When Kevin Colbert was hired by the Steelers as Director of Football Operations back in 2000, it had to have been the once in a lifetime dream job for him. Having grown up attending nearby North Catholic High School and going to college at Robert Morris University, he was a Pittsburgh guy thru and thru. While most people never get the opportunity to land their dream job, even fewer succeed at it as well as Colbert has. In his ten years as GM, he has made a living of hitting nothing but home runs in the first round of the draft. Currently, only three first round picks he has made do not play for Pittsburgh any longer: The injury-prone Kendall Simmons, and the trouble-making Plaxico Burress(who had productive years for the Steelers and would not be considered a busted pick), and Santonio Holmes, who plays for the Jets. But where Colbert has really made his niche is finding key contributors in the middle to later rounds of the draft, or off the waiver wire. In this modern era of free agency, Kevin Colbert gives the team a throwback look akin to the Steelers of the 70's, who won four Super Bowls with virtually nothing else other than self-drafted, homegrown talent. The win on Sunday over the New York Jets, a team half-comprised of off-season acquisitions via trades and big name free agents, felt a little more sweeter because of that. Here is a list of the top ten mid to late draft choices of Kevin Colbert, with the third round being the virtual line in the sand. Argument can be made as to what is middle or what is late, and although no pick in any round is a "lock", I think any great contributor after the second round is a steal. Players signed as un-drafted free agents also count, as they are merely just draft picks after the actual draft has ended.
Yes, I cheated already. The top ten list has become a top eleven. Jim Delaney, commissioner of the Big Ten, told me I could do it. Crucify me if you'd like, but I can not pick between these two guys. Sanders(3rd round) had a solid rookie campaign, hauling in 28 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, while Brown(6th round) had a magnificent kickoff return for a TD in Week 2 against Tennessee, but did not see significant playing time until later in the season. What really bumps these guys up on this list is their postseason performances. Brown leads the team in receiving yards, and owns the two most important 4th quarter catches in both games. Sanders is second on the team in receptions and yards. For a team that has crafty veterans like Hines Ward, deep threats like Mike Wallace, and hands like Heath Miller, these guys have gone way above and beyond expectations, and made fans forget the loss of Santonio Holmes. With an already young Mike Wallace at the top of the receiving core, its a good possibility at least one of these players does not have a significant career with Pittsburgh in the long run. But their contributions on the way to Super Bowl XLV get them on this list.
A two-time Super Bowl winner, one as a starter, Kemoeatu had the arduous task of replacing Steeler great Alan Faneca at left guard after Super Bowl XL. He has improved into one of the better run blockers in the league, and plays with an edge. The Steelers thought enough of his work to sign him to a five year contract after winning Super Bowl XLIII.
One of two non-Steelers to make the list, Hope was an integral part of the Steelers 15-1 2004 campaign, and 2005 Super Bowl championship squad. Nicknamed "The Hammer", Hope fit in perfectly next to Troy Polamalu at free safety, and much like current free safety Ryan Clark, was known for his aggressive playing style and bone jarring hits. Hope's talent and young age made him an attractive free agent after the 2005 season, and the Tennessee Titans signed him to a lucrative six year deal that the Steelers would not match. Hope led the Titans in interceptions his first year, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2008.
Playing a reduced role in the 2010 season, Foote still deserves credit for his past contributions as a starter from 2004 thru 2008, winning two super bowls in that span. Foote paired with fellow Steeler James Farrior in 2004 and immediately became one of the best 3-4 inside linebacker combos in the league. Known as more of a run stuffer, ironically the biggest moment of his career was his first and only playoff interception in the 2005 AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos, a play that proved to end any hopes of a Jake Plummer led comeback. A Detroit native, Foote left the Steelers for his hometown Lions team in 2009, but ultimately decided to come back to Pittsburgh. He has to be happy with his decision, even with being on the field for less snaps, to be back on a winning squad.
This spot can be up for debate, as based on potential, Wallace could be much higher on this list. But this list is comprised of concrete facts and results, not potential, and since Wallace owns no Super Bowl rings, has only been around two years, and has only one great statistical season under his belt, he lands here. That being said, it is likely that he will be much higher on this list in a few years. A wide receiver gifted with unbelievable speed, Wallace has the tools to become one of the greatest pure deep threats the organization has ever seen. In his second year, he totaled 1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns, and had seven 100 yard games. He was also second in the league with 21 yards per reception. Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger also broke Bubby Brister and Louis Lipps' team record of 7 completions in a season of over 40 yards or more, with eight. Wallace is also responsible for one of the most memorable catches in Steelers history, a toe-toucher while falling out of bounds with no time left on the clock to beat the Green Bay Packers in 2009.
As far as quality left tackles go around the league, they come at a premium. Max Starks started at right tackle for the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad back in 2005. By 2007, Willie Colon took his job, but when Marvel Smith went down with an injury, he was thrust in the role of protecting Big Ben's blind side, and has been a staple ever since. Starks was shaky at times but has improved dramatically over the years. The Steelers placed a transition tag on him in 2008 and signed him to a four year deal in 2009 worth nearly 7 million dollars annually, showing that, at least in Colbert's eyes, this guy is not expendable. In 2010, Starks suffered a season ending neck injury, but that does not belittle his accomplishments, a 3rd round draft pick that helped his team win two Super Bowls, one at each tackle position.
Drafted in the 4th round out of "Swagger U.", Ike Taylor has become one of the most consistent starting cornerbacks for Pittsburgh in recent memory. Taylor holds the team record for most consecutive playoff games with an interception at three. He also made a major play in the most recent defeat of the Jets in the AFC Championship, stripping Mark Sanchez on a blind-side blitz en route to a William Gay touchdown. Although his hands have left something to be desired, Taylor is an excellent coverage cornerback who rarely gets burnt. He has won two Super Bowls as a starter, and although not considered an elite shutdown corner, is right on a level below that, a good solid cornerback that any team would love to have.
Brett Keisel is one of the best late round steals in recent memory. He cut his chops for four years as a backup before getting his opportunity to start in 2006, and has certainly made the most of it. As a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, Keisel is powerful enough to take up blockers, yet also nimble enough to drop back into coverage in some of Dick Lebeau's zone blitz schemes. The Steelers showed their appreciation to him by signing him to a 5 year contract in 2009, a long term deal that the organization is not known to normally give to linemen on the other side of 30 years old. He rewarded them with a Pro Bowl caliber year in 2010, his first. Keisel is also known as one of the more unique personalities in the locker room, friendly with the media, and his beard even has its own Facebook fan page.
Many will look back on Willie Parker's career as one like many starting running backs: had a few great years, got injured, and was never the same back, cast away from the spotlight after a short career. But there is no doubt that when Willie Parker was at the top of his game, he was one of the best in the business. Known for his speed and ability to find the corner and go, he owns the longest run ever in a Super Bowl. Parker also made two trips to the Pro Bowl, and holds the Steelers' single game rushing record with 223 yards. He is also the only Steeler's player to run for more than 200 yards more than once in a season. Even after he broke his leg in 2007, in which he was never the same, Parker never gave up as a competitor. He gutted the San Deigo Chargers for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the 2008 Divisional Playoffs, earning him player of the game honors, and helping the Steelers to another Super Bowl victory. Parkers contributions should never fall by the wayside, even though his prime was short lived; it is never easy for a team to transition from a Hall of Fame, franchise running back like Jerome Bettis, Parker helped the Steelers do it with relative ease.
It would be hard to think that the Steelers would sign, cut(three times), and then re-sign what now is probably the best outside linebacker in the entire league. Harrison was cut out of training camp in 2002 and briefly joined the Ravens in 2003 before being cut by them as well. A more mature Harrison came back to the Steelers in 2004, and the rest was history. Harrison was a star on special teams and played well when filling in for an injured Joey Porter or Clark Haggans. As it was with Willie Parker, James Harrison has made the transition from the departure of one of the most productive and popular Steelers of the decade in Joey Porter absolutely seamless. He is an elite pass rusher, quick enough to get around the corner, and uses his undersized frame as an advantage for leverage on bigger, heavier offensive tackles. Harrison is also quick on his feet and able to drop back into pass coverage and make interceptions and force fumbles in the open field. Since becoming a starter in 2007, he has the most forced fumbles out of anyone in the league. Harrison was the talk of much controversy this past season because of his skull rattling hits, which just adds to his lore as being a stoic, ruthless bad-ass who you don't want to mess with on or off the field, a reputation that would make the last Kent State Alum to play linebacker for the Steelers - Jack Lambert, proud. He has made the Pro Bowl in all four years as a starter, 3 times All-Pro. He is also the only undrafted player ever to win a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and also owns the longest play in Super Bowl history with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. Harrison's penchant for stepping up in big games was shown most recently when he recorded three sacks on Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Not a bad find by Kevin Colbert, if I do say so myself.