'The Steelers Project' Part 1: The Steeler Way

By Lance Zierlein
April 1, 2012

Photo: Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

This is Part 1 of Lance Zierlein's "The Steelers Project". Read Part 2 here »

I wrote the article below last year, but I wanted to make it available once again now that our website has a larger following. While the information on how the Steelers approach the draft will speak for itself, I decided to go a step further with this piece in 2012. I decided to create "The Steelers Project".

I took my own knowledge of the Steelers, studied Pittsburgh Steelers' General Manager Kevin Colbert's previous drafts/rosters and reached out to a few NFL insiders to get a feel for what it is that Pittsburgh looks for from prospects at each position.  Some position-specific traits are fairly clear while others are more vague.

Photo by mattockadam
Kevin Colbert, General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers

I used some of my own evaluations for draft prospects as well as the evaluations of a couple of NFL coaches and scouts. Then I used my "Steelers filter" to find the players whom I believe to be the best fit for what the Steelers look for from prospects on both sides of the ball.

Of course, their evaluations and my evaluations are sure to be much different from player to player, but I tried to do the best I could to remain open-minded about how they might rate a player as opposed to my own predisposition towards a prospect.

I scratched players off the board who I felt didn't fit their scheme or who had character issues that might preclude the Steelers from looking at them. I took all of this information and stacked a draft board for the Steelers would be my best guess for what their board might look like. I've isolated team needs for the Steelers (as well as the entire AFC
), and I used those needs to help me create my draft board.

While most teams do look at "best player available", every team prefers to look for "best player available at a position of need". The biggest difference from team to team is that some teams hold certain positions as higher draft priorities from year to year than others.

The Steeler Way

There are few teams in football more respected on draft day than the Pittsburgh Steelers. What makes the Steelers so revered is not just the fact that they have a track record of finding good football players, but they’ve also created a mindset of “Steeler football” and they stay true to that mindset/philosophy.

What makes the Steelers so revered is they've created a mindset of "Steeler Football" and they stay true to it.

My dad coached the offensive line for the Steelers from 2007-2009 and despite what most people think, I rarely got inside information from him while he was there. In fact, he was always so jammed up with work that our discussions usually centered on offensive line play during the season and how his grandchildren were doing. During the draft process, I would ask questions about some offensive line prospects from time to time, but that was the extent of it.

Recently, over Tex-Mex, he began telling me about how the Steelers go about the draft process and I found it to be fascinating. In Pittsburgh, Kevin Colbert runs the draft but has Mike Tomlin helping to make decisions. There is a balance between the scouting department and position coaches.

The Steelers pecking order isn’t what fascinated me, but rather, the manner in which they put together their draft board is what caught my attention.

Stacking The Board

After all the player readings are finished and the evaluations are complete, the Steelers will stack their draft board. While other teams try and predict what teams ahead of them will do, the Steelers decided that was a waste of time. I will keep the nuts and bolts about how the Steelers draft process works to me, but I love their overall approach. The Steelers only care about what they can control: their own draft board.

The Steelers create their draft board based on a mock draft where only the Steelers pick. They make picks 1 through 32 in the first round based on their philosophies on both sides of the ball. While every team stacks their draft board based on draft grades with players in all positions, the Steelers are able to put together a true “big board” based on their judgments of talent, fit to the system, need and character.

The Steelers do care about off-the-field character and the Rooneys will either drop players down the list or remove players entirely based on character issues.

To begin with, the Steelers will meet and list who they think are the top players in the draft, regardless of position, need or fit with Steelers. On the next day, Steelers' oweners the Rooneys join the group and they start going through the list again, adjusting for fit, character issues and team needs.

The Steelers do care about off-the-field character and the Rooneys will either drop players down the list or remove players entirely based on character issues. Mike Tomlin will work with Kevin Colbert in terms of stacking the board, but it is my understanding that Colbert runs the show.

Have you ever been at the horse races and you are in line to make your wagers but you aren’t quite sure what your game plan is going to be? You end up making way too many bets and you come away with tickets that you didn’t really want. The same thing has probably happened to you in fantasy football drafts.

But with their method, the Steelers are able to operate within the first two rounds with a checklist that they rarely have to deviate from. Sure, they may go off script based on how the draft is unfolding, but they know who they are and what they want to do when they are on the clock.

Mock drafts? You can keep them. The Steelers only care about the Steelers.

Continue on to read Part 2 »

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