The Steelers, who hold the No. 31 overall pick in April's draft, have fared very well late in Round One since director of football operations Kevin Colbert began running the draft in 2000. DE Ziggy Hood, who showed major improvement last season, was the No. 32 pick in 2009. TE Heath Miller was the No. 30 pick in 2005, the same spot where the Steelers drafted OG Kendall Simmons (80 career starts for Pittsburgh) in '02. Also, they moved up from No. 32 to No. 25 to select WR Santonio Holmes in 2006, and Holmes was Super Bowl MVP in his third NFL season.
However, the 2011 draft is not as deep in first-round talent as others of recent vintage. Draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki gave 34 players first-round grades in PFW's 2011 Draft Preview, but only 29 of those players would have graded out as first-rounders last season, using PFW's grade-to-round conversion scale for the 2010 draft. Overall, the minimum grade assigned to a first-rounder in 2011, per PFW's scale, is 5.85, which is the lowest first-round minimum assigned since Colbert began running the Steelers' draft in 2000.
Also, there is no guarantee the Steelers' 2011 first-round pick will earn a starting role in Year One under head coach Mike Tomlin, who has a roster loaded with veteran talent. Cornerback, offensive guard and offensive tackle are three of the Steelers' primary needs, but Pittsburgh, which comes off a Super Bowl loss, has capable veteran options with starting experience at those positions.
In Tomlin's first four NFL seasons, the only first-round pick to earn a starting role in his first season was C Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, and he had to win the position from veteran Justin Hartwig in training camp. The Steelers' previous three first-round picks — Hood, RB Rashard Mendenhall and ILB Lawrence Timmons — combined to start one game as rookies. However, Mendenhall missed most of the season with a shoulder injury, and Hood and Timmons played positions with established starters already in place.
Tomlin's predecessor, Bill Cowher, had five rookies drafted by Colbert — Miller, QB Ben Roethlisberger, Simmons, NT Casey Hampton and LB Kendrell Bell — start double-digit games as rookies. Of course, it should be noted that the Steelers didn't plan to start Roethlisberger in 2004, but he took the job from injured QB Tommy Maddox and didn't relinquish it. Also, S Troy Polamalu struggled as a rookie in '03 and did not start a game before emerging the following season. And, as a daily team observer noted, Cowher was regarded as somewhat leery of playing rookies but had to press some young players into service early, with Hampton and Simmons two examples cited.
Colbert definitely has shown he can find productive players in Round One. The question is, will that task be a little trickier this year?