert’s best 5th Round Choice.

The first of four quarterbacks taken by Colbert in the 5th round, he beat out Anthony Wright, although Martin only remained with the team for the 2000 and 2001 seasons.

Drafted to be Jeff Hartings eventual replacement, Okobbi started five games in six years and played on special teams, but never became the heir apparent. Colbert could have done better.

Saw Action in 61 games over six years, proving himself to be a good backup and a versatile player out of the backfield. Good value for a fifth round pick.

Third string quarterback from 2003 to 2007 and, beyond a single incompletion in 2004, he did nothing more than hold a clipboard, but he held it well.

  • 2004 – Nathaniel Adibi, LB

Pittsburgh passed on Marcus Turner because Bill Cowher wanted to pad the training camp roster to keep veterans fresh. Adibi never saw an NFL roster. Clearly a costly late round mistake for Colbert.

Saw action in 16 games over two years and even recorded a pick six, but if memory serves he got hurt in training camp in 2007 and was never seen again.

  • 2006 – Omar Jacobs, QB

Neither made the Steelers nor any other NFL roster. What more can we say?

  • 2006 – Charles Davis, TE

Who? I asked the same question. Colbert probably wishes he had this one back.

  • 2007 – Cameron Stephenson, G

Hung around on the practice squad for a while, but never cracked the roster.

Gay exceeded expectations in 2008 only to fall flat on his face in 2009. Perhaps his natural role is that of 3rd corner, which isn’t bad for a 5th round pick.

If the incumbent starter continues to fail to keep his pants on, Dennis Dixon could quickly find himself as the next starting quarterback of the Steelers. Steel Curtain Rising lambasted Pittsburgh for the move, but this pick might make Colbert look very, very smart.

Burnett dropped a game sealing INT, but then again, who in the secondary didn’t? He’ll get his shot to shine in Latrobe in 2010.

Summers rushing is what kept Isaac Redman off the roster, but Summers was woefully unprepared to be a lead blocker and then he disappeared on IR. With Willie Parker gone, Steelers Nation figures to find out just what Frank “the Tank” can do.

Summing Up Colbert’s 5th Round Picks

Measured against his predecessors Colbert stacks up pretty well against Tom Donahoe but not as well as he does against Chuck Noll, Dick Haley, and Art Rooney Jr.

Kevin Colbert started off with some pretty strong 5th round picks, then cratered pretty badly in the middle part of the last decade.

The good news is that with the arrival of Mike Tomlin’s voice in the draft board room the quality of Colbert’s picks on seems to be on the upswing.

The bad news is that nothing in ten years of draft history indicates that Colbert is capable of using the 5th round pick to replace a player of Santonio Holmes’ quality.

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The Kevin Colbert Record: Steelers Drafts from 2004-2007

In part I of “Steelers Drafts of the 21st Century: The Colbert Record,” we looked at the Steelers drafts from ’00 to ’03. Now we turn our attention to Kevin Colbert’s performance during the last four years.

  • The 2004 draft was simultaneously his biggest triumph and his biggest disappointment. It is his biggest triumph because it netted Ben Roethlisberger.

Big Ben is Pittsburgh’s first legitimate franchise quarterback since Terry Bradshaw. They recently signed Roethlisberger to a long-term deal and, provided they can protect him, Ben is poised to be a dominate quarterback for a long time to come. To understand this significance, consider: Mark Malone, Todd Blackledge, Andre Ware, Jeff George, David Klingler, Rick Mier, Health Shuler, Jeff Drukenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cabe McNown. All of these were can’t miss first round quarterbacks did.

The price of misfiring on a quarterback in the first round is extremely high, but perhaps the rewards of getting it right are even greater.

  • The Steelers hit the nail on the head with Roethlisberger, and that remains Colbert’s crowning achievement.

Alas, the Steelers scored scant little else in the 2004 draft. The 2008 season should be the 2004 draft class’ moment to shine. But of the nine players Pittsburgh picked that year, only two remain with the team. Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks.

Ricardo Colclough flashed as a rookie, but never contributed as a corner, and failed miserably as a kick returner. Calk Colclough up as the second time Colbert laid an egg on day one of the draft. Indeed, tight end Matt Kranchick was the only other player from that draft to even make the team.

Colbert’s 2005 draft showed some improvement. Health Miller has been excellent thus far and he only looks to improve. As a second round pick, you’d like to see Bryant McFadden starting at this point in his career, but he has contributed, he has pushed for playing time, and he still might pay dividends.

Trai Essex is somewhat of a disappointment as a third round pick, but his play in late 2007 also shows that he is far from being a complete bust. The other notable pick from the 2005 draft is Chris Kemoeatu whose metal has yet to be tested. That will change soon.

The latter quarter of Colbert’s draft record is difficult to evaluate, because those players are still developing. However, it appears that he continues to do well on day one, with a drop off there after. Santonio Holmes caused a panic with his two arrests in two months of being drafted. Since then he has kept himself clean, and shown that he is someone who the Steelers can use to stretch the field.

Early on, third round draft pick Anthony Smith won fame as a big hitter. Of late his reputation is that of a big talker. Mike Tomlin appears intent on rehabilitating Smith, so Smith remains a work in progress. Willie Reid has gotten little playing time, largely due to injuries, so his potential is still unknown.

