Wexell: Best draft in Colbert era

From the notebook of a sportswriter who actually went on TV and called this Kevin Colbert's finest draft with the Steelers:

  • And who doesn't take back a single word, even after allowing the draft to sink in.

  • Understand that the post-draft rush is bound to affect a reporter who's listened to the home team rave about its prospects for two days. So you fight the temptation to call it a great draft because you know you've been propaganda-ized. But knowing this, "best draft" came out of my mouth, knowing full well Colbert two Rookies of the Year on his five-year resume.

  • In 2001, the Steelers drafted future Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton by trading down in the first round and ROY Kendrell Bell by trading up in the second round. Bell is as gone as the forfeited third-round pick that year. So is Mathias Nkwenti, a bad fourth-round pick. Chukky Okobi's still around, a good pick in the fifth. Sixth-rounder Rodney Bailey gave them a year and yielded a sixth-round pick, which was squandered in the 2004 draft.

  • In 2004, Ben Roethlisberger fell into the Steelers' lap. They didn't have to move at pick 11 and had QB earmarked anyway, but figured Phil Rivers would be the guy. So they didn't screw it up, and thereby deserve an A grade. In the second round they traded up for Ricardo Colclough. So far, so good. But this year's second-round CB better. The Steelers in 2004 also drafted Max Starks, a promising RT. Then, after Colbert's best first day, he had his worst second day.

  • The 2002 draft, in which the Steelers also picked 30th, was very good. Still here are four starters, plus a pass-downs RB, a No. 4 WR and a still-developing back-up DE. Good draft. Very good. It's what I expect out of this draft, but with a little more pop this time.

  • Bryant McFadden is the second-round CB. At the Senior Bowl, McFadden looked like a new-and-improved Dewayne Washington. Or let me put it this way: Had Washington come out this year, he'd be called a poor man's Bryant McFadden. Both are similar in that they're excellent tacklers. We remember Washington's two big whiffs against Tennessee in the 2002 playoffs, but otherwise he was a tremendous tackler. His ball skills were below average. He didn't have good hands. Neither, it seems, does McFadden. But McFadden is more athletic and even more physical than Washington, who also played at the 193 pounds McFadden weighs. McFadden is three-quarters of an inch taller and quicker and smoother. At the Senior Bowl, McFadden looked like he was born to play in the Steelers' 3-deep off coverage. McFadden closed quickly and confidently. There was no question his man was going down. It was almost as if the receiver feared him and started going down before he arrived.

  • Dick LeBeau, when asked why he considers McFadden so special in this age of the cover corner, said "It's also the age of the fired defensive coordinator if you can't get the other man down." McFadden is as sure a tackler as I've seen at CB, and is a very confident player. No yipping. He takes that shirt out and patrols his island like a cop on a good TV show. And in the ACC, not giving up a TD in two years is saying something. Big-time pick.

  • As for Heath Miller, I may be falling under the spell of propaganda, but I'm beginning to really like this pick. At worst, he's Jay Novacek. At best, I feel he could be Mark Bavaro, and if that happens, we're talking all-timer here. Bavaro for a couple of years was the best TE I'd ever seen. Miller could be that guy. I was so impressed with his bowl game against Fresno State. I thought he blocked like Mark Bruener. He sealed the edge several times and had an urgency about it. He looked like he wanted to do it. His blocking, of course, has been criticized, but I believe that criticism's unjustified. I do wonder about the level of competition in the one game I watched closely, but on the other hand Miller was struggling with an injury, particularly that day. So I have to stick with what I saw, and now that I've met him and listened to him talk about football, I'm convinced he has the potential to become as physical a weapon as Bavaro was.

  • The third-round pick is vexing most of the hardcore fans who wanted Elton Brown or Darryl Blackstock or Ray Willis. As much sense as they make - particularly with Essex's horrible combine numbers and the references to his "lazy" play - I can't go along with them. This just does not ruin the draft for me. First of all, I watched Elton Brown and Darryl Blackstock in that same Virginia-Fresno State bowl game. Brown had a sloppy body and played sloppily in general because - and this is only my perception - he thinks he's better than he is. His lack of respect for post-season workouts then convinced me of this. As for Blackstock, he could not be found in that game. I assumed he'd been injured or suspended, but later learned he played. Maybe that's why Fresno LT Logan Mankins was picked in the first round. He obliterated Blackstock. As for Ray Willis, he's a RT who'd better make it there because he won't play anywhere else. The Steelers needed a versatile player, and if Essex grows to the level of former 11th-round draft pick Justin Strzelczyk, the Steelers will be elated.

  • I assume Russ Grimm has a better eye than I when it comes to evaluating O-lineman, so I defer to him. He thought Essex was more polished and "pro-ready" than anyone else at that point in the draft. He loves Essex's hands and feet. So Essex should play early and could be a valuable swing man for the next decade.

  • The sixth-round pick is where we found our upside on the offensive line. Chris Kemoeatu is the 344-pound road grader I thought the Steelers would never draft. He had, you know, anger issues. Well, if Grimm's not afraid than I have no problem with Kemoeatu because he's been called "the most powerful interior player in the draft." This is the guy who could be blowing up Ray Lewis and the Ravens for years. Kemoeatu (key-moy-AH-too) is alleged to be a slow learner, but, hey, he's in the middle of the line, not out there on the island. How tough can it be? And as Grimm said about both his lazy rookie and his crazy rookie, Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca spread the good word to Max Starks last year. They'll do the same this year.

  • As for the fourth-round pick, I know very little about Fred Gibson, other than he played well in the Senior Bowl. Gibson is 6-4 and looks like Plaxico Burress. Dropping into the fourth round should spark this guy. And it's not like he's needed yet.

  • The fifth-round pick Rian Wallace has been getting mixed reviews, but I believe he's a better prospect than last year's linebacker, Nathaniel Adibi. The Steelers are starting Wallace out at the low-pressure Mac LBer spot. That'll make it easier for Wallace, who might also become a valuable swing player in the future.

  • Seventh-rounder Shaun Nua is a shot in the dark. The Steelers have some time to mould a D-Lineman with his quick feet. The other seventh-rounder, RB Noah Herron, was a find that late. You wonder if the Steelers are putting too much emphasis on the Northwestern game against Penn State, in which Herron, presumably running behind Essex, gained 175 yards against one of the best defenses in the nation. I guess I'd emphasize that tape as well. With his hands and pass-blocking ability, I'm guessing Herron will stick with the team for years and become a fan favorite.

  • Since Miller, McFadden, Essex and Herron WILL become the players I expect them to become, the cherries on top are whether Gibson turns into a playmaker and Kemoeatu learns the system. If those two things happen, this draft will be the cornerstone of Roethlisberger's team throughout the next decade.

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