PITTSBURGH — First round. First class.
Successful drafts are a major reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers are going for their seventh Super Bowl title. They play the Green Bay Packers next Sunday in Dallas.
Ziggy Hood, LE (96), 6-3, 300, 2nd season, Missouri
- Replaced key end Aaron Smith (91), who tore triceps, as starter in seventh game and showed his value
- Has three sacks during season, but job is to occupy blockers in passing game, freeing linebackers to make plays
- Pretty solid against the run
- Last pick of first round in 2009, 32nd overall
- Played mostly on special teams as rookie, has much bigger role now.
This is a team that has been built mostly through the draft, and its top picks always seem to work out. Eight of Pittsburgh's last 10 first-round choices are still on the team and each is a starter. One of the two players no longer with the Steelers is wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who was MVP of the team's 2009 Super Bowl victory against Arizona.
In order, the eight first-round picks are: Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Lawrence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood and Maurkice Pouncey.
Kevin Colbert is the team's director of football operations. He's the man responsible for the last 11 drafts, and he has quite an impressive track record. Colbert prefers to keep a low profile, so others have to sing his praises.
"You have to give credit to the people upstairs," said nose tackle Chris Hoke, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2001. "They do a great job evaluating. If there's a questionable character about anybody, they're not going to take him. They go after quality guys, guys with good character, guys they know are going to work hard. They do their due diligence and you have to credit that to their success."
Colbert chose Hampton with the 19th overall pick in his second draft in 2001. Two years later, he made arguably the best move by any football executive in this century.
Colbert traded up from the 27th pick to No. 16 to select Polamalu, who only became one of the all-time great strong safeties. Polamalu is a six-time Pro Bowl pick, three-time All-Pro and a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors this season.
A year later, Roethlisberger was selected with the 11th overall pick. Two quarterbacks — Eli Manning and Philip Rivers — went ahead of Big Ben. He already has twice as many championship rings and is one win away from becoming the fifth quarterback with three on his hand.
In 2008, Colbert took Mendenhall at No. 28, even though Willie Parker was coming off a 1,300-yard season. Mendenhall was the fourth running back chosen behind Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart and Felix Jones. Only Stewart has more yards rushing, but he has played 10 more games. Mendenhall missed 12 games his rookie year because of a shoulder injury.
Plucking Pro Bowl-caliber players in the draft is a tough science. First-round picks that turn out to be busts cost a team big money, and making those mistakes can ruin careers among front-office staffers.
The Steelers rarely get to pick among the blue-chip, can't-miss prospects in the top 5 or even the top 10. Roethlisberger and linebacker Lawrence Timmons — the 15th pick in the 2007 draft — are the only players chosen by Colbert in the top 15.
That can be an advantage, though.
"At the top of the draft, you have to keep people around because they are making too much money so that's the negative side," third-string quarterback Charlie Batch said. "Regardless of how a guy pans out, you can't get rid of him in three years. It's not something you have to worry about with this team, developing guys because you have so much money invested in them.
"Here, because you are drafting in the mid to lower round, you have a chance to study guys because you're not looking for a guy to make an immediate impact and be that special player as if you would with a guy you take in the top 5 or top 10."
The Steelers aren't usually in a position where they need to draft a player that has to start right away, so they can take time and have patience with their rookies.
Most important for a family-owned organization that prides itself on having an exemplary image is drafting players with strong character. The Rooneys struggled with the decision to keep Roethlisberger after he was suspended for four games to start this season for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
"They evaluate the players off the field as well and they choose good people and when they make a decision, it's weighted out and measured with all the goods and bads and if they see something in a player to make them take him in the first round, that means they like what they see," said Hood, the defensive end selected No. 32 overall in 2009.
"If you have off-the-field issues that can interfere with what you are doing on the field, it's not going to be good. What's going to happen when you put money in a young man's pocket and how magnified would it be if they are put in a different situation and how would they react. You get good people off the field, you get good players on the field."
Holmes was made an example after he provoked the Steelers one too many times. Holmes caught the touchdown pass that secured Pittsburgh's sixth Super Bowl championship, but he was traded to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick last April after a series of off-field infractions embarrassed the organization.
"Character issues wipes you off the board," Batch said.
The Steelers don't just get right it in the first round. They draft well up and down the board. They have 37 players currently on their roster that were draftees, including three guys who left after a few seasons and returned through free agency. Of those, 35 were picked under Colbert's watch.
Defensive end Brett Keisel (seventh), guard Chris Kemoeatu (sixth) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (sixth) are among the late-round finds. James Harrison might be the ultimate catch. Harrison wasn't drafted and originally signed as a rookie free agent in 2002. He was cut three times before returning to the Steelers for good in 2004. Harrison is a three-time All-Pro and was 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.