  • With the departure of Cedric Wilson, Reid should have his opportunity.

The jury is likewise still out on Willie Colon. During Cowher’s final year, the coaching staff seemed intent on phasing out Starks in favor of Colon, and Tomlin’s first offensive staff followed through with that. However, Colon has thus far done little as a starter to justify the team’s faith in him.

It’s way too early to draw conclusions on the 2007 draft, although the first day again looks like a success. Injuries slowed Lawrence Timmons development, but coaches are projecting that he’ll push James Farrior for playing time. With James Farrior approaching his mid-30’s an up an comer at inside linebacker would be a welcome sign.

LaMarr Woodley recorded four sacks in limited playing time and added two more during the payoffs – so we know why the Steelers let Clark Haggans go. Third round pick Matt Speath hasn’t done much more than catchtouch downs. Indeed, of eight players taken, seven are still on the roster, although only punter Dan Sepulveda has gotten significant playing time. (Sepulveda has shown he has the tools, now he needs to be consistent.)

While Colbert does deserve criticism for the disappointments of the 2004 and 2005 drafts, the blame does not entirely fall on his shoulders. Steelers Digest’s Bob Labroila has written extensively on Bill Cowher’s propensity to focus on filling training camp roster needs over picking the best player during the latter part of his reign.

It seems that the Steelers have rededicated themselves to avoiding drafting for need, and if that is the case it will be a welcome change for Steelers Nation, whose attention is now intensely focused on the on the Steelers 2008 Draft.

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Steelers Drafts of the 21st Century: The Colbert Record

Since the advent of free agency, no team has been as thoroughly dedicated to building through the draft than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although drafting is a collective enterprise in Pittsburgh, Kevin Colbert is the individual most closely tied to those choices, and so a look at his record is in order the 2008 NFL draft approaches.

Colbert arrived in February 2000 shortly after Bill Cowher’s triumph over Tom Donahoe in a power struggle. People forget that many (yours truly included) initially thought that Dan Rooney had chosen the wrong man. Back then Tom Donahoe was widely regarded by both the local and national press as one of the NFL’s best executives. In the same vein, many wrote off Colbert’s hiring as Dan Rooney simply “selecting the best available candidate who happened to graduate from North Catholic.”

Tom Donahoe’s claim to fame was that he had done more with less. A big part of Donahoe’s success was his penchant for making late round picks — guys like Darren Perry (8th, ’92), Willie Williams (6th, ’93), Myron Bell, (5th, ’94), Lee Flowers (5th, ’95) and Carlos Emmons (7th, ’96) – who grew into solid starters. Yet, for all these second day successes, Donahue misfired badly with several early picks during the latter half of the 1990’s. (Jamain Stephens, anyone?)

With eight drafts under his belt, we can conveniently divide his record into the all too original titles, “The Colbert Record: Steeler drafts from ’00 to ’03” and “The Colbert Record: Steeler drafts ‘04’ to’07.”

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The Kevin Colbert Record: Steelers Drafts 2000-2003

Kevin Colbert’s immediate and most important impact on the draft was to correct the Steelers early round blunders. One needs only to compare beyond Colbert’s first two years of day one draft selections to Tom Donahue’s last two years of day one draft selections for evidence.

In 2000 and 2001 Colbert selected Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy, Casey Hampton, and Kendrell Bell.

 

Burress failed to reach his potential with the Steelers, but overall he provided good value. Marvel Smith is a Pro Bowler and our best offensive lineman. Clancy was quite capable as 4th lineman and part-time starter. Casey Hampton is another Pro Bowler. Kendrell Bell did ultimately flame out, but he was an impact player as a rookie – in the most literal sense of the word (he also made his presence known, when not injured, during his sophomore season.)

In 1998 and 1999, Tom Donahue’s first day selections consisted of Alan Faneca, Jeremey Staat, Chris Conrad, Hines Ward, Troy Edwards, Scott Shields, Joey Porter, Kris Farris, and Amos Zereoue.

  • Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, and Joey Porter were unequivocally phenomenal picks and represent some of Tom Donahoe’s best draft decisions.

In fact, forced to choose, you’d might very well take that threesome over Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, and Casey Hampton.

  • But Tom Donahue traded up to pick up Staat, who was a horrendous bust.

Chris Conrad, Scott Shields, and Kris Farris went beyond being busts; these men not only failed to produce they all represented loss of value. Adding insult to injury, the Steelers were counting on all of these men to fill essential needs. (Zereoue is a wash. Clearly he was a pick up in terms of talent. However, he never reached his potential, but find no fault with Tom Donahoe for that.)

Colbert maintained that streak in his “second quarter.” Kendall Simmons, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, and Troy Polamalu were all starters on the Super Bowl team. Alonzo Jackson qualifies as Colbert’s first day one disappointment.

During Colbert’s first four seasons his day two drafting has been solid, although not spectacular. Colbert found Clark Haggans on day two in 2000, and Ike Taylor in 2003. And of course, he took Brett Keisel with his seventh pick in 2003. Verron Hayes provided good value as a fifth round pick in 2002.

The bottom line is, the Steelers draft picks during the first half of the Colbert era were on the mark. Early round picks delivered value and either filled immediate needs or grew into starters or significant contributors.

[For an analysis of more recent Steeler drafts see part II “The Colbert Record: Steelers Drafts ’04-’07“]

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