Q&A: Kevin Colbert

The Steelers' director of football operations talked to reporters for over an hour Thursday on a variety of topics related to his team, free agency, the draft, and football in general.

Kevin Colbert, DOFO Pittsburgh Steelers (at the podium)

KC: Good morning. Questions.

Q: How are the offensive linemen in this draft?

KC: In comparing this offense line to last year's group, it's not as deep. It's probably a little more top-heavy at every position, but it doesn't have the depth that last year's draft had.

Q: What about the defensive linemen?

KC: That's one area that is very strong – the defensive ends that are possible linebackers, the SAM linebackers that will be outside guys , that is a strong group for this draft, for sure. The corners, we think, are a pretty deep group as well.

Q: Any progress with your free agents?

KC: We're still talking in more detail. We're in negotiations with all our guys including our offensive line and Chris Kemoeatu.

Q: What is the Steelers' philosophy and why has it been successful?

KC: That goes way back to the origins of this organization and their success since the 1970s. They've maintained a consistent philosophy of the type of player they want, and you've had that continuity with Coach Noll, Coach Cowher and Coach Tomlin. When you have that continuity in the coaching end and you have the original philosophy that really hasn't changed over time, it's easier to match the talent to the philosophies when you continue to groom players to eventually replace other players. I think the Steelers have always looked … we've looked for great players that are great people, that are healthy, work in the community and all that stuff. It's really nebulous … we always talk about the Steelers way and what is the Steelers way. It's always trying to do the right thing at the right time, all the time.

Q: Can you find them in this interview process?

KC: There are certain people early in the evaluation process or in the interview process, you get a feeling, boy, they will be a great fit for us. Or you get the opposite feeling, that that guy probably doesn't fit in, either from a playing standpoint or from a personality or football character standpoint. Usually they separate themselves. Once they get with our team, that belief has been passed on from team to team. This year's team had a lot of players left over from the previous Super Bowl team and they helped bring those young kids to that part of the organization that they might not have understood until they got there.

Q: Could you evaluate your 2008 draft?

KC: That whole class, I said this earlier, we look at that draft class as they all redshirted in our minds. Rashard (Mendenhall) would have helped us if he didn't get injured; Limas (Sweed) played behind three pretty good wide receivers, he made some contributions, he has some growing to do; Bruce Davis, he has a lot of growing to do, we had two free agents who got activated before he did, that's testament to those kids because they were able to contribute; Tony Hills, it's not unusual for an offensive lineman to take a redshirt year; Dennis Dixon, we feel, really progressed; Mike Humpal had some injuries issues and he ended up on reserve injured; and Ryan Mundy ended up on our practice squad.

Q: Is extending James Harrison's contract a priority)?

KC: James Harrison has certainly earned that designation. He's an awesome player who helped us get where he got this year. We'd like to have James Harrison finish his career with the Steelers, for sure.

Q: (Inaudible salary question)

KC: I don't think you can ever limit the salary structure to a position. If you feel a player is that good you better pay him. People talk about how, traditionally, you don't draft safeties high, and that's been proven wrong as well. If they're great players it doesn't matter what position they play. If they can help your team and they're that great, they'll probably change the salary structures as well.

Q: Considering the timing, why isn't Bryant McFadden the top priority?

KC: He is a priority, but we know we can't keep this whole team together. We understand that. We will continue to negotiate with all our free agents and what comes together, comes together over the next few weeks.

Q: Will a lack of free agent cornerbacks enhance his price?

KC: It could. It only takes one team to accelerate the price. It doesn't take a great market If one team has a sincere interest and you're not able to match [the offer], you're probably going to lose that player. The depth might indicate or dictate what a team is going to do for a certain position, but if they like that player specifically, they're going to pay him, regardless of depth.

Q: Won't you lose players once they reach the open market?

