Steelers veteran GM Colbert's mind matters

Sunday, April 18, 2010
Steelers veteran GM Colbert's mind matters

Low key would accurately describe a man who pedals around Steelers training camp every year on a bicycle that looks like it belongs in the Smithsonian.

Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, has also been called laid back, although his demeanor can be somewhat misleading.

"You ever see a duck on top of the water? Those feet are paddling all the time (underneath)," said Bob Colbert, Kevin's older brother. "I think that's Kevin. His motor's always running but you might not know it."

Such a quality makes Colbert an ideal person to oversee the Steelers' draft since it requires tremendous energy but also demands that the work is down below the surface or in this case, behind closed doors.

This week, Colbert will lead his 11th draft since returning to his native Pittsburgh in 2000. And if his body of work is any guide, the Steelers should fare well in the annual selection process.

Since Colbert joined the Steelers, the team has not missed on a first-round pick, and it has also found several late-round gems.

There have also been some forgettable picks during his tenure. But the draft is nothing if not an inexact science, and such dubious selections made on Colbert's watch have not crippled the organization.

"We've had draft hits and misses like any other team, but I've always said I don't grade drafts. I grade team performance," said Colbert, who had been the Lions' pro scouting director before returning to Pittsburgh. "And the team performance is nothing more than the wins and losses, so we've had our successes, and we've had our failures."

The Steelers have had considerably more of the former than the latter.

Their .659 winning percentage from 2000-09 ties them for third in the NFL with the Eagles and puts them only behind the Colts (.719) and Patriots (.700).

They are also one of only two teams to win multiple Super Bowls from 2000-09, and only the Patriots (three) captured more Lombardi trophies than the Steelers during that period.

"Colbert does a great job with the Steelers, and they've had a heck of a run," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

This draft, which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday, could provide a bonanza for the Steelers. It is widely considered an exceptionally deep one, and the Steelers have four extra picks in the draft, 11 overall.

The draft board that the Steelers finalize this week will mark the culmination of a laborious process that started almost a year ago.

The Steelers, Colbert said, take approximately 1,000 draft-eligible players and whittle that list down to 400. From there, Colbert said, they pare the group of players they want to draft to around 120.

Since March 29, the Steelers have been meeting regularly to discuss draft prospects. When they are debating a player'a merit, two scouts as well as Colbert will give their opinion of him. Also weighing in are coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau or offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the position coach relative to that player.

"It's my job to take those six opinions, which may be all the same, may be totally different and there may be some similarities, and come up with one opinion that the room will agree on," Colbert said. "Once we determine a rating, no one can dissent from that rating because everybody has a chance to talk prior to establishing that value to the player."

Colbert doesn't just sort though the opinions voiced about draft-eligible players when assigning them a rating.

He also has to process reams of information that have been gathered during the evaluation process.

They include reports from the NFL Scouting Combine and other workouts, interviews with the players and those who know them well and what Colbert has seen while poring over players' game tapes from college.

Information overload would appear to be an occupational hazard given all of the players Colbert has to track.

It probably helps that his memory is such that when his brother mentioned someone from James Madison who played years ago, the first thing Colbert said was "great up-field move."

Bob Colbert still chuckles at that memory.

"I'm thinking: 'How did he remember that from all of the thousands of kids he saw?' " Colbert said. "I think the thing about Kevin is he's got a great mind, a great memory."

The preternatural calm that Colbert also ascribes to his younger brother may be a product of confidence.

"He truly believes in his system and what he's doing," said Bills assistant general manager Doug Whaley, who worked as the Steelers' pro scouting coordinator from 2000-09. "He knows that as long as he's done everything that he believes needs to be done, then all he has to do is follow the blueprint that he's laid out."

Colbert is in the final year of his contract, but he recently said he is "happy" in his job. He has given no indication that he wants to leave Pittsburgh.

That is apparent when he is asked to reflect on his first 10 years with the Steelers.

"We have had some success, but now's not the time to dwell on it. The only thing I think about right now is 9-7," Colbert said in reference to the record the Steelers posted in 2009. "There might be a time when it's over and you sit back and reflect on what your team accomplished in that period, but right now the only thing I'm thinking about is 9-7."

And so those legs keep churning even if no one can see them beneath the water.

Pick five

The Steelers have had hits and misses in the NFL draft since Kevin Colbert took over as director of football operations in February of 2000. Here are five notable picks made during the Colbert era and five dubious ones.

Best picks

Troy Polamalu, S, Southern Cal: Steelers traded up to take Polamalu in first round of 2003 draft, and they landed a transcendent player.

Brett Keisel, DE, Brigham Young: The 242nd pick of 2002 draft, Keisel is an underrated player who has been a starter since 2006.

Casey Hampton, NT, Texas: Steelers were able to trade down in first round of 2001 draft and still get a vital player in the middle of their defense.

Willie Colon, OT, Hofstra: A fourth-round pick in 2006, Colon has started 54 consecutive games and may be the Steelers' best offensive lineman.

Ike Taylor, CB, Louisiana-Lafayette: The Steelers took this small-school project in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, and he has developed into a solid cornerback.

Worst picks

Alonzo Jackson, DE, Florida State: Second-round pick in 2003 couldn't make the transition to outside linebacker and lasted just two seasons with the Steelers.

Bruce Davis, DE, UCLA: Third-round pick in 2008, Davis played just one season for the Steelers and didn't record a tackle.

Ricardo Colclough, CB, Tusculum: Didn't start a game or make an interception in four seasons with the Steelers, who traded up to take him in the second round in 2004.

Willie Reid, WR/RS, Florida State: Never showed the explosiveness he did as a return man in college, and Steelers released the 2006 third-round pick after two seasons.

Anthony Smith, S, Syracuse: Looked like a future star after a strong rookie campaign in 2006, but Steelers didn't try to re-sign former third-round pick after 2008 season.