The Art of Picking Late
No pick in the top 10? No problem. Roster architects from two of the NFL’s most consistently successful franchises—Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert and Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta—share insights into their draft-day strategies for picking late in Round 1
By Robert Klemko
Only two NFL teams have gone more than a decade without selecting in the NFL draft’s top 10: The Steelers (since 2000) and the Ravens (since 2003). And among the handful of teams that consistently draft at the back end of the first round, few do it better than the AFC North rivals. So how do they get it done?
At first glance, both Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and Steelers GM Kevin Colbert appear to be speaking the same language. Newsome likes to riff about hitting doubles rather than swinging for the fences. Said Colbert in a March interview with Forbes: “You can’t go in saying I can be 1-for-3 and be successful. I’m talking a bit in baseball terms. But you want to go 3-for-3 that day.”
Yet a closer examination, and conversations with key players in each front office, shows two disparate first-round philosophies. It all centers around one question: Move up or stay put?
The Steelers rarely trade up. Colbert last moved up in the first when he dealt third- and fourth-rounders to jump from 32nd overall to 25th in the 2006 draft. He was targeting Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes (who went on to be named MVP of Super Bowl XLIII). Before that, Colbert moved up 11 spots (27th to 16th) in ’03, giving up a third and a sixth to choose USC safety Troy Polamalu.
“He was a rare player,” Colbert says. “You wish they were available to you every year, but that’s never the case. We made an uncharacteristic move to get him because we felt like that was the case.
“You have to fight that temptation in every round. You have to stay true to your evaluations. We try to eliminate the word need and use the word want.”
Newsome and his second-in-command, Eric DeCosta, aren’t afraid to use the word need. They’ve moved (up or down) in the first round in five of the last nine drafts. They traded up for Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in 2006, and two years later traded down then back up to land Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, their franchise QB and the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII. They also moved up to get Ole Miss tackle Michael Oher in ’09. In each case, a player at a cornerstone position of need was selected.
“As we start to get close to our pick, do we have three or four players we really like? Are they comparable in talent?” Ozzie Newsome said in a Wednesday press conference. “If that’s the case, there’s no reason to move up and give up a later pick. There are other times where we need a tackle, or we need a quarterback.”
In fairness, the Steelers more or less stumbled onto their franchise quarterback. After a rare losing season in 2003 they held the 11th pick. Owner Dan Rooney, in his words, “steered the conversation” away from Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews and towards Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. None of which changes the fact that Colbert sees a trade-worthy prospect every three or four years. The Ravens, on the other hand, project more than one trade-up contingency in every first round, says DeCosta.
DeCosta’s explanation of Baltimore’s frenzied-but-controlled war room: “We try to ascertain league value. How do people see the players? It’s hard to be a really good drafter if you don’t have a sense for how other people see prospects.
“Then about three days before the draft we come out with a detailed script of how we expect guys to come off the board and who are the guys we may want to trade up for. There are guys you will have so highly rated every year that when it comes close to your pick, you start to make calls. You build it so you have a switch where you would consider going up and you have the price you would pay there. It’s a gut thing.”
Hanging out at 17 last year, Newsome and DeCosta were happy to take any of a handful of players on the board. They settled on stud linebacker C.J. Mosley out of Alabama. In three weeks they’ll pick 26th, with needs at pass rusher and wide receiver in a draft with an abundance of both. I see them valuing a number of players at each position and feeling comfortable enough to trade back.
The Steelers pick 22nd with a hole at cornerback; Mike Tomlin has showed up at every pro day that has had a big-time corner on the docket. Just don’t expect Colbert to yield to need: “Oftentimes when you draft for need you overevaluate a given position and make a mistake,” he says. “We’ve been true to our board, since I’ve been involved in it anyway.”
Nothing is for certain on draft day, but if history is any indication, you can bank on the Ravens moving around, the Steelers sitting pat, and both teams drafting very, very well.