KC: Fortunately, most of our free agents, 90-95 percent of them, they want to stay. I'm not just talking this year, I'm talking years past. They're going to give us an opportunity. Now, they have to do what they have to do for them from a financial standpoint, we understand that. But if we have a chance to match what they're going to get, that's good. Most of our guys want that opportunity to stay here.

Q: Is it hard to switch from 4-3 to 3-4 defense?

KC: It depends what they already have on their roster, changing from a 4-3 to 3-4. There are certain players who can make the change, certain players don't have the physical characteristics. The hardest transition is for the tweener defensive end who is 260, 265 pounds. It's harder for him to be able to project because usually the ends are going to have to be a minimum of 290 pounds to be able to play in that scheme and linebackers are going to have to be able to do certain things in coverage. The 265, 270 end will have the most difficulty. The interior defensive lineman can usually make the change because their techniques usually don't change, if they have the size.

Q: What are the challenges for personnel departments that play 3-4?

KC: It's always a challenge for us, but we're used to it now. When we look at 260 or 255 pound guy, [we ask] can they make the transition to do the things they need to do from a coverage standpoint? That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent, and it also reminds you you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop. Everyone who has been in our system as outside linebackers, it usually took them a minimum of two years and usually three to four years before they were ready to contribute, and a lot of those guys contributed a heckuva lot as they turned into starters.

Q: How's Mendenhall's health?

KC: He's way ahead on his rehab. If we didn't have the injured reserve rules, he could have returned for the end of season, probably the last month and certainly for the playoffs. He is in [our] facility working out. He looks good at this point and all the medical reports indicate he'll have a full recovery.

Q: How hard is it to evaluate different styles of offense in college?

KC: It gets more difficult with the evolution of the spread offense. The things they're doing in college, most of it won't transfer to the NFL, so you're really looking for physical characteristics, the footwork, the arm strength, some of the decision-making. You're trying to take some of the spread part out of it and maybe just take it to point where the QB is getting ready to throw the ball. You see certain things in what he can do from that point on that may indicate what he can do to transfer to a more conventional offense.

I think you're also going to see, as time goes on, some evolution of the college game into the NFL. You're seeing some of that this year with the Wildcat stuff, but I think you'll also see some possible use of some spread stuff as these Dennis Dixons, that type of quarterback, come into the league.

Tight end, fullbacks, offensive line techniques are going to be different. If you flip it over, the defense isn't doing things that they're going to be doing against conventional offenses. It changes the whole evaluation process. It makes it more difficult, but the colleges have to worry about what they need to do to win games and we have to worry about making correct decisions based on that.

Q: On franchise tags:

KC: I think the franchise tags have changed over the course of free agency, and a big part of that is, teams are doing a much better job of keeping their own guys so there is a more limited group of free agents that are available. It's not that a certain team thinks a player is that valuable, but they have to protect themselves only because the alternatives aren't that great.

Q: Is it hard to draft nose tackles?

KC: Yes, because they don't play that position like we're going to ask them to play. They're as hard to find as the ends [in the 3-4]. But there are probably more defensive tackles in a college 4-3 that can make the transition only because of their size, rather than the defensive end who is going to be a 6-4, 6-5 guy that weighs 290. There aren't a lot of those kids playing college ball. There are a lot more 6-2, 6-3 and 320 or 340 pounds guys who can play in a 3-4 or 4-3. It's just going to take them time to learn the technique.

Q: How different is a nose tackle's technique?

KC: There are different versions of the 3-4, some with the traditional 2-gap, and without getting real technical, the 2-gap responsibility usually plays head up. Our guys move a little more than the traditional 3-4, and in college you're usually playing a one-gap scheme where they're hitting a gap. That's going to be a transition and all our defensive lineman go through that when they come up.

Q: Is that a hard sell?

KC: It's not a hard sell when they're yours. They have to learn the technique or they'll go to another team. You probably have to, prior to taking that player, if he's a free agent, you better explain what you're going to be asking him to do. And if he's a college kid you better understand his mental makeup, whether he'll be unselfish enough to be able to do that.

