PITTSBURGH (AP) - Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t help but laugh when asked if picking at No. 31 is the worst possible scenario for the NFL Draft.
After all, the 31st pick is the penultimate selection of every round _ but having the only one lower signifies your team is the Super Bowl champion.
Still, Tomlin pointed out at least one draft position he finds even worse.
“No. 1 is,” he said, “as far as I’m concerned.”
Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert discussed the Steelers’ draft plans during a news conference Monday, revealing that the team whittled its initial list of roughly 1,000 prospects down to about 160.
The reigning AFC champions say they are approaching the uncertainty created surrounding the lockout by assuming that the roster contains only players who are under contract.
“We’re going to pick based on our team as it currently stands,” Colbert said. “I don’t know how it currently stands because there’s different possibilities that exist. But when the lockout began this is our team as we know it, and we’re going to draft accordingly.”
If that’s the case, the Steelers will be looking for cornerbacks, as their top player at the position, Ike Taylor, is a free agent, as is No. 3 corner, William Gay.
The position already was considered a weakness on an otherwise strong defense, and the other cornerback who played the most last season, Bryant McFadden, is coming off an inconsistent year punctuated by a poor performance in the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay.
Colbert characterized this year’s draft class as “OK” in terms of its depth of cornerbacks. He also said the team wouldn’t box itself in to drafting based on position alone.
“We always balance the talent vs. the need, and if two or more players are close, we always take the player of need if it’s close,” Colbert said. “But what we won’t do is reach for a specific position. That’s where the biggest mistakes have been made and I think will continue to be made.”
Colbert and Tomlin said they interviewed about 90 players one-on-one, and had the maximum 30 brought in for post-combine visits _ not counting seven from the University of Pittsburgh, which shares a practice facility with the Steelers.
The organization narrowed its draft pool list to 200, then eliminated about 40 from there based on character, injury or lack of fit into the team’s scheme.
“When we really break it down, we probably see about 20 special players that are going to be, we think, unusual players in the league,” Colbert said. “But I think we can get a make-it type player _ a player that can make our roster and help contribute _ through the sixth round.
“That’s if these numbers come off clean, which they never do. So, realistically, we’re going to be looking at guys who can help us throughout all seven rounds, and hopefully we pick the right ones.”
Pittsburgh has had undrafted free agents such as James Harrison and Willie Parker develop into Pro Bowl players in recent years, but this year, the lack of a collective bargaining agreement won’t allow for any players to be signed upon completion of the draft.
That’s just one of the restrictions placed on teams during this unique offseason of no free agency. There’s also no contact with players, no OTAs, and no minicamps. All could factor into a team’s draft plans.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and questions we can’t answer as we sit here today,” Tomlin said. “How the labor agreement plays out is going to be a big component of it.”
One thing teams still are permitted to do is trade draft picks, be it from this year’s draft or future ones.
Colbert said the lack of undrafted free agents could make accumulating late picks more attractive than usual, making trading down an option. But, so is trading up to get one of those 20 “special players” on the Steelers’ draft board.
“We always tell teams we can go either way. And we will,” Colbert said. “Depending on who’s still available in the top of that first round, we might want to go up and get him. If we’re not happy (with what’s available) … we’re going to pick somebody at 31 if we have to, but we’ll look at if there’s offers for our picks. And we’ll certainly look at that and entertain the possibility of going down.”
No matter what they do, the Steelers seem have a knack for pressing the right draft buttons. In the past decade alone, the Steelers have traded up in the first round to select safety Troy Polamalu and receiver Santonio Holmes. They also traded down a decade ago to draft defensive lineman Casey Hampton. All became starters on at least one Super Bowl-winning team.
“The philosophy that this organization follows was developed long before myself or my scouts got in,” said Colbert, who was hired in 2000. “(Former scouting director) Art Rooney, Jr., set a standard. And he and coach (Chuck) Noll put together a philosophy that the organization believes in, and we just fall in line with that.”
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