Kevin Colbert: Steelers prefer draft prospects who didn't opt out of 2020 season

The 2020 season brought a new landscape to the football world at every level of the sport. At least one NFL franchise isn’t exactly keen on giving potential prospects the benefit of the doubt.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert spoke with reporters Monday, just three days before the opening round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and he reiterated a stance he and Pittsburgh’s front office had taken nearly a year ago. Despite the logic behind giving college prospects a chance to opt out of the 2020 season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will prefer a player who participated.

“As I stated in the summer, if a player chooses to opt out for whatever reason, that’s their decision and we will respect it,” Colbert said. “However, if a player played in 2020 and those players are of equal value, the one that didn’t play and the one that played, we’ll take the one that played because we don’t know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football.

“We believe it’s hard to sit this game out. Sometimes it happens because of injury, but this time it was pandemic-related for the most part. But we will take the players, again if they’re close. It’s not to say we’re not gonna draft somebody that opted out. I couldn’t say that. But if I have a choice and we have a choice, we’ll take the one that played if their value is close.”

There’s a fair case to be made that a year off can hinder a player’s development, especially a season that often sees the greatest improvement in a prospect just before he heads off to the game’s highest level. There’s also a chance for a productive prospects to take a step back in the following season (see: Ohio State’s Shaun Wade), damaging their draft stock by playing through that final season.

We also haven’t even discussed the overall wear and tear on an athlete’s body from an additional season. While one year out of the game might leave some rust, it could also help a top prospect maintain health and playing prime longer, adding value over the length of a projected career.

There are two sides to the argument, and clearly, the Steelers are going to rely on the players with the most recent tape when they need to break a tie. That’s not to say they won’t take a top prospect solely because he didn’t play in 2020, of course, but they clearly have a preference.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that Colbert took such a stance before the 2020 season had even been played, well before we knew the league wouldn’t get an NFL Scouting Combine in 2021, and that the 2020 film would end up being the most reliable source of information. Then again, you don’t end up working in the same front office for 20-plus years without an identity and conviction in your beliefs.

Speaking of conviction, the Steelers might need that this weekend when it comes to figuring out a long-term solution under center. The time has come to determine who will succeed Ben Roethlisberger in a fashion similar to how he once received the keys from Tommy Maddox.

“Again, wide open to all of it. If you look at our current depth, obviously we have four NFL veteran quarterbacks on our roster, which I feel great about,” Colbert said. “We also have three of those four that are in the last year of their so-called deals, when you look at it realistically. So it’s an unusual group in that we do have four. Can you add a young one? Absolutely. We always have to be on the look for that next guy and try to predict the value of taking that player at that position because most likely a young quarterback won’t play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021.

… “It goes all the way back to Ben. Ben wasn’t a sure pick when we were sitting there at 11 because we had more pressing issues than a quarterback because Tommy (Maddox) had done some good things for us. It wasn’t like we couldn’t have started a season with Tommy. When Ben was there for us, it would’ve been a huge mistake not to take him. So we’ll always be open to adding what we believe is the most critical position. But again, we feel good about having four vets to work with at this point.”

The veterans include Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs and futures signing Dwayne Haskins. Realistically, maybe two of that quartet have a legitimate shot at being the starter in 2022. It’s more likely that none are — unless Haskins proves he can become a pro — especially if Pittsburgh snags a quarterback this weekend.

For now, the Steelers have 2021 — which is also the final year of Colbert’s existing employment agreement — largely figured out. Beyond that point is a vast wilderness of uncertainty.

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