Q: Does drafting low change your approach?

KC: When we start the draft process in fall, we don't know where we're picking. We're evaluating from top to bottom. Now we'll make some adjustments knowing we have the 32nd pick, but having said that, I'm confident that there are definitely 32 guys that can help us. I'm sure there are 64 and 96 [players] who can help us in some form and fashion, at some level of our depth. There are a lot of good players in this draft. Certain positions aren't as deep as it has been, but I think the quality, especially at the top, will help. That will flush a better player down to us, for sure. We're excited about it, as always, because there are always players who can help us some way, somehow.

(Moves to side of stage for fewer reporters)

Q: How does the wide receiver crop look like?

KC: I think it's top-heavy early and then there's a LOT of depth. I think you can get a quality receiver throughout the whole draft. I mean, from two through seven, there are guys who are going to contribute – big guys, small guys, return types. There are kids who are way up there, and then a nice group in two, three, four, and then even some in five, six, seven.

Q: Are you comfortable you can find a legitimate first-round O-lineman down at the bottom of the first round?

KC: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Q: You've traded up twice in the first round and hit the jackpot both times. Did you trade up because the player was special? Or because you had an emergency at the position?

KC: The player, in both cases. When we traded up for Troy [Polamalu], he was one of our top-rated guys. Anytime we trade up, the only way you can do it is if you can justify where that player is on your board and where he is during the evolution of the first round. So Troy, if I can remember, was probably one of our top 10 players. And when he got down into that range where we could make a do-able trade, we were able to do it. Same thing with Santonio [Holmes]. We valued him very much. He was the only receiver drafted in the first round that year. It really wasn't a need; we just liked him that much.

Q: Does there have to be something special, or extra, in the player you trade up for?

KC: No, not really. They were just exceptional players at their position. I don't think there's any one common characteristic about that.

Q: Does being at the bottom give you more cause to trade up?

KC: Not really. It's more circumstantial. We're not going to trade up if there's not a player there that's worthy. We've gone down in the first round, too, with Casey Hampton.

Q: What about the depth of this draft?

KC: Really, other than the outside linebacker types and the corners, I wouldn't say it's exceptionally deep.

Q: How much impact does the spread have on the offensive linemen?

KC: They're using different techniques. Sometimes they're not even getting into a three-point stance unless it's a goal-line or short-yardage play. They're playing third down every play and that's unusual. That's why I said what I did earlier about Tony Hills. Texas didn't use as much spread as other colleges, but he still had to go through a learning process.

Q: What about the crop of inside linebackers?

KC: It's good, but not as deep as the outside linebackers.

Q: What about the transition to a 3-4 for inside linebackers?

KC: It's similar to the defensive linemen. It's not as big a transition, but it's a transition. They will have some different responsibilities but not as much as the outside guys.

Q: Is it difficult to evaluate 3-4 defensive linemen?

KC: There are just not a lot of body types for a 3-4. I mean, they're 6-4, 6-5, from 290 to 310. Most of the guys in our situation are self-made guys, like Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. They've grown and they've learned how to play their technique. Sometimes, 270-pound guys, they're not going to hit 300. Half of them just don't have the frame to do it. So there are less of those guys. If you see a guy who has at least a certain body type and a certain amount of athleticism, you think he has a chance.

Q: Do you have less to evaluate because you run a 3-4?

KC: We just don't look for our position-specific guys. We have to evaluate the guys who are going to go to a 4-3 only because the guys we're interested in, we have to know how they stack up. We have to evaluate everybody else to know where they're going to go so you have an idea where you're going to get your own players.

Q: Can you take a defensive end later because you often mold them?

KC: Yeah. We understand it's going to take time, and John Mitchell, our defensive line coach, is excellent. He's taken later-round guys and developed them into Pro Bowl players and solid starters, so you have a bit of a comfort zone. But I'm sure Mitch would like a top guy to be able to work with, like Casey [Hampton] was. But if the situation presents itself, we're not going to pass on a guy who is a good player because we feel we can get a guy in the fourth or fifth round, because you really don't know that.

