There's Interest, And Then There's INTEREST

Sorting through the prospects who are talking to the Steelers, and finding one who genuinely interests them.

INDIANAPOLIS – Before moving ahead here at the combine, I feel the need to explain the reporter's perception of "team interest."

To describe the setting, the media room here sits just off the entrance of the new dome, but it's far enough off the path used by anyone who has anything to do with the draft that you realize it was designed that way on purpose.

Sure, we can look up at the muted TVs and watch the prospects work out, but our primary job here is to talk with the players and NFL dignitaries the league leads to us. Announcements are then made that "Zach Hurd is now at Table 3" or "Derek Sherrod is at Podium B."

We in the business of draft analysis can watch that player later on tape and we can read about his stats and college exploits elsewhere. What we really want to know is whether the team we cover has shown any interest in the prospect.

It's preferable to ask the prospects privately, and particularly away from the assigned transcriber who'll send your questions and his answers to every other pro football writer in the country.

So, you hit the table early to ask Hurd whether he's one of the lucky 60 who have talked, or will talk, to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Yes, I did meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers," said Hurd, a massive guard from Connecticut.

Or you can walk over late and grab Sherrod as he's walking away from the microphone at the end of his media session and ask:

Have you met with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

"The Steelers?" Sherrod said. "I'm not sure. Um, wait, I think … no. Nope. No, I don't think I met with them."

With so much happening to these prospects at the combine, foggy memories are commonplace and understandable.

"It was a blur last night with all of those teams," said Rodney Hudson. "But, yeah, I think the Steelers took down my information."

And, voila! We're viral with the scoop that the Steelers are interested in Rodney Hudson.

But, of course, you'd prefer more truth in your reporting, so we try to read the athlete a bit, even pump him for some extra information.

Did you sit down with Mike Tomlin?

"I'm not going to get into the details of my meetings," said Andrew Jackson, a man as imposing and intimidating as the history books made his namesake out to be.

With Jackson's lean, mean 6-5 frame, he had the look of a younger and more buff Aaron Smith. And Jackson answered clearly with a deep, booming voice that, "Yes, I met with the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Well, Mr. Jackson, what makes you a fit with the Steelers?

"Toughness," he said as he leaned in and looked me in the eye. "They hang their hat on toughness and I come from a program that's exactly the same. Fresno State, Pat Hill, it's all about toughness."

As George Steinbrenner once said after meeting George Costanza, "Hire that man!"

So, yes, there are voices that indicate pride, and there are facial expressions that give the information away, too. Or at least they give away what the prospect hopes will soon become information.

Greg Little struck me that way. I stopped him in the aisle to ask whether he'd met with the Steelers.

"No, I haven't. Not yet anyway," Little said so quickly that it seemed to be on his mind.

"But I've met their coach," he added. "I like him a lot."

You met with Tomlin?

"No, Scottie Montgomery," Little said with a nod and a smile. "He recruited me to Duke. We get along real well."

There are also the guys you don't have to read. They give it away the way Lance Kendricks did.

I was in the middle of some other such work when Kendricks's name was announced. I was late to his table and the crowd around him was thick, deserving of a player of Kendricks' stature.

He was one of the most explosive pass-catching tight ends in the country last season and the reason for my interest was twofold: A.) The Steelers may need a tight end with the pending free agency of Matt Spaeth, and B.) Kendricks had to also block as a tight end at Wisconsin. I'm told it's ingrained in the cheese eaten by the children there.

But I had to find out for sure.

"Oh, yeah, blocking's essential to our offense," said Kendricks, who came to Wisconsin as a skinny wide receiver, but who now is a still-growing 243-pounder.

"Before you touch the field you have to know how to block," he said. "They make that known right away, right when you hit the locker room on Day 1. It's essential for us to know how to block there."

And you've done all of that fullback/H-back/move-TE stuff?

"I've done a ton of that," Kendricks said. "Learning how to read the A, B, C gaps is essential at Wisconsin."

Feeling a kinship, and not having much of a care about the rest of the NFL writers at this point, I took our conversation into the realm of how this affects me.

Did you meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

"Yes I did," Kendricks said with as much enthusiasm as he had when asked earlier how, as a Milwaukee kid, he enjoyed the last Super Bowl.

"I met with Mike Tomlin, everyone," Kendricks told me. "We had a real nice sitdown."

So, you might be rooting for that other team in the next Super Bowl?

"Yeah," he said with a smile. "You could be right."

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