With the roster mostly set, the Steelers' draft will primarily add depth.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- Unlike the 2004 NFL Draft when the Steelers' braintrust spent a nervous two hours fidgeting and praying that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would fall to No. 11, Saturday's selection day should be tension free for the Black and Gold for at least four hours.
That's because the Steelers are coming off a 15-1 regular season -- the NFL's best. Barring a very unlikely trade up, the Steelers will utilize their first pick -- No. 30 -- sometime around 5 p.m., long after college football's biggest names are off the board.
That doesn't matter to Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
"I feel real good about our football team right now and that should enable us to take the best player," Cowher said Monday.
Because of free agency and releases, the Steelers lost four key players from last year's offense (wide receiver Plaxico Burress, tight end Jay Riemersma, right guard Keydrick Vincent, right tackle Oliver Ross) plus a starter (cornerback Chad Scott) and former starter (linebacker Kendrell Bell) on defense.
Cowher said the team is prepared to replace them with players already on the roster. Thus, he sees this draft as a chance to improve depth.
"I think we have the luxury of not having to reach," Cowher said. "Certainly there are areas that we want to address, but when you're picking [in] that first round, you want to take the best player and let the board work itself out."
Kendall Simmons, who missed the 2004 season with a leg injury, is expected to start again at right guard while second-year tackle Max Starks is being groomed to replace Ross as starter.
Still, it would surprise no one if the Steelers draft an offensive lineman first.
"When we've been here, when we've not had some good years, there's probably been some instability in the offensive line," said Cowher, who is beginning his 14th season as the Steelers coach.
"It's hard to throw it, it's hard to run it, it's hard to do much consistently offensively without a good offensive line," Cowher said. "Right now, we haven't a lot of depth and you need to have that."
In the off-season, the Steelers signed former 49ers wide receiver Cedric Wilson to replace Burress.
Jerame Tuman became the starting tight end when Riemersma was injured last fall while Willie Williams took over at cornerback after Scott injured his knee last Oct. 17 against the Cowboys.
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations, said this year's draft features strong choices at wide receiver, running back, offensive line and cornerback.
Unlike many NFL analysts who consider this draft pool to be shallow, Colbert said he's optimistic.
"We think it's a good draft," Colbert said. "We've see reports that's it's soft and not deep, but we think there are guys available on the first day [rounds one-three] that can help our team.
"Coming out of the combine, this is the fastest group of receivers and corners that I've ever witnessed," Colbert said.
Cowher indicated that running back is not a high draft priority because Jerome Bettis intends to return to back up Duce Staley. Verron Haynes and Willie Parker also are in the mix.
Barring a trade, the Steelers have the 30th, 62nd and 93rd picks on Saturday.
Colbert said picking 19 spots lower doesn't change his approach.
"Preparation has been exactly the same," Colbert said. "The meeting and evaluations are the same. When you are picking 11th, it's easier to guess at who the 11 players might be."