Everyone knew the Pittsburgh Steelers would have to cut a player to sign a defensive lineman before Sunday’s game at New Orleans. But most Steelers insiders were surprised that the team released its 2010 fourth-round pick, OLB Thad Gibson, to make room to sign Steve McLendon from the practice squad.
However, it was not surprising that multiple teams attempted to claim Gibson off waivers, with the 49ers winning his rights. I doubt the Steelers’ front office was naive enough to believe that an athletic, 21-year-old prospect who carried a 3rd- or 4th-round grade before the draft and looked good in preseason would clear waivers, thus making it to the practice squad.
Thus, I am assuming they had given up on Gibson, which would mean another bad fourth-round pick by Kevin Colbert, the director of football operations for the Steelers.
DO NOT MISINTERPRET: This post is not a hit job on Colbert, who I like drafting for the Steelers. He is arguably the best in the league in the ultra-important first round, in large part because he drafts on college production, filling needs with players who fit the Steelers’ schemes while taking few risks in the opening round.
After the 1st round, Colbert has essentially been an average drafter, with plenty of hits and more misses, like almost everyone else in the league. But in the fourth-round, I’d rather have any reader of this blog draft for the Steelers in that one round based on Colbert’s history.
Gibson actually represented good value in the fourth round of a loaded 3-4 OLB draft in 2010. But his selection by the Steelers was even more surprising than his eventual release before ever playing a snap in a regular-season game.
That is because the Steelers had reached somewhat to grab the OLB prospect they coveted in Jason Worilds in the 2nd round. The Steelers did need depth at OLB behind superstars James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. On a good note, Worilds has already eradicated the unfair Alonzo Jackson comparisons by being a stalwart on kick coverage and contributing as a speed, edge rusher against the Dolphins when Woodley was sidelined and replaced by inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons for the most part except when Worilds came in to speed rush.
Although he is not having a great 2010, Woodley is likely to return to the Steelers in 2011 either because (A) no CBA is reached before the summer enabling Pittsburgh to retain his rights; (B) a CBA is reached and he signs a long-term deal with the Steelers; or (C) a CBA is reached and Woodley is given the franchise tag by the Steelers (assuming one is included in the new CBA) while the two sides work towards a long-term deal.
The fact that Harrison signed a six-year contract after the 2008 season added to the insanity of the Gibson pick. Assuming Worilds was not a bust, no one could foresee Gibson getting any serious PT for several years despite his long-term potential.
But wasting a fourth-round pick has been commonplace since Colbert took over the Steelers’ drafts in 2000. In general, the vast majority of fourth-round picks make the roster of the team that drafted them as rookies and most teams expect that at least half would eventually evolve into contributors, with a few becoming starters.
Amazingly, though, Gibson marks the fourth of Colbert’s 11 selections in the 4th round who were cut before ever playing one regular-season down for the Steelers and three more of his 4th-round picks collectively only saw a few regular-season snaps for the Steelers.
Here are Colbert’s 4th-round picks with a grade based on how they fared and also taking into account where they were rated by most draft experts and if Colbert was attempting to fill an actual need instead of just taking an OLB without causation as is often his wont.
2000 – Danny Farmer, WR, UCLA. Grade D-: This was a bit of a reach for a guy at a non-need position at the time since the Steelers had drafted Plaxico Burress in the first round that year. Farmer was cut by the Steelers after training camp of his rookie season. He did see a little action with the Bengals over the next couple of years.
2001 – Mathias Nkwenti, OT, Temple. Grade D: This was another ridiculous pick pushed for by former Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who disagreed with the draft projections of almost every other coach in the league and seemingly liked his tackles to be 6-foot-4 or under. The 6-foot-3 Nkwenti was projected as a late-round project by most. He did spend three years on the Steelers roster as a deep reserve, but was awful in the only two games where he saw any action.
2002- Larry Foote, ILB, Michigan. Grade A-: Foote, who returned to Pittsburgh this fall after a 1-year stint with Detroit, has been a solid situational run-stuffer for the Steelers, starting 5 years but mostly as a 1- or 2-down player who leaves the field on passing downs. Still, he is a tackling machine. The only reason Foote does not get a grade of A is because decent run-stuffing inside linebackers who lack athleticism are often found in the 4th or 5th rounds.
2003- Ike Taylor, CB, La. Laf. Grade A+: By far, Colbert’s best fourth-round pick and one of his best overall picks with the Steelers, the athletic Taylor is in his sixth season as a starter and has emerged as one of the league’s most under-rated corners. Although he is prone to mental lapses, Taylor played at a Pro Bowl level in 2005, 2007 and 2008 but did not make the game in any of those years due to his poor hands. This year, though, he is playing superb football again and with two interceptions already on the books, Taylor is well on his way to breaking his career high of three and possibly earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Getting a starting No. 1 CB in the fourth round was a steal by Colbert.
2004- Steelers did not have a fourth-round pick.
2005- Fred Gibson, WR, Georgia. Grade D-: Gibson was considered a draft steal, since he was rated as a late 2nd or 3rd rounder in a very deep WR class of 2005. The Steelers needed depth at the position, so most Pittsburgh fans were excited by this pick. It turns out that Gibson, who also played basketball at Georgia, preferred flag football, since he did not like giving or receiving contact. He did not make the Steelers’ roster as a rookie. Afterward, he spent parts of the next two years on the Dolphins’ practice squad but never played in an NFL game.
2006a- Willie Colon, OT, Hofstra. Grade A: Colbert’s second best fourth-round pick, Colon was the only under-sized tackle ever preferred by Grimm who ended up a good selection. He surprised many by winning the RT job over Max Starks in 2007 and improved each season before suffering a season-ending Achilles tear this offseason that currently has him on IR. Colon gets some stupid penalties and struggled with speed rushers early in his career, but is a dominant run blocker and had improved his pass-blocking skills before his injury.
2006b- Orien Harris, DL, Miami. Grade D: Another player cut by the Steelers as a rookie, Harris did stick around in the NFL as a marginal roster player/practice-squad member for several seasons, seeing his only extensive action in 2008 as a second-teamer for the Bengals who saw action in 14 games. Colbert cannot be blamed for this pick, since the Steelers needed depth and definitely some youth on the defensive line. But Harris was not physical in training camp and long-time Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell prefers veterans on his roster.
2007a- Daniel Sepulveda, P, Baylor: Grade B-: “Robo Punter” marked one of the Steleers’ most intriguing picks in recent years, although long-time Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette hated the selection. Sepulveda proved an immediate upgrade from his horrendous predecessor, Mitch Berger. He was mediocre in 2007 and 2009 (missing 2008 with an ALC tear), but is having by far his best season in 2010, averaging career bests of 46.9 yards and 40.5 net yards per punt, although that still only ranks 18th among NFL punters. Sepulved is no better than an average punter at the NFL level thus far. Since he is one of only 10 punters selected in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft over the last 20 years, I was hoping for better than average.
2007b- Ryan McBean, DL, Oklahoma State. Grade D+: The McBean situation almost mirrored Harris. The Steelers needed youth and depth on the defensive line, and McBean was by far the highest rated 3-4 DE left on the board at the end of the 4th round. But he did not make the team, was signed to the practice squad, and dressed for one game as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers before being cut. Ironically, he resurfaced as a 14-game starter for a marginal Broncos’ defensive line last year and is now a part-time player for Denver. Pittsburgh probably gave up on McBean too quickly. But that is not Colbert’s fault (blame it on Mithcell) and McBean is still nothing more than a borderline NFL player.
2008- Tony Hills, OT, Texas. Grade D+: Colbert’s biggest fault has been that he has ignored the offensive line too often early in the daft, as the Steelers in 2008 and 2009 where the only team in the NFL that did not have a former first- or second-round pick starting on its offensive line, and it showed. 2008 was another year when a major need on the offensive line was not addressed by Colbert until the 4th round. At that point, Hills, who most forecasted as a project and a boom-or-bust type, was the highest rated OT left on the board and worth drafting, since Colbert had inexcusably passed over OL Oniel Cousins in the 3rd round to draft another unneeded OLB and eventual bust in Bruce Davis. After looking awful in preseason and practices while seeing no game action in his first two eyars, Hills looked like a longshot to make the Steelers’ roster this fall. But he had a strong preseason and was viewed as possibly the team’s LT of the future afterward. However, after seeing his first and probably last game action against the Titans in week No. 2, the bust label has been re-attached to Hills.
2009- Steelers did not have a fourth-round pick.
2010- Thad Gibson, OLB, Ohio State. Grade D-: As previously noted, Gibson made the 53-man roster as the No. 9 OLB but was not active for any of the Steelers’ first six games before being cut to create a roster spot for a defensive lineman. He was subsequently claimed by the 49ers off waivers. Like Fred Gibson and Harris, Thad Gibson offered good value in the fourth round. But this pick was far, far dumber, because the Steelers did not need two OLBs in the first four rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, since their top five LBs are the best quintet in the NFL. The hope was that Gibson would develop down the road into a contributor. He may still, but it will be with another team.