Cowher and Colbert talk draft strategy

<b>BILL COWHER:</b> First of all, I'll just kind of give you a state of where we are. We started our off-season program last week. We had 48 guys in here the first day. I think it's one of the largest first-day attendances we've had in recent years. Everyone is pretty much accounted for. Our first coaching sessions are May 19 and we anticipate everybody to be here for that.

The status, health-wise of some of the people: Jerome (Bettis) is doing well. He's currently in Los Angeles working with Bob Kersee. He should be here by the end of the month and we anticipate him participating in the coaching sessions. Mark Bruener's doing well. He's had no setbacks and we anticipate him to participate in some of the coaching sessions as well. Clark Haggans is having ankle surgery today. It's more a cleaning-out process. Given his restricted free-agent status and that some of the teams were looking at him, he waited until now to have this done, which we were very much aware of. He may not be able to participate in the June mini-camp or the coaching sessions but we anticipate it being a clean operation and he should be ready to go at training camp. And then Mike Logan has also had no setbacks and he should be ready to go for training camp. (There's an) outside chance he can do some things in the June mini-camp. We're certainly not going to rush him but he's also ahead of progress.

As it relates to the draft, I'll let Kevin (Colbert) go over most of that. But as you're aware, there are some areas we wanted to address, given the players we lost through free agency and what we perceived to be areas we wanted to address after the season. We've done that somewhat in some of the areas during free agency. We will do that again this weekend with the draft, recognizing that following the draft there will be some options available to us up through training camp. It's an ongoing process. The bottom line is we feel good about the football team going into next year with the players we have on it as we speak. And certainly there are some things we've looked into in the off-season that we want to improve upon, but we certainly like the nucleus, the foundation, of the roster we have.

KEVIN COLBERT: (Reviews free agent losses) Also, our restricted free agents, Clark Haggans and Kendrick Clancy have physically signed their tenders. Dan Kreider and Hank Poteat have agreed. They just haven't come up and physically signed but we anticipate no problems there. We were happy to add three other players from other teams. First Todd Fordham, an offensive tackle from Jacksonville. Todd gives us a real good versatile swing guy who's started on both the left side and the right side. He's a good, solid veteran that we were happy to get. Jay Riemersma, a tight end from Buffalo. When he became available he was real intriguing to us. We thought he could add strength to that position; he has some special qualities; he was affordable and we thought it was the right move to make at that time. Then we added Clint Kriewaldt, a linebacker from Detroit. Clint, in their 4-3 scheme, he played outside on the tight ends sometimes and sometimes behind the line of scrimmage. He's an excellent special teams player and we feel Clint can give us depth at both positions, inside and outside, and as we get him and work with him and figure out where he'll play.

 In regards to the cap, we think we're in pretty good shape right now under the cap and we don't have to make any moves at this point in regards to it. 

Just kind of previewing the draft a little bit, right now we're finalizing all of the preparations. We're 95 percent done at this point. Our scouts have worked hard on this since last August. Our coaches have been involved with it since the end of our season. We're just about there.

As always, we're very optimistic about this draft class. I think it'll produce some players for us, people who will push for starting positions in time. We'll also get four or five guys who will provide excellent depth for us.

 If you look at it offensively, it's solid in the wide receiver area. I think it's a strong class at tight end. Defensively, it's a strong group on the defensive line and I think the secondary, both safety and corner, it's a real good group this year as well. 

If you look for a weakness in this draft, and it's a little bit alarming to us, but the offensive line is not as deep as it has been. It might be a trend going on. I don't know but it's a bit alarming. And then the linebackers, more specifically the inside linebackers, are not as good of a group as it has been in the past. 

We're going to be wide open at 27. Our approach will be similar to last year. We'll try to exercise patience. We hope that when it comes time for our pick, we'll have three to five players to look at every time. That's the ideal we all strive for. We want to have some options. We don't want to stick ourselves with having to do anything. Hopefully we'll make the right choice.

Reporter: Best athlete available or based on need?
 KC: Both. Free agency has changed that. You can never say best athlete available. In free agency, your need does factor into it. We have a formula; we'll follow it. We're never going to reach for a need. That's when you create the most trouble. If you have three to five players at each position, that will prevent you from reaching. We'll try to avoid that. 

R: Could you guys talk about your left tackle position?
 BC: We have some options. Certainly moving Marvel (Smith) over there is one of them. The best thing we can do right now is see where we are after the draft. I don't think you want to lock yourself into making those decisions right now when you don't have to, but certainly, moving him to left, where he played in college, where I think it's a very natural move for him – I know we talked with him about it and he's excited about it – but we wanted to get through the draft, the orientation weekend, and maybe we'll have a better sense. Come May 19, when we start coaching sessions, we'll certainly be able to direct him which side to head when he leaves the huddle. 

R: Do you know the general strengths and weaknesses of the draft coming into free agency? Is that part of the reason you signed Fordham?
 KC: Our scouts have been at this since August and you kind of have a barometer of what's going on. Of course, a couple underclassmen will declare and you have to kind of look at those guys and throw it into the mix. You have an idea going forward, and when a guy like Todd becomes available after Wayne decides to go to New Orleans, it's almost like getting a draft pick. … When the numbers are down, and you can kind of see that as the fall and the winter is unfolding, then you'd better strike while you have a player available and that did factor into some of our thinking with Todd, yes. 

R: Since you put a high premium on how important the game is to the draft crop, how important are the interviews in this process?
 KC: When we're out in the fall, we're talking to coaches; we're watching kids practice; we're watching them play games; you can see some of that. We follow it up with some psychological testing that we've done. And then we have the individual interviews. We put them on the spot for a 15-minute shot and it's amazing what you can gather from it. I'll let coach expound on it, but that interview process has become very important.
BC: It is important. When you watch a guy play a lot of times, how they express themselves as players and you know how much they enjoy playing the game. How's the guy playing when they're getting beat by 35 or 40 points? How's the guy handle adversity? Those are things you can measure when you talk to them. And there are some things you feel that if you bring him in and put him around some of the guys that we have, that maybe that would be a positive influence on them. It factors into it but I don't know if it makes the decision. You still have to look at them as football players and take into consideration some factors, circumstances where you can make them a better player. Certainly you want to get guys, all things being equal, who love to play the game for all the right reasons. 

R: What is your policy on injured players?
 KC: We'll look at the degree of the injury. We really trust our doctors and their findings on each of these individual medicals. We don't have a steadfast blanket policy. … It varies from player to player. 

R: What's the policy on a guy like Willis McGahee?
 KC: We're not going into individual players, but obviously Willis McGahee had a devastating injury that he suffered in the bowl game. He has been seen by not only our doctors but doctors throughout the league. I'm sure there are varying opinions on him but we're comfortable with what our doctors told us about him. 

R: Is he on your board?
 KC: We won't comment on that. 

R: What about your strong safety position? Is Sammy Knight a real possibility? Is Chris Hope a strong safety or free safety?
Certainly Chris will be there. Mike may not be able to participate, certainly in the June mini-camp, so Chris will work at the strong safety position. It's a big year for him and so he's been great. He's been here way before it started last week and he's done very well, I think Sammy Knight is still an option. There's no question about that. We've had some initial talks with him. We'll continue to talk. But we'll see what unfolds. Like I said, we've got Mike Logan, who I think has been a very productive player when he's been able to stay healthy, Brent (Alexander) and Chris, and we'll address it with the draft or the other options that we have in the upcoming subsequent weeks. 

R: Didn't Chris play both safety positions last year?
 BC: Oh yeah he did. He's played free; we worked him at strong. He's played them both and is comfortable at both. 

R: Are you comfortable with him at both?
BC: Well, I mean he hasn't played a lot. Certainly there's an inexperience that exists there. I think he's flashed. He did flash at times, and played a little bit in our nickel and dime packages. I think the second year in this system, he'll feel a lot more comfortable with calls, with his understanding of his responsibilities, and so hopefully that will help in him become a more consistent football player. He did flash but he was not a consistent football player a year ago. We discussed that, him and I. And so I just think the second year through, if he can become a consistent football player he can really help this football team.  

R: Do you expect to get offers from teams wanting you to trade down?
 KC: We'll start our discussions this week. We'll contact every team like we do every year. Who's interested in going up? Who's interested in going down? Are there any players you're trying to shop? It's general and we'll touch base with every team. We haven't talked to any team yet, but we'll be open to do either as we always are. 

R: In your opinion, how many players in this draft should be first-rounders?
 KC: I don't know. When we get down to 27, we hope to have three to five guys to pick from. That's the ideal. We feel optimistic we're going to get three guys that are going to help us and the rest of them are going to give us good depth and good competition. 

R: Is it difficult to evaluate small-school guys?
 KC: It usually is. If you liken it to a baseball situation, they're in double-A and you're trying to project whether they can play in the majors and there's a step in between. Sometimes we get these kids in the all-star games and you at least get one little view of him competing against the better players, but obviously the productive players at the major colleges, you're seeing them at the highest level. You can anticipate who has a better chance. With kids that dominate the lower levels, we're not sure. 

R: OK, so you get your three players at your spot. One of them fits a need. Another is a guy at a position that is difficult to fill. Which way do you lean?
 KC: We'd probably fill the need, but again that's why you want to have those options. It has worked that way and need does factor in. As long as they're all within the reach, you'd probably favor the need.

R: A lot of teams have had a lot of success in the past few seasons finding a quarterback as opposed to drafting them high and developing them. Is that less important now than it was before?
 KC: I don't think it's any less important. If we like a player and we're comfortable taking one, we'll do it.

R: Are they easier to find, though?
 KC: No. The quarterback, there's change going on in the college ranks at that position, too. What you have to do is be realistic about it. This is the group you have to pick from, so you can't whine about the depth. This is it. Same thing with the offensive line. You can say it's not strong, but those are the guys you get to pick from. So you've got to make due with it. The quarterback, we're not going to not take one in the hopes that we're going to find a gem in a later round. As I've said before, if you get a fifth or sixth round guy who can play, then you probably screwed up because he should have been taken higher if he was that good. We've all seen situations like that. You go back to the year that Tom Brady and Marc Bulger came out. Those two have proven to be good NFL quarterbacks. The teams that took them took them late, too. They just happened to be better than everybody thought. I wouldn't pass up a good player in the hopes that you're going to find a gem in later rounds, because if you do, you're lucky.

R: Bill, your thoughts about teams being able to find guys and plug them in at that position?
 BC: I think it's so subjective. You've got to look at your football team. Look at Tampa Bay. Brad Johnson wasn't really the franchise guy; he's been around with a couple of teams. But still, if you don't have that guy and there's one out there, you don't want to pass up the opportunity to get a good quarterback. There's nothing that deflates your team quicker than not having someone to run your team. I think that's the one thing you want to make sure that you have. You'd like to have stability, but as long as you continue to have options and talent, you'd like to think that the most stabile and consistent person will rise to the top. But if you don't have options there, there's nothing more demoralizing to a team. I don't know if it's changed. You better not diminish the importance of that position.

R: It just seems like there's less of a premium on it now.
 BC: I don't think that there is. I think some guys are doing it at an older age and maybe the age factor or the productivity of older quarterbacks is higher than younger quarterbacks. But you still better have one. If you don't have a quarterback, there's nothing more demoralizing to a football team than not having solidified that position. Sometimes there's going to be some instability until somebody surfaces, but you want to have some options there.

R: Considering that, where does quarterback fall among your priorities in this draft?
 BC: We have not upgraded it, but we have not diminished the importance of it. If there's a good player, regardless of how you are as a football team, you've got to look at that player. The one thing about this system is that an area you are strong in today, a year from now may not be because of the situation with their contracts. There's always going to be guys leaving and coming. If you have an opportunity to get a good football player, you'd better grab him. Because your strength this year can be a weakness next year based on the contractual situation of your team.

There are some areas we want to address. We want to win a championship in 2003. But you still cannot diminish the fact if you can get a good football player and how he'll help you not just next year, but in two years. You want to keep all those options open.

What looks good today may not be in a couple of years. Kevin and the scouts do a good job putting this together and Kevin runs this in a way that he puts everyone in a position where we can compare a defensive lineman to a receiver. We compare them as football players, not to their position. We're comparing them across the board. We don't want to take a guy down here (gesturing at the middle of his body) when a player up here is available (gesturing above his head). What constitutes a stretch? Well that's subjective as well.

R: Is drafting a quarterback high a luxury for a team that's pretty well set?
 BC: Yeah, or unless you think it's a special guy. It comes down to how you have that guy rated. Kevin could be talking about a corner and he'll ask would you rather have him or this running back? That's why if that guy is that good, you can't pass on him. You know you have a guy for four years. A lot can happen in four years. You may be grooming him for another team, but then again, after four years, maybe he's groomed for you. Too many things can happen in that period.

R: Given what's happened during the off-season, can we assume that Mark Bruener's days here are numbered?
 BC: No. Certainly he and Jerome could be affected by what takes place here this weekend, but please don't ask me on Sunday afternoon to talk about Mark Bruener and Jerome Bettis. We need to sit down and look at it as an organization. Look at it as a staff. And look at it with the players and see what their role might be, where they would fit in with our football team. Certainly what happens this weekend will have an effect.

R: Have you guys done a mock yet?
 KC: We're going to do that at the end of the week. We sit down with the scouts and the coaches. Doug Whaley and Phil Kreidler, they get a feel for what other teams need and they match it up with how we like players and they'll come up with a bunch of different scenarios that we'll look at. It's like a practice. We'll go through it. What if this happens? What decision will we make at that time? Then we'll go through it again. Friday, we'll go through it with the Rooneys as well, but we haven't done that yet.

R: You talked about having three to five guys you like at every pick, how much discussion is there when it actually comes time to make the pick?
 KC: We'll go through those situations. What we don't want to have happen is if you're locked in on one guy and that guy goes, that's when panic can set in. You don't have your next guy to pick. You want to have your three to five so that you can calmly go to the next guy. We'll have that group and they'll be rated within that group as well.

R: When you were talking about strengths and weaknesses, you didn't mention running backs at all. A lot of people are saying there will only be one guy in the first round.
 KC: There are some positions where it's OK. Running back is one of them. Specifically, when I mentioned strengths and weaknesses, I mean strong and weak, not the middle group. The running backs aren't bad.

R: How odd would it be to only have one running back in the first round?
 KC: I can't recall without doing some research on it.

R: Verron Haynes, how's he?
 BC: He had a foot. He's doing fine. He's 100 percent.

R: Does having three to five guys kept you from trading down too far?
 KC: When you think about trading down, you have to put yourself in a can't-lose situation. When we traded down for Casey Hampton, we wanted to get Casey Hampton; there was no question about it. But we had other options in the event somebody would take Casey. We felt the gamble was worth it. Any time you're trading down, you don't do it unless you can get a player you want. There's no reason to trade away from a good player unless you're sure you can get another one.

R: Has the way teams are playing the game now forced you to change the way you look at safeties?
 BC: It has become more wide open. I don't know if last year was a trend or just the way teams chose to attack us. You have to look at who you're working with. Last year we went to three corners a lot to adjust for not getting caught in matchups with Lee. For many years we had Carnell and he was like having another corner out there. Mike Logan is that way too. He's played inside. I think it depends on who you have. Ideally, you want to be able to keep that same player in there. Mike is a lot closer to the kind of player Carnell was than Lee.

R: Some say the safeties out there now are better against the run than the pass. Would that keep you from drafting one early?
BC: You have to look at the individuals. Some of it may be speculation that you're going to make. Can they do it? You look at the safety position, we lost Lee and we haven't replaced him yet. But I feel good about the position. I feel good about Mike Logan. I feel good about Chris Hope. I feel good about Brent Alexander. That allows us to go into this with an open mind. There are some things we want to address, but I don't feel we have a need to get a guy early. They're not going to have to come in and play right away. Certainly, they'll have the opportunity and they could be playing a lot sooner, but that's going to be up to them.

R: There seems to be a perception that this is now Air Cowher. How has the philosophy changed here, if at all?
 BC: The philosophy hasn't changed. We finished ninth in rushing last season. We would have been a lot higher, but we lost the 400 or 500 yards Kordell would have run for. A lot of our running game was with him. That was one of his strengths. We're still going to run the football. People say that we've signed Jay Riemersma and that means we're going to be throwing more. I've always just liked the guy. I think he's a good football player. As I told Mark and Jerame, if you look at the last two playoffs, we haven't had our starting tight end. They've been hurt. I'm not going let that happen again. We're going to have a good tight end when we go into the postseason.

I just like the fact that you have a Plaxico Burress; you have a Hines Ward on the outside; and now we have Jay Riemersma down the middle of the field. And we are going to run the ball. If you line up safeties 10 to 12 yards deep, we've got to be able to run the football.

We're not going to deviate. We've been good running in the past, I think, because we haven't been very good throwing. Now we can do both very efficiently.

Steel City Insider Top Stories