Late-round gems elude Steelers

April 25, 2008

Brett Keisel has started 33 consecutive games at defensive end for the Steelers. Also notable about Keisel, particularly at this time of year: He lasted until late in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft.

The fourth through seventh rounds of the draft, which will be held this weekend, may not garner nearly as much attention as the first three rounds, but quality can be found among the quantity in them. The Giants proved as much last year as they took tight end Kevin Boss in the fifth round and running back Ahmad Bradshaw near the end of the seventh round. Each played a critical role during the Giants' Super Bowl run as they were thrust into duty because of injuries.

The Giants, in fact, had so much success on the second day of the draft last year that all of their picks in those rounds made the team. "Four through seven, you're looking for depth," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. The Steelers haven't gotten much of anything out of those rounds lately, as Keisel, the 242nd pick of the 2002 draft, represents one of the rare finds the team has uncovered.

The picks the Steelers have made from the fourth round on in recent years include forgettable players such as Orien Harris, Fred Gibson, Nathaniel Adibi and Bo Lacy. Only two players (offensive tackle Willie Colon and guard Chris Kemoeatu) that the Steelers drafted in the fourth through seventh rounds from 2004-06 are still with the team.

Colbert said the Steelers' philosophy of taking the best player available as opposed to drafting more for need doesn't change in the later rounds. He added that the Steelers stick to the player ratings they put together in advance of the draft.

This year, for instance, the team will pick from a pool of 160 players they have assembled on their draft board. "A lot of times, guys we're picking, they may have second- or third-round grades on them, and hopefully that's the situation," Colbert said of players available after the third round. "It doesn't mean we have them graded correctly, but it means we're picking guys that we like."

Teams generally put as much time into scouting the players that will be available later in the draft as they do in the ones projected to go in the first three rounds. The one difference, Colbert said, is he and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin might not get a chance to interview the players who end up going in the later rounds.

"It's amazing how much time is spent on the lower part of the draft," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who is a Pittsburgh native. "It's a lot like a fight, if you get 10 punches as opposed to seven, you probably have a better chance of hitting."

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they don't have an increased chance of hitting in the draft this year.

They have only six picks, and they are without their seventh-round selection, which they traded to the Falcons in the deal that netted return specialist Allen Rossum last September.

That doesn't leave much margin for error, especially since the Steelers could use help at a number of positions.

"There are a bunch of good players, but I can talk myself into believing that every year," Tomlin said. "I'm always optimistic about the draft. We've gotten a chance to see a bunch of these guys, a chance to interview a bunch of these guys and watch the tape and watch the process."

Now, it's just a matter of selecting the right ones, particularly in the later rounds of the draft.

As the Steelers know, that is easier said than done.