By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Thanks to the current collective bargaining situation and player lockout in the NFL, this week’s draft could be the most interesting in years.
Veterans cannot be traded, unrestricted free agents basically don’t count toward the current rosters and undrafted college free agents cannot be signed after the draft concludes. As soon as the annual NFL Draft ends, approximately 4 p.m. Saturday, the newly drafted rookies are locked out as well.
So, that should put increased importance on this year’s draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Round 1 begins Thursday at 8 p.m., while Rounds 2-3 begin Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Rounds 4-7 begin Saturday beginning at noon. The Steelers have seven picks this year, one in each round.
“We started out with about 1,000 names, (and) we probably have about 400 more detailed, cumulative-type reports (on players) that include several scouts and coaches,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. “And we narrowed that down to probably about a 200-player draft pool.
“And (we) narrowed that down farther to about 160 (players) who fit the Pittsburgh Steelers. … We eliminated about 40 or so guys based on character, medical or not really fitting our defense. They were a better fit for a 4-3 and not a 3-4 defense. Then, out of that, there’s probably 100 that we believe can improve our team, and they’re at all different levels throughout the draft.
“(And) when we really break it down, we probably see 20 special players that are going to be, we think, unusual players in the league,” Colbert added. “(But) we believe we can get a make-it type player, one who can make our roster and contribute, all the way through the sixth round. … So, realistically, we’re looking at guys we believe can help us basically all the way through the draft.”
Colbert added that he and head coach Mike Tomlin interviewed 90 players, including many more than once at either the NFL Combine, their school’s Pro Day or had them in for a visit. Each team is allowed to bring in 30 players for personal interviews. The Steelers interviewed all seven Pitt players available, but since they are local they don’t count against the 30 total.
Colbert noted that this year’s draft is especially deep at running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle, offensive guard, cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle. The defensive end, safety and quarterback numbers are decent, but it’s much lighter at tight end, fullback and center, mostly due to the increase in spread offenses at the collegiate level.
The Steelers have the 31st pick in the first round, that’s second-to-last to the Green Bay Packers, so their opening selection might not occur before the late-night news Thursday. Colbert said the Steelers would be willing to trade up or down in the draft to improve the team, but that has been rare for them.
They’ve had a first-round pick every year since Joe Greene was selected by Chuck Noll fourth overall in 1969. Many believe the Steelers need to take a cornerback with this year’s No. 1 pick.
The top five cornerbacks reportedly are LSU’s Patrick Peterson, Colorado’s Jimmy Smith, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, Miami (Fla.)’s Brandon Harris and Texas’ Aaron Williams. Only Harris and Williams likely will be available when the Steelers are scheduled to pick.
The Steelers can still bring early picks to town up to about 4 p.m. Saturday, but that’s only for media and marketing opportunities.
The Steelers unrestricted free agents this year include defensive end Nick Eason, offensive lineman Trai Essex, inside linebacker Keyaron Fox, nose tackle Chris Hoke, running back Mewelde Moore and cornerback Ike Taylor.
Offensive tackle Willie Colon, cornerback William Gay, cornerback Anthony Madison, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, quarterback Dennis Dixon, offensive tackle Tony Hills, offensive lineman Doug Legursky, safety Ryan Mundy, long-snapper Greg Warren and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott. Woodley was assigned the franchise tag until a long-term deal can be signed.