Much has been made the past several months over the impending departure of long-time General Manager Kevin Colbert after the upcoming draft. Renowned leaguewide for his patience in not reaching for players and letting the draft board materialize, his first round draft pick list features a laundry list of All-Pros and Hall of Famers, some already enshrined and others well on their way. Recently, Gregg Rosenthal of the Around the NFL podcast even named Colbert the third-best GM in the league. Like any NFL GM, he has the occasional miss on picks, as nothing is a surefire lock to become a star player. However, under his guidance, the Steelers have been as steady as they come when it comes to drafting, especially with those valuable first-rounders. I’m going to take a look at his three best, and three worst first-round picks.
Since 2000, Colbert has been the Director of Football Operations up until 2010, when he finally earned the GM title. It didn’t take him but a few years to begin adding the ingredients for the team to ascend the perennial playoff contender when in 2003, with the 16th overall pick the team added All-American safety Troy Polamalu from USC. They got one hell of a return on that investment with six All-Pro nods, eight Pro Bowl nods, an NFL 2000’s All-Decade team nod and the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Add in two Super Bowl titles and an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020 and I’d say Colbert knocked this pick out of the park.
The following year, the team needed a quarterback badly, so what did Colbert do? Stood pat and allowed the draft board to tilt in his favor, when the team nabbed Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami (OH) with the 11th pick. “Big Ben” didn’t take long to make his impact when early in the season, an injury to incumbent starter Tommy Maddox forced the rookie into action. Roethlisberger led the team to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC title game. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year for his efforts and the following season in 2005, he led the team to their elusive “One for the Thumb” when they defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
He would again lead them to glory in the 2008-09 season when they defeated the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. A third ring was not in the cards in 2010 when they lost to the Green Bay Packers in the big game, but his career would prove that any game # 7 was under center, this team had a chance to compete and beat anyone. Ben recently retired in January after playing his entire career in the black and gold, and is the sole owner of virtually every passing record the Steelers have. Never one to garner much MVP consideration due to his backyard style of play and the league favoring the aerial artistry of names like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, Roethlisberger was known for his toughness; just ask anyone trying to tackle the 6-foot-5, 241-pounder. Five years from now, we will see Roethlisberger heading into the halls of Canton, along with the aforementioned Polamalu. Back-to-back Hall of Fame picks? Not bad at all.
This one was a tough one for me, with names like Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro on Colbert’s resume. Pouncey will be Canton-bound with a career littered with accolades like numerous Pro Bowls, All-Pro teams and a member of the 2010s All-Decade Team. He will someday join the illustrious list of Steelers centers already enshrined there, including Dermontti Dawson and Mike Webster. For me, the third-best first round pick during Colbert’s tenure is still wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, and his career is just entering its prime.
In 2017, many teams regretfully passed over on the promising, albeit raw younger brother of Texans’ defensive monster JJ Watt. Still relatively new to the outside linebacker position in his 2016 season at Wisconsin, TJ put everybody on notice when he collected 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles-for-loss and a pick-six, en route to First-Team All Big-Ten and Second -Team AP All-American honors. In that draft, 29 other tams passed over on Watt, including his home-state Green Bay Packers. Colbert and company gladly scooped him up with the 30th overall pick.
What they’ve gotten for their efforts so far are 72.5 sacks, three First-Team All-Pro nods, four Pro Bowls and this past season’s winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award (it should be his third consecutive). The new owner of the team’s single season sack record with 17.5 this past season, he also tied the mark of 22.5 held for many years by ex-Giants’ standout Michael Strahan. Now sitting fifth on the team’s career sacks list with 72.5, Watt likely will climb that ladder in short order this upcoming season, barring injury, to overtake the 80.5 held by James Harrison. All of this coming in five seasons, and Watt won’t turn 28 until midway through the upcoming season. His career arc is trending sky-high and if he can stay healthy, we’ll likely see his name on the top-10 sack leaders list. A gold jacket, at this stage, now seems to be a formality.
On the other end of the spectrum, like every GM, there are the occasional misses, which Colbert has A LOT less of these than his hits. In 2013, the team needed a jumpstart to their pass rush, with James Harrison on the rival Bengals and LaMarr Woodley’s injury woes finally coming to a close, the team opted to select Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. A two-time All-American and two-time First-Team All-Sec performer, Jones had 13.5 sacks and 14.5 sacks, respectively, in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. However, a spinal stenosis condition caused many teams to be wary of him, along with his 4.88 40-time. Over the course of NFL career, he recorded a total of six sacks, all with Pittsburgh. After declining his fifth-year option, Jones signed with the “Pittsburgh West” Arizona Cardinals, and ultimately was released with an injury settlement.
In the 2016 draft, Colbert made Miami’s Artie Burns the first cornerback selected by the team in the first round since 1997’s selection of Chad Scott. He was expected to help bolster an ailing secondary but what he gave the team was inconsistent play, as he struggled with zone coverages. His play declined to the point that the team often made him a healthy scratch on game days during the end of his tenure.
In the 2008 draft, with “Fast” Willie Parker’s injuries beginning to pile up, the team opted to drafted Illinois’ Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd overall pick. At 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Mendenhall definitely looked the part, as he could easily be mistaken for a bodybuilder considering his muscular stature. However, fumbling issues stuck out early and often in his career. In the preseason his rookie year, after a two-fumble game, teammate Hines Ward notoriously put a football in his locker, along with a note that said if anyone can take the ball away from him they’d get $ 100 from Ward.
He’s also notorious for texting his friend Ray Rice, at the time on the Ravens, saying he was going to go off on them. Probably not the best idea, as Ray Lewis and company took notice, and a hit by Lewis on Mendenhall left him with a fractured shoulder, ending the rookie’s season. His best season as a pro was the team’s Super Bowl season in 2010, when he ran for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, he likely costs the team another ring as they were gaining momentum heading into the fourth quarter. A fumble by Mendenhall changed all that, and the Packers regained possession, scored and defeated Pittsburgh 31-25. Just two 1,000-yard seasons isn’t necessarily considered a bust by any means, but it leaves plenty to be desired of your first round draft pick.
With the upcoming draft apparently Colbert’s last, let’s all hope he can add another Hall of Fame selection to set this team up for future success. What do you think? Any disagreements with my selections? Any names you felt I left off? Let me know in the comments below.