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NFL Strong nucleus help to Steelers



Published: Tue, April 16, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The organization is not feeling a pressing need in this weekend's draft.

By TOM WILLIAMS

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- With 21 of 22 starters returning, a free agent signed to replace departed linebacker Earl Holmes and the 30th pick of this weekend's NFL draft, the Steelers braintrust is pretty relaxed.

"It's a nice situation to be in," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher Monday, referring to the 22 veterans in place for the starting offensive and defensive positions. "It gives us some flexibility in that we don't have to draft for need.

"But there is a sense of some unfinished business that exists within this team," said Cowher, whose Steelers lost the AFC Championship Game at home against the New England Patriots. "Whoever steps in here is going to recognize that the expectation level is very high from within."

Showing improvement

After three straight seasons of missing the playoffs and earning mid-to-high first-round picks, the Steelers went 13-3 last season to earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

"We'd rather have the 32nd pick," Kevin Colbert, director of football operations, said in reference to the spot the Super Bowl champion Patriots own.

"It is certainly is nice to be picking late in the day again," Cowher said. "We can keep open-minded and maybe take the best football player, especially if a good one is dropping."

With so much returning talent, Cowher said there won't be as "much pressure to step in and perform right away" for this year's draft picks.

In the off-season, the Steelers re-signed linebackers Jason Gildon and John Fiala as well as backup cornerback Deshea Townshend.

The Steelers passed on Holmes, who signed with the Cleveland Browns, and replaced their inside linebacker with former New York Jet James Farrior.

The other main departure is kicker Kris Brown, who signed with the expansion Houston Texans. Todd Peterson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, has been signed to replace Brown.

Also not returning will be backup cornerback Jason Simmons (Texans) and No. 3 wide receiver Bobby Shaw (Jaguars).

"We don't really see any real glaring holes," Colbert said.

Considering their options

Because the Steelers have eight picks (one per round plus a second seventh-rounder from the Texans as compensation for losing Brown), Colbert said trading up is a possibility.

"We have a full deck plus one this year, which should help us if we want to make a move," Colbert said.

Neither Colbert nor Cowher would identify players they covet, but Colbert said this year's draft class is strongest in passing specialists.

"It's a strong receiver group that was enhanced by the juniors that declared," Colbert said. "Defensively, there's a pretty good group of safeties and a decent group at [cornerback]."

Cowher said Troy Edwards, the Steelers' top pick three years ago, is expected to replace Shaw after spending two seasons in Cowher's doghouse.

Although the Steelers' top three cornerbacks (Chad Scott, DeWayne Washington and Townsend) are signed for four years, Colbert said he would not hesitate to select a "good cornerback if one fell to us. You can never have enough good players at that position."

Securing the talent

Colbert said his next mission is to pursue contract extensions for players who will be free agents next winter: guard Alan Faneca, offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, safety Lee Flowers, linebacker Joey Porter, running back Amos Zereoue and defensive end Aaron Smith.

"We'd like to keep as many of these guys together as we can, so this doesn't become a one-year or a two-year run," Cowher said. "We'd like to continue to keep one step ahead."

Colbert said the team won't draft with an eye on who might leave in the future.

"We're optimistic that we will be able to keep the majority of this group and we [don't want to waste] a draft pick in anticipation of losing someone," Colbert said.

Cowher said the Steelers will pick up a fourth quarterback either in the draft or as a free agent just in case Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox or Tee Martin get injured in training camp.

williams@vindy.com




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