Q: James Harrison wasn't drafted and became Defensive Player of the Year, yet you cut him a couple times.

KC: We cut him three times – once from the practice squad. Thank God we didn't cut him four. It's a testament to James that he kept coming back the way he did and continued to develop. Again, that's a hard transition. It usually takes guys three or four years. If you draft a guy, you probably have a little more invested in him and you're more reluctant to cut him early. Whereas if a guy's a free agent, you feel teams weren't real interested in him. If he didn't do a lot in the preseason, you can probably put him through waivers and get him on your practice squad. And it's usually not because you don't like the guy, sometimes you just have to get an active roster spot. But if you feel you can get him through and put him on the practice squad, sometimes you have to take that chance. Fortunately it all worked out for us and James.

Q: Is it fair to say the Steelers might be more patient than others in letting these guys develop?

KC: I guess. There's the organizational stability, but we also want to win now. We're not going to wait too long. They have to show up and play at some point.

Q: Is a guy like B.J. Raji hurt by what happened to Hampton in the Super Bowl? Do the fewer snaps nose tackles are taking hurt the player's value?

KC: I don't think so because if you feel a guy's a game-changer, he'll get his snaps. It depends though. Game to game it's going to vary as to who gets what snaps. So I don't think so. If they're great players, they're great players regardless.

Q: How difficult is it to evaluate quarterbacks who run the spread?

KC: If you go back to Antwaan Randle El, there were certain things he could do that transferred to slot receiver, some of the option stuff. Again, just because a kid played in the spread, doesn't mean he can't play in a conventional offense. Maybe he's never been asked to do the things he'll need to do. Sometimes it's intriguing to look at the quarterbacks in a spread and project what they might be able to do. Sometimes you see a kid in a conventional offense and see things he can't do. The intrigue about the unknown is probably more interesting.

Q: Will the Wildcat have an impact on this draft?

KC: It could. It could if people are intrigued by a certain player's ability and they want to add that into their package.

Q: Do you see the Wildcat sticking around?

KC: Until somebody finds a way to make something unsuccessful, they'll continue to do it.

Q: More teams are playing the 3-4. Will that affect you in the draft and free agency?

KC: It could over time because there'll be more people competing for the types of players we've had. We'll find out.

Q: The Dolphins said they drafted Kendall Langford high because they thought the Steelers wanted him.

KC: Kendall was a great player. I mean, he had a chance to play in this scheme for sure. He was that body type, the type of kid you look at and say, ‘OK, he could make this transition.'

Q: Do you have to watch all the 3-4 teams and say ‘They might take our guy'?

KC: Yeah. When you do your draft projections, you want to get a feel for who would be interested in a guy you like, or vice versa. Guys might not be interested because they already have depth or he doesn't fit.

Q: How will the end of the CBA affect your team?

KC: It won't affect us too much because we're going to follow the old rules. They've been successful for us. And, really, when we deal with free agency we deal more internally than externally. We're more interested in what goes on in our own team than what goes on around the league.

Q: How about the economic depression? How will that affect your team?

KC: I think everybody will be aware and sensitive to it, but teams will have to decide what they can afford to do.

Q: Expect big signings right off the bat?

KC: Yeah, I'm assuming that the big signings will continue to happen.

Q: When you put Mendenhall on IR, did you think then that he'd be able to come back before the season ended?

KC: Yeah, he could've come back late in the year. We put him down in September, and between then and the playoffs you're going to need another spot. Can you afford to carry him? At that time we didn't think we could afford to carry him. I remember talking about it at the time, that it was a possibility.

Q: Did the fact he's a rookie factor in?

KC: I think it did. He's missing a lot of time. I think if it's a veteran guy, like the Steelers did with Rod Woodson their Super Bowl year – they kept him alive the whole year because he was Rod Woodson -- he knew what to do and could come back and play like he did.

Q: Didn't you do that with Marvel Smith?

KC: Yeah, we carried Marvel as long as we could until we needed a spot.

Q: Does that speak to Rashard being a quick healer? Or to his work ethic?

KC: No, he's right on time. I mean, he's not ahead of schedule. He's pretty much where we projected him to be.

Q: What about the safety crop compared to other years?

KC: Not as deep on the top end of things. There are probably going to be a lot of later-round guys who could possibly stick. Sometimes it's deep at the top or the middle or the bottom. This time it's more toward the middle or the bottom.

Q: Will you be meeting with James Harrison's agent this week?

KC: Yeah. Absolutely.

Q: Why the rush on him?

KC: James is one year out, so he's legal, so to speak, from our policy standpoint. He's a great player that we want to lock up. He's earned it. He's earned a chance to finish his career here, and we certainly want him to do that.

Q: Is his age a concern?

KC: No. James, when you talk about him being 31 in real life, but in football life, his early years he didn't get beat up. He doesn't have the wear and tear that some of the guys his age would have.

Q: Is part of it a reward?

KC: We recognize what James Harrison has done for this organization. He made a game-changing play in the Super Bowl. He's a special player. He's proven that. From a selfish standpoint, we want him to finish his career here. From his standpoint, he's earned that, so you want to take care of him.

Q: Is Kendall Simmons 100 percent?

KC: Kendall's still recovering [Achilles' tendon]. Could he play today? No. But he's not ahead or behind. He's right on schedule. He still has to continue his rehab. All signs are that he will make it, but he's not there yet.

Q: Did you break your prototype with Harrison at outside linebacker?

KC: Probably. The ideal outside linebacker is what 6-3? James wasn't that ideal height. Then he was a free agent, had a great motor, and showed some pass rush abilities. You hoped that he could learn the other stuff. He's not the prototype, but it says something about what he's done to overcome that stereotype. Now, he has some built-in advantages as well because with the tackles getting bigger he gets under them. There are probably some built-in advantages to being shorter.

Q: Is there depth at 5-technique ends?

KC: No. No.

Q: Is there more than one?

KC: Yeah, but they're all projects. There are guys with that body type who are going to have to learn how to play that. We'll learn more here this weekend from an athletic standpoint about the guys who can make the transition.

Q: What about cornerback?

KC: There are some good corners. We talked about the spread offenses from a negative standpoint, but there are more receivers and more corners because somebody's got to cover all those receivers. This year we're starting to see that.

Q: What about running backs?

KC: They all came out last year. We had to wait for the juniors to enhance this class. It's OK, but not like last year.

Q: Last year you said the tackle class was the best you've seen in 25 years. Is this one close at all?

KC: No. Last year there were nine in the first round. That was unusual.

Q: Can you go into this draft saying you have to have, say, an offensive lineman?

KC: Absolutely not. If you go into a draft trying to fill a need you're going to make a mistake.

Q: How do you feel Santonio Holmes will handle the acclaim?

KC: We don't know. It'll be a challenge for him. I think it'll be a positive for him. It wasn't only the one play in the Super Bowl; he had a really good playoff stretch for us. He made a ton of big plays. It change you as a player. Hopefully it doesn't change him as a person.

Q: Is William Gay ready?

KC: Gay's done some nice things, but you never really know if somebody's ready to become a regular. We saw some things in William Gay's play that maybe he can be, but you don't know if they're going to be ready. They're kind of like draft picks: You don't know how they're going to be at the next level, and you don't know how backups are going to be as a starter. Unless you know for sure, you're better off keeping your starter if you can.

Q: Are you worried about Deshea Townsend's body breaking down?

KC: Yeah, I mean, any player that gets older, especially at a skill position, you worry about that. Deshea's intelligence and instincts have always made up for a lack of size and speed, whatever. So he has some compensating factors and that helps.


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