Future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis started the 2000 season with Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Jon Witman backing him up. Never in franchise history, perhaps, have the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted a deeper backfield.
Things changed fast. First fullback Jon Witman fell to injury and then Fuamatu-Ma’afla followed.
Injuries are always inopportune, but Pittsburgh headed into a mid-season show down with the Baltimore Ravens having to activate a little-known rookie free agent from the University of New Hampshire, football power house that it is.
Dan Kreider buckled his chin strap and challenged Ray Lewis head on, the Steelers rushed for 100 yards, Pittsburgh dealt the Ravens their last loss of 2000 and Kevin Colbert now had one of his biggest calling cards – uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents.
The Colbert Record – Rookie Free Agents
With the NFL lockout heading to its conclusion one of the first orders of business will be to sign unrestricted rookie free agents. No one knows how the layoff will affect teams.
Previous installments of The Colbert Record dealt with his draft record. Today attention turns to Colbert’s success after the draft, success which has historically given the Steelers an advantage.
The list below contains the Steelers most prominent rookie free agents from the Kevin Colbert era. Click on the player names, each listed in the order of their appearance on the active roster.
Steelers 2000 Rookie Free Agents – Dan Kreider, Ainsley Battles
Steelers 2001 Rookie Free Agents - Keydrick Vincent, Chris Hoke
Steelers 2002 Rookie Free Agents - James Harrison
Steelers 2003 Rookie Free Agents – None
Steelers 2004 Rookie Free Agents - Willie Paker
Steelers 2005 Rookie Free Agents - Nate Washington
Steelers 2006 Rookie Free Agents - Anthony Madison
Steelers 2007 Rookie Free Agents - Gary Russell
Steelers 2008 Rookie Free Agents - Patrick Bailey, Darnell Stapleton
Steelers 2009 Rookie Free Agents - Stefan Logan, Doug Legursky,Ramon Foster, Isaac Redman
Steelers 2010 Rookie Free Agents - Steve McLendon
Kevin Colbert’s 2000 Rookie Free Agent Class
Dan Kreider - the "Sixth Offensive Lineman"
After getting his practice squad promotion in 2000 Dan Kreider went on to play in 113 games, starting 67 of those. Those numbers are impressive, but not as impressive as these: 4528 yards rushing and 4198 yards rushing.
Those are the rushing totals that Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker accumulated with Dan Kreider paving the way. Kreider is Steelers Football type who delivered down in the trenches time in and time out when victory or defeat lay in the balance.
An unheralded member of this list, Ainsley Battles made it as a rookie free agent in 2000 and played in all 16 games, starting two of those.
When the history of Steelers safeties is written, Battles name will seldom noted or remembered. But he did record a sack and two fumble recoveries, and returned for spot duty with the Steelers in 2004 after two years as a part-time starter in Jacksonville.
Kevin Colbert’s 2001 Rookie Free Agent Class
Kevin Colbert plucked Keydrick Vincent out of the rookie free agent pool in 2001 and Vincent went on to start 27 games while appearing in 38. He even made starts as a rookie and as a sophomore, and then saw his value to the team soar in 2003 when injuries ravaged the offensive line.
Yet his greatest moment was in 2004, when a training camp ACL tear to Kendall Simmons threatened to derail the season. Vincent stepped up, and started 16 games in a season that saw the Steelers finish 15-1. Not bad for a guy whose phone refused to ring on draft day.
Chris Hoke - the Perpetual Unsung Hero
The record reflects that Chris Hoke joined the Steelers the same year as Casey Hampton, but with a lot less fan fare. If there is an unsung hero among Kevin Colbert’s rookie free agent signings, that man is Chris Hoke.
Hoke held a roster spot for much of his first three years, but only dressed twice, until dressing regularly in 2004. At mid-season the man who was less than an afterthought stepped in when Casey Hampton tore his ACL – and the Steelers did not miss a beat in route to a 15-1 season.
Hoke gets little press, but he’s arguably the most valuable back up the team has. 108 games played and a ‘mere’ 16 starts might seem pedestrian over 10 years, but Chris Hoke does what’s asked of him and delivers when his number has called.
Kevin Colbert’s 2002 Rookie Free Agent Coup -- Silverback!
James Harrison - Silverback Attack
James Harrison actually made the active roster in 2002. The stories of his dismissals, recalls, and stint with the Ravens are now legendary. Since then he’s played in 107 games and started in 71 of them, but my God, do those numbers fail to do him justice.
Images can only suffice.
Harrison hinted that he was something special as early as 2004, when he laid down the law with a drunken Browns fan:
Harrison chose the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game against the Baltimore Ravens for his coming out party, a day when he exploded for 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble, and an interception.
And, just in case Ed Reed had any illusions about who was the baddest defender on the field that night, James Harrison erased any doubts:
James Harrison’s biggest play as a Steelers is perhaps the most over looked, which is especially rare given that it’s the longest run in Super Bowl history. While Ben Roethlisberger’s game-ending drive rightly draws rave reviews, James Harrison’s pick six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII amounted to a four point swing in a game that finished 27-24.
Oh, yeah, James Harrison has racked up 49 sacks, 5 interceptions, and forced 25 fumbles. And James Harrison was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
James Harrison accomplished these things in spite of the fact that he gets held more than any other pass rusher in the NFL. Not bad for a guy whose name was never called at a podium in New York, Silverback's current foot-in-mouth attack notwithstanding.
Kevin Colbert’s 2004 Rookie Free Agent Fast Find
Fast Willie Parker
Not only did Willie Parker fail to be drafted, he barely played in college.
Parker went from non-entity to training camp sensation, to the man who relegated Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to the bench, to authoring the then longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history in just two years.
A true work horse, “Fast Willie” played in 79 games starting 60 of them, and rushed for 5,378 yards and 24 touchdowns. What’s all the more impressive is that Willie did this in 6 years earning him the number 3 spot on the Steelers All-Time rushing list, and his 4.3 yards per carry average career rushing average ties Barry Foster as the best for a Steelers running back.
Who knows which Steelers scout uncovered him, Dan Rooney Jr. lives near Fast Willlie’s stomping grounds in the Carolinas, but who ever it was deserves a medal.
Kevin Colbert’s 2005 Rookie Free Agent Protégée
Nate Washington cut his teeth as an unrestricted rookie free agent on the 2005 Super Bowl XL championship team. Washington’s best play as a rookie may have been the pass defense he made to save an interception in the AFC Championship game against Denver.
Year-by-year Washington got better, his hands became steadier, and he make himself into an integral part of the Steelers offense to the point where yours truly suggested that the Steelers might dump Santonio Holmes in favor of Washington after Holmes 2008 arrest.
Kevin Colbert’s astute pick up of Washington paid handsome dividends in Super Bowl XLIII as Nate Washington’s last pass as a Steeler came during the game winning drive.
Kevin Colbert’s 2006 Rookie Free Agent Special Teams Stud
Anthony Madison may have only played in 59 games and started none of them for the Steelers, but those numbers by no means measure his importance to the team. Madison is an outstanding special teams player and, as John Harris from the Tribune Review predicted, the team suffered mightly when they tried to do without him in 2009.
The Steelers brought him back, and their special teams improved accordinglyu.
Kevin Colbert’s 2007 Rookie Foster Free Agent Signing
As a rookie in 2007 Gary Russell ran with the power and decisiveness that led Ed Bouchette to compare him to Barry Foster. And like Foster, Russell seems to have had attitude problems which lead to his dismissal following Super Bowl XLIII.
Nonetheless, during his time in Pittsburgh, Russell filled a badly needed short-yardage specialist role and scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIII.
Kevin Colbert’s 2008 "Flash" Rookie Free Agent Class
Ultimately, Patrick Bailey disappointed, but his sharp special teams play won him 2008 rookie of the year honors.
Darnell Stapleton may not have had the staying power of some of the other offensive lineman on this list who made the team as undrafted rookie free agents, but he did step into the starting role when Kendall Simmons was injured against Baltimore in 2008.
And if his post-season performance and his knee injuries at Latrobe in 2009 made the coaches leery of bringing him back, Darnell Stapleton was good enough at right guard for 14 games on a Super Bowl championship team, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Kevin Colbert’s 2009 Rookie Free Agent Foursome
Who would think that four free agent rookies would make the roster of the defending Super Bowl Champions? It happened with Colbert's 2009 free rookie agent class, and a year later three of those four would play a vital role in bringing the Steelers to the brink of capturing the team's 7th Lombardi.
Stefan "Joystick" Logan
Stefan Logan aka “Joystick” was another 2009 training camp sensation who did a commendable job as a kick returner in 2009. The emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown made Stefan Logan expendable in 2010, but he was a bright spot on an otherwise dismal special teams unit.
“Mr. Versatility” Doug Legursky
Mike Tomlin has routinely praised “position flexibility” and perhaps no player has epitomized that more than Doug Legursky throughout is 24 games played and four starts. After making the practice squad in 2008, Legursky cracked the 53 man roster in 2009 seeing spot duty.
But in 2010 the team needed every bit of of Legusrsky’s versatility, and Legursky lined up at Center, Guard, fullback, and it would surprise me none to learn that he perhaps played a few snaps at tackle.
Ramon Foster found no love on draft day 2009, but the Steelers had plenty of love for him in late 2009 when injuries thrust him into the starting line up. He began 2010 on the bench, but by mid-season Mike Tomlin sent Trai Essex to the pine and Foster again joined the starting line up all the way through Super Bowl XLV.
Isaac "Redzone" Redman
Perhaps never has a Steelers player been move of a sensation without even taking a regular season NFL snap. Isaac Redman came out of no where in training camp 2009, and even held a roster spot for one game. In 2010 he earned a full roster spot, scored the game winning touchdown against Baltimore in the regular season.
At this point the only question about Redman is why don’t the Steelers give him more carries? Not bad for a Bowie State alumni.
Kevin Colbert’s 2010 Rookie Free Agent Signing
Steve McLendon’s stats will impress few, but McLendon saw serious playing time on a brutally hot Tennessee Sunday afternoon contributing to a defensive line that shut down Chris Johnson. McLendon only saw acting in 6 other games he has shown promise.
Undrafted Rookie Free Agents – Pittsburgh’s Competitive Differentiator
Normally undrafted rookie free agents fill out training camp rosters, play special teams, and perhaps grow into role players. If a rookie free agent holds his own in spot duty then he’s considered a success. Developing into a number one back up or unheralded starter is a decided plus.
Over the past decade Colbert, his scouts, and the Steelers coaches have developed just shy of one starting-caliber rookie free agent per season, and his two greatest finds, James Harrison and Willie Parker, authored the two of the most dramatic plays in history.
The Steