By Alan Robinson
ORLANDO, Fla.—While Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a policy of not talking to reporters from the end of the season until the NFL meetings in March, general manager Kevin Colbert has a different approach.
He doesn’t talk during the season – he believes that the coach should be a team’s mouthpiece when games are being played – but he is more expansive once the season ended.
Colbert talked in mid-February during a let’s-take-a-look back-at the-season session, then again during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. But his most interesting comments since the Steelers wrapped up their second 8-8 season in a row came here at the annual NFL meetings. (Don’t bother trying to drop by; you probably can’t afford it.)
Here are Colbert’s comments on various issues as the Steelers push forward through free agency and get ready for the May draft. (Yes, I said May draft.)
Q: Was losing Jerricho Cotchery a disappointment?
A: “I would say it was a disappointment because he was a productive guy for us and really found his niche and had a comfort zone with Ben, which was nice. Other people saw that same potential, or production I guess you should say at this stage of his career, and they were able to do some things financially that we weren’t able to do. He had to make some decisions. He also had a little bit of an attraction to that area because of where he went to school and where his wife is from. You respect that and understand that. We wish him luck.”
Q: Why did the Steelers go after Mike Mitchell?
A: “He’s big, he’s fast and the biggest thing about the free safety position in our defense is you have to be smart. Based on the reports we had about Mike coming out of college, based on some of the things you can see him doing on film, and some of the information we had with him in the NFL, we thought he’d be able to handle it. Now he’ll have to go through and adjustment period of making calls specific to our defense, but he certainly has the capabilities to do that. He’s the type of guy we like to sign as a free agent. Usually, the guys we like to get if we do make a big investment are guys coming off of their first contract. Well he’s coming off of his second contract but his second contract was only a year. The nice thing is he’s experienced but I think there is a lot of room for continued growth.”
Q: Mitchell is low mileage, too, having started less than one entire season, right?
A: “Right, because he wasn’t a starter early in his career. Again, you don’t think you possibly have seen the best, but what he’s shown so far, it was exciting because he was certainly productive for a good defense.”
Q: Will this be an adjustment for Troy (Polamalu) after playing with the same guy (Ryan Clark) for eight years?
A: “It is, but I know Troy had some anxieties when Chris Hope left and he and Ryan Clark became inseparable almost. Troy is a special player and I’m sure once he gets to know Mike and Mike gets to know Troy and they begin to work together I think there will be a comfort zone they’ll find there as well.”
Q: Is bringing back James Harrison a possibility?
A: “We’re never going to close the door on any possibilities at this point, but especially with a guy who is a huge part of your success. With that being said, we have to see what is best for our team as we continue to go through this free agency period. There might be other outside linebackers that could help us as well. Like I said, we’re just going to continue to look and see as to what’s out there. As long as James is available, that obviously remains an option but it’s something that we have to decide if it’s the best thing for the organization at that point.”
Q: What went into the decision to sign Lance Moore?
A: “We lost two veteran receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho. I think Lance gives us a little bit of what each of those guys could give us. We knew we weren’t going to be able to keep both Jerricho and Emmanuel, so we looked at veteran receivers to have available. Lance actually wasn’t in the group when we started free agency because he was cut. As you move forward, if you remember, I said that will happen throughout free agency, guys will get cut and now all of the sudden they are in the mix. Fortunately for us, he was in the mix. He’s a very smart, experienced receiver that knows how to work in the slot. He’s been productive and again, he’ll be 31 in August I think it is, so there is still some good football left in Lance Moore and we’re excited that he was available to us when we went to sign him.”
Q: Moore had a drop-off statistically last season; was that a concern?
A: “Kenny Stills, the kid they (the Saints) drafted, developed and I think he produced and that probably took away some of his catches. Again, as we talked about earlier, when they move up in the contract, if the production is not matching the contract, you have to make a decision. I don’t think they wanted to let him go, I think they probably had to.”
Q: Has Ben (Roethlisberger) ever come to you and asked for a tall receiver tan than a shorter receiver (like Moore)?
A: “No, he hasn’t. Everybody wants big, fast – but guys get open, too. Guys that know how to get open. Our best receiver is 5’10”. I’m sure teams would rather have him than a big guy. So, size, sure it’s important and there are plenty of big receivers in this draft, but really if you get caught up just looking for a specific, you’ll miss out on a good player.”
Q: Did the salary cap bump (from $123 million to $133 million) help with the decision to cut Woodley (and his $14.1 million in dead money)?
A: “It helped. It changed some things with us, and we didn’t anticipate that at all. All along we’re thinking $123 [million] and you’re hearing reports and then it ends up being as high as it was, that certainly allowed us to be able to do some things that we didn’t think we’d be able to do back in January and February.”
Q: Still feel good about the decision last year to trade a third-round pick to the Browns to draft Shamarko Thomas?
A: “If he was in this draft, we certainly would feel good about having used that third-round pick. He started out real good for us last year and then after the ankle injury, he fell behind because he was missing time and then Will Allen did a nice job of stepping back in after we picked him up and solidifying the back end a little bit. Shamarko will come out of this last year a much better player we think this year.”
Q: Are there any concerns with Markus Wheaton about his (broken) finger, which required multiple operations?
A: “No, he’s been in the building, he’s working out and he’s rehabbing. That’s not an uncommon injury for an NFL receiver and they learn how to adapt and fight through it. Hopefully, he’s going to do that.”
Q: Anything new with Jarvis Jones?
“He’s not here (in Pittsburgh). That’s the hard part with this new (labor) agreement. We can only call them or you can call whoever they are training with. But we can’t go there.”
Q: Many players like to train in Florida or Arizona because of the weather. Have you had many working out in Pittsburgh?
A: “They trickle in and out. I saw Cam Heyward. We haven’t been there ourselves so it’s hard. I don’t check on them. I’ve seen Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, and Markus Wheaton. Worilds was in there for a little bit and he went back. He’s training in Atlanta. I saw Heath in there the other day.”
By the way, Tomlin will sit down for a one-hour interview Tuesday with national and Pittsburgh reporters, so there should be more insight then as to what’s going on with the Steelers. His session last year in Phoenix was interesting and a bit prescient; he predicted that NFL defenses would make adjustments to the read-option offense and effectively neutralize it, and that largely played out during the season.