What Recent History Suggests About Pittsburgh Steelers' 2015 NFL Draft Plan

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert answers a question during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Sixteen years on the job, Pittsburgh Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert has a strong foundation in how to build a franchise. Under his guidance, the Steelers have had the second-greatest era in team history.

Since Colbert joined the Steelers in 2000, he has helped assemble a roster, which has nine playoff appearances, seven division titles, three AFC titles and two Super Bowl championships. The foundation to all of these teams has been the NFL draft.

Rather than invest cap dollars to bring in free agents from outside of the organization, the Steelers focus their efforts on drafting and developing. Here, Colbert has selected 15 players—including six since 2007—who have made the Pro Bowl, which equates to 12.30 percent of his draft picks, according to Mike Huguenin of NFL.com.  

As the Steelers look to add the next generation of great players, experts and fans alike will attempt to predict what Colbert will do in the 2015 NFL draft. Although there are an infinite number of possibilities, recent draft history can help us better understand Pittsburgh’s strategy entering the draft.

Balance Between Offense and Defense

The Steelers have selected defenders with their top pick in three of the past four drafts.
The Steelers have selected defenders with their top pick in three of the past four drafts.Elsa/Getty Images

A once-proud defense has taken a slide over the past few seasons and is now the Steelers' weakness. As tempting as it sounds to focus early and often on the defensive side of the ball, it is not a strategy that Colbert will take.

Over his tenure in Pittsburgh, Colbert has balanced his selection of offensive players with defensive players—particularly in the first three rounds of the draft. In eight seasons working with Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have selected 13 offensive players and 12 defensive between the first and third rounds.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.comCredit: Chris Gazze

During this time, the Steelers have never spent their first three selections on one side of the ball. However, that does not necessarily mean that they will alternate picks either.

They have stacked offensive positions with their top two picks on two occasions—2008 and 2012—and twice with defensive positions—2007 and 2014. The interesting thing about these four drafts was the positional groups selected.

In 2007, the Steelers took two linebackers with their top two selections and in 2012, they spent them on two offensive linemen. What this tells us is that Colbert is willing to fix one area of the depth chart in one draft. That could mean good things for those who want two cornerbacks in this draft.

As this current front office and coaching staff have shown, they are willing to value positions early in the draft that the team has traditionally ignored. For instance, prior to 2008, the last time the Steelers selected a running back in the first round was Tim Worley in 1989.

Historically, defensive ends and linebackers were two positions that the Steelers ignored in the first round in the draft. However, that did not stop Colbert and Tomlin from selecting three linebackers and two defensive ends with five of their eight first-round picks.

Next up on the list is cornerback, a position that has not been addressed in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997.

Look to the Power Five

Colbert prefers drafting prospects from the Power Five conferences.
Colbert prefers drafting prospects from the Power Five conferences.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Back in 2011, Ian McBlogger of The Steelers N’at recognized a trend in the Kevin Colbert drafts:

When one looks at the draft choices Kevin Colbert has made, the first thing that jumps out is the number of players he has drafted from major conferences.

In Colbert's 12 drafts, 77% of his picks came from BCS schools with 97% coming from Division 1 schools. Only three players during Colbert's tenure were picked from non-D1 schools: Ricardo Colclough (2004), Willie Colon (2006), and Cortez Allen (2011).

In this sense, the selection of Allen (CB-The Citadel) was somewhat of a departure from Colbert's normal patterns, but it was also the type of pick he had made in the past (Colon was a 4th round pick in 2006).

As time has progressed, Colbert’s draft habits have not. He continues to place an emphasis on BCS schools—or now as we refer to the, the Power Five conferences—and gives little consideration to small-school prospects.

Including the Big East, 55 of Colbert’s 68 selections since 1997 have come from BCS or Power Five schools. Of these selections, only three players were selected from non-power conferences over Rounds 1 through 3—including none in the first.

Draft Selections by Conference from 2007-14
ACCBig EastBig TenBig 12Pac-12SECOtherFCS
Total Draft Piks741311119112

When it comes to acquiring talent in the draft, Colbert first looks to the Big Ten, where the Steelers have selected 13 prospects since Tomlin came aboard as head coach. The Big 12, Pac-12 and non-power schools finished in a tie for second with 11 each.

By choosing players from the major conferences, the Steelers are drafting players who have played at the highest level against some of the best competition in the country. As they get to the third day of the draft, they take more chances on small-school prospects with plus athletic abilities, such as Cortez Allen and Kelvin Beachum.

When it comes time for the Steelers to make their early selections, odds are that a player from one of the Power Five schools will be selected.

By comparison, the Steelers have only selected 11 prospects from small schools.

Prospect Visits Matter

Le'Veon Bell was one of 23 pre-draft visits selected by the Steelers since 2010.
Le'Veon Bell was one of 23 pre-draft visits selected by the Steelers since 2010.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

More than any other trend established by Colbert and the Steelers, nothing tells you more about the draft than the predraft visits.

Each year, teams are permitted to bring in 30 prospects—plus local prospects—for a predraft visit. Here, the team can gather medical information and get one last interview with the player ahead of the draft. It has also clued us in on who the Steelers may take.

As I wrote last year, the Steelers have taken a large number of their visits in the draft:

Based on recent history, these visits are very indicative of the players that the Steelers will draft. Dating back to 2010, they have selected 17 players with pre-draft visits. This list includes two first-round selections (Maurkice Pouncey and Jarvis Jones) and three second-round picks (Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and Le’Veon Bell).

Each of the last two years has supported this premise, with six of nine selections spending time in Pittsburgh prior to the draft. That makes 23 predraft visits selected in five years, which is 4.6 choices per year—or approximately two-thirds of an average draft of seven picks.

Based on this estimate, the Steelers will spend at least five of their eight selections in this year’s draft on prospects who came in for a predraft visit. As reports come in as to who is going to pay a visit to Pittsburgh over the next few weeks, pay careful attention, as they may become a Steeler on draft day.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com,  all combine results are courtesy of the NFL.com Draft Tracker, all draft rankings are courtesy of Matt Miller of Bleacher Report and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

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