PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert doesn’t believe there’s an immediate starter to be found with the team’s 17th pick in the NFL draft.
And Colbert is OK with the prospect of bringing someone along slowly. It is the Steeler Way, after all.
“Quite honestly, I don’t envision anyone coming in and being an impact (player) in Year One,” Colbert said. “I never do because I think there is always a growing process that has to occur.”
Even so, the Steelers would certainly benefit from nabbing a player or three this week who can fill the considerable holes left by a steady stream of departures by bold-faced names such as wide receiver Mike Wallace, outside linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Wallace and Mendenhall left in free agency. Harrison was cut after he and the team couldn’t find common ground on a restructured contract. Offensive lineman Willie Colon was a salary cap casualty, and cornerback Keenan Lewis bolted for his hometown of New Orleans.
Veteran offensive lineman Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton also remain unsigned, but Colbert allowed that the door remains open for their possible return, though it would be in a reduced role.
While Colbert insists the team is not rebuilding, many of the building blocks that have made Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s most consistent winners over the last decade are gone.
Yet Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin believe they can find eventual successors to the likes of Wallace and Harrison through the draft. More than most NFL teams, the Steelers rely heavily on the draft to set the roster’s foundation and have shown an uncanny ability to find quality players late.
Wallace, Lewis and Starks were all third-round picks. Colon came in the fourth round in 2006. Harrison originally made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Pittsburgh is adept at turning mid-level prospects into starters, and will need to do so again if the Steelers want to bounce back quickly from a disappointing 8-8 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
While allowing the exodus was unusually high for one of the league’s most stable franchises, Colbert believes turnover was necessary to revamp an aging core that could use reinforcements.
“If we have the same team that we had last year, it would be silly to expect different results,” Colbert said. “So, it’s our job to try to improve that, and all we can tell the fans is that we’re working toward that end. You’ll be able to judge us in February, whether we got the job done or not.”
Colbert declined to pinpoint any specific need the Steelers will try to address early, pointing to the often unpredictable nature of the draft.
Pittsburgh had no intention of taking an offensive lineman with its first draft pick last spring until two-time All-American guard David DeCastro inexplicably remained on the board at No. 24. Colbert pounced immediately and DeCastro was already starting by the third preseason game before suffering a right knee injury that forced him to miss more than three months.
DeCastro wasn’t the only draft pick who ran into trouble. Second-round pick Mike Adams was pressed into action at right tackle but struggled staying healthy. Third-round pick Sean Spence missed all of 2012 — and is uncertain for 2013— after the promising inside linebacker ripped up his right knee in the final preseason game. Fourth-round pick Alameda Ta’amu was suspended, then cut following a wild chase with police through the city’s bar district. The burly nose tackle was later added to the practice squad, but his future is uncertain.
The Steelers are unlikely to trade up because they would prefer not to deal away any of their eight draft picks. There’s a chance they could trade down and stockpile picks, but chances are slim. Most likely they’ll search for an outside linebacker to help buffer Harrison’s loss. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones remains intriguing, though there’s also room to add a big-play receiver after Wallace left for Miami.
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson would give the Steelers some needed size alongside Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The 6-foot-2 Patterson also has speed to burn, perhaps the most noticeable void left by Wallace’s journey to Miami.
Then again, Tomlin pointed out the proliferation of spread offenses means there is a wide receiver to fit just about any niche. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is dynamic with the ball in his hands, though his diminutive 5-8 stature would require some serious adjusting by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“You feel good about looking at that group and knowing that there are certainly guys that can help us but they come in different shapes and sizes as well,” Colbert said.
Finding an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Troy Polamalu and 33-year-old Ryan Clark at safety is also high on the list, though not as pressing as other areas.
Despite the challenges, the standard remains the standard for the only team in the league with six Super Bowl titles in the trophy case.
“We desire to be a legitimate competitor for the Lombardi Trophy each and every year and 2013 is no different than ‘12 or ‘11, or ‘15 or ‘16 for that matter,” Tomlin said. “That goal and that mentality and that approach will never change.”