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The excitement of the NFL Combine and its limitations

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Acknowledging our limitations

The Combine can tell us who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap a tall building at a single bound. What it can't say with certainty is who can play football at the highest level.

One of the great aspects about this time of the year is speculating about all the different things, mostly personnel moves, that can be done that would make the Steelers better, and, hopefully good enough to successfully compete for a championship. There now exists a minor industry that both feeds and feeds off of these speculations, of which the Combine has become a highlight. There's no real harm in this as long as all parties are clear about their limitations. Of course, part of what makes these things marketable is to obscure just that fact. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert tried to remind us of that this week. How many were listening and heard is another matter.

There are two things to keep in mind as we go through this process.

1. NFL teams, the better ones at least, have fairly massive scouting operations which would only make sense given the millions of dollars and jobs that are at stake. They work these puzzles year round and to suggest that a hobbyist or media pundit can match or exceed what these scouting operations do is, well, an interesting position to take. Let me just say that I am skeptical.

2. That being said, even the team operations have limitations and examples of the embarrassing consequences aren't even that difficult to identify. There is both science and art in the evaluation process, but neither shields from mistakes.

Take for example, Tom Brady and Antonio Brown, two players who 32 teams passed on at least five times, but are now at the absolute pinnacle of their profession (btw I don't recall any amateurs or pundits recoiling in shock at the lack of interest at the time either). James Harrison, who has just announced that he is not retiring, reminds us that everyone ignored one who would become a defensive player of the year. And with every story of an overlooked star there is one who was selected with a great deal of fanfare and failed.

There is nothing that should be considered unusual about this. Every year tens of thousands are selected to matriculate at the nation's colleges and universities. And even though nearly all were selected because it was believed that they could and would be successful, many drop out or flunk out. The simple fact is that there are limits to using measurables to predict with complete accuracy who will transition successfully to a higher more challenging level of performance. At almost every instance circumstances require that one reaches down for previously unused resources to meet the challenges that confront them at this higher level. Some do so and find things that no one, perhaps themselves included, knew they possessed. Others reach down and find nothing there. Others still never figure out that they have to reach at all.

As a tangible example lets examine some of the most recent additions of the Steelers.

An important aspect in the fortunes of former 1st rounder Jarvis Jones and former 2nd rounder Le'Veon Bell is how successful each has been addressing issues related to weight (Jones gaining, Bell losing). Each of them as well as Ryan Shazier, David DeCastro, Shamarko Thomas and Mike Adams have had to respond to the impact of injuries. Compare that to Kelvin Beachum who has enjoyed a relatively injury free beginning to his career and also clearly has been able to mobilize his inner resources to his advantage. But who could have predicted any of this in advance?

Is it really all about cornerbacks?

Colbert put out some caution flags about this as well. Certainly getting a quality player at the corner position would be advantageous. But the issue and its solution may be more complicated than that. Would getting Cortez Allen back up to speed confidence wise and physically, a healed and more integrated Mike Mitchell, an emerging Shamarko Thomas, and resigning Jason Worilds and Brice McCain do any less for the Pittsburgh defense than adding a corner absent those additional developments? Does the attitude of placing the acquisition of a cornerback as a carved in stone top priority, a position promoted by some who are unfamiliar with the Steelers' culture, distort the team's tendency to be more mindful of best player available and longer term concerns when they make drafting decisions?

A tight end in the first round?

With some of these factors in mind, there are some who are advancing the argument that Pittsburgh defer the many needs on the other side of the ball and invest in a tight end if a quality candidate is available. Again, all this comes down to not so much whether you address certain problems but how. A replacement has to be groomed for Heath Miller, though the matter is not currently urgent. Do you address the matter internally (Blanchflower and resign Spaeth), a high draft choice (like Miller), a quality free agent (like a James Farrior), a lower draft choice (AB or Beachum) or an UDFA (like James Harrison). The matter is influenced by so many other issues that you quickly realize that a commitment to a course of action may not come until the moment of truth. In this sense the importance is in contingency planning.

Where the Steelers stand

In contemplating these moves it would be useful to get a full spectrum picture of where the team currently stands in terms of its capabilities and needs. Fortunately, there is some help available in this regard. Our Dale Grdnic has been running a series on the Steelers depth chart. This week he has pieces on quarterback [here], guards [here], center [here], wide receivers [here], running back [here] and tight ends [here]. Over at they are running a similar set of features with specialists[here], wide receivers [here] and running backs [here] getting attention this week.

Related issues

Again, if you want to get a full spectrum picture of what you're dealing with then you need to project what the salary cap is likely to be for this year, and you want to factor in the possibility of compensatory draft picks.

Back to the Combine

Cam Heyward [here] and Arthur Moats [here] give a players perspective on the Combine experience. Dale Lolley and Jim Wexall their Combine and draft related observations.

Hall of Fame weekend

A good thing you would think, right? Bob Labriola and others might beg to differ. The game in Canton means the Steelers will have an extended training camp experience, including an extra preseason game. One of the interesting features of training camp this past summer were the joint practices conducted with the Buffalo Bills. Pittsburgh was scheduled to reciprocate by travelling to Orchard Park, New York this year. That trip has been cancelled, perhaps because the Bills have a new head coach in Rex Ryan, but most probably because of the changes wrought by the HOF selection. In the meantime, the likely cause of this, 2015 inductee Jerome Bettis spent his birthday in Canton, taking a tour with his family.

Ryan Clark

It was noted in this space last week that the former Steelers safety was set to announce his retirement. We now know that Clark will be retiring as a Pittsburgh Steeler. As one writer commented. Clark's greatest moment will likely be remembered as occurring in the 2009 AFCCG when as the writer said, he delivered the most violent hit in the most violent game he had ever seen.

John Norwig

The long time head Steelers trainer was recognized as Fain-Cain NFL Athletic Trainer of the Year.

League news

An initiative to put concussion detectors into helmets has been shelved.

Bad conduct

Anthony Defeo pushes against the notion that bad player conduct is a unique feature or even more prevalent than what was the norm in the past.