NFL Draft: Steelers have eye on both 2018 and beyond

With the 28th pick in this year’s draft, Kevin Colbert isn’t ruling out moving up or down, or finding a replacement for Ben Roethlisberger.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. - DKPS

The Steelers seem to be more businesslike with the upcoming NFL draft than usual. They are so much so, in fact, they didn’t want to waste their time putting up smokescreens by bringing in pre-draft visitors just for the sake of appearances.

The NFL allows each team to bring in 30 players for pre-draft visits, something every team typically does. And the Steelers have always done so, as well. Until this year.

Pittsburgh used just 23 of its 30 pre-draft visits and Kevin Colbert said Monday that was by design.

“That’s true, but we went into this spring with the focus of, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t bring people in just to hit 30,'” Colbert said. “We wanted to make sure we were diligent about it because when you do those, it’s usually during your meetings and it takes away from your meetings. We wanted to make sure the ones that we did were actually important.”

That statement in itself could be something of a smokescreen since the Steelers realistically only brought in two players — linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and safety Justin Reid — who would be considered possible first-round picks in the draft, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday.

But, as Colbert noted, the Steelers did plenty of private meetings prior to a number of pro days (20), at the Senior Bowl (60) and the NFL Scouting Combine (60), so that they feel they’ve covered their bases in what he called a draft that is deep in talent if somewhat lacking in overall star quality.

“We’ve probably got about 90 guys, that in all honesty, that at some time should probably become starters for us,” Colbert said. “They can be selected at various levels throughout this draft. Some will be first-rounders, some will be seventh-rounders. But it’s a deep, cumulative group because with the back-end and practice squad guys, there’s probably another 90. There’s probably 180 guys and we usually pick from about 125 of those guys, so I’m excited. I know there are seven players available who can help this team be a better team in 2018.”

And yes, that group still includes some quarterbacks. Colbert said the Steelers have not eliminated any position from first-round consideration — the Steelers have the 28th pick in the draft — and that includes a potential replacement for Ben Roethlisberger. That would also include running back, where the team has Le’Veon Bell locked up at the franchise tag cost of $14.5 million in 2018. Colbert said the Steelers will resume negotiations with Bell on a long-term contract after the draft.

Neither a quarterback or running back would likely play a lot for the Steelers in 2018, even if selected in the first round. Despite that, if the value presents itself, the Steelers will take long-term value into consideration.

“Twenty-eighteen is what we’re focused on,” Colbert admitted. “But we’re never going to lose sight of 2019 and beyond. When you do that, you will end up in a rut that you may not get out of. Fortunately, we’ve only been in one of those ruts and we had that losing season. Fortunately, we got a franchise quarterback out of that. We want to be able to compete for a championship every year. 2018 is most important, but we’re never going t0 lose sight of 2019 and beyond in trying to be champions next year.”

As Colbert noted, that one losing season the team has had since he’s been general manager came in 2003, when the Steelers stumbled to a 6-10 record. But, with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, the Steelers found Roethlisberger available and scooped him up.

“Ben is a Hall of Fame quarterback. We’re very lucky to have him,” Colbert said. “He has stated his intention to play for a few more years and that’s awesome. But our job is not only to win a championship in ’18, it’s to secure this franchise’s ability to do it in the future. You have to have a great player at the quarterback position — in our eyes — to have a chance to win a championship. Fortunately, we still have one that’s still a highly productive, highly effective quarterback. Our job is to surround him with the best talent, as well. We have to weigh that in throughout. But we haven’t eliminated any position in this draft whatsoever.”

This year’s draft has five or even six quarterbacks who have potential to be selected in the first round. And that could cause a lot of movement by teams who pick ahead of the Steelers, as they try to get in position to select a quarterback.

And the Steelers also could move up or down, depending on what is available and what is offered. Colbert has shown he’s not afraid to make such moves. He moved down a few spots in 2001 and selected nose tackle Casey Hampton. In 2003 and 2006, he moved up to get safety Troy Polamalu and receiver Santonio Holmes, respectively.

But, with the team not having a pick in the fourth and sixth rounds — the Steelers have two fifths and two sevenths — Colbert might not have the ammunition to make a drastic move up, as he did to acquire Polamalu, when he moved up 12 spots.

And the team hasn’t traded completely out of the first round since the late 1960s.

“We’ve traded up in the past. We’ve traded down. We’re open to both,” Colbert said. “We’ll have 28 guys. We’ll know how we’ll pick them. We’ll know at what point we want to go up. We’ll know at what point we’ll want to go down because we can still get player No. 28 at the 32nd pick. You always weigh and measure throughout the process.”