When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Draft, there tends to be one of two things that most people want to know: either, how can you draft cornerbacks so poorly; or, how can you draft wide receivers so well? Then there are the difficult people who must ask how you can draft wide receivers so well and yet draft cornerbacks so poorly.
The problem for all of the aforementioned people is that there is no method to the madness—that is, randomness—of the results from the position. Generally speaking, the Steelers have not traditionally drafted either position particularly highly, although the average wide receiver has probably been drafted a round or two earlier than the average cornerback. But there is no magic to it.
“I really don’t think there is any secret sauce”, Kevin Colbert recently told Jason La Canfora in an article about the Steelers’ remarkable string of success drafting wide receivers over the past two decades “We evaluate receivers just like we evaluate any other position. We’ve had more good fortune than bad fortune with that position, but there’s no difference in anything we do. It’s no different”.
No doubt the Steelers have done well during Colbert’s tenure, which goes back to 2000. With the likes of first-round picks in Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes to mid-rounders like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Martavis Bryant—oh, and some sixth-round pick named Antonio Brown—they are rightfully the envy of the league when it comes to drafting this position. But only because of the results.
“You go back to Plax and that was an easy pick, that wasn’t hard”, Colbert told the reporter. “And the draft with Emmanuel and Antonio, we had them rated very closely. Emmanuel was a little more predictable because he was a senior and we’d seen him in the East-West Shrine Game”.
Talking about some of the receivers who have built the Steelers’ legacy over the past decade and a half, Colbert recalled that “Plax’s size and athleticism stood out. Emmanuel’s overall play and ability to return. Santonio’s play and ability to return. Mike Wallace’s speed was unique”.
The closest thing that the general manager came to giving up the “secret sauce” was this: “it’s not that receivers are easier to evaluate, but you see them do certain things [in college] that are very similar to what they’re being asked to do here”.
Of course, when it comes to preparing a dish, there is no one ingredient that makes it a world-class entrée. It’s not just the sauce. It’s the herbs and spices. It’s the preparation. It’s the quality of the ingredients. It’s the chef. It’s the presentation. It’s everything.
When it comes to wide receivers, or any position, once again, it’s everything. It’s knowing how to evaluate talent that is going to translate not just to the NFL level, but to your offense. It’s having the coaches who know how to get everything out of their players. It’s having the teammates, the right environment. Everything together, all at once. That’s the secret: there is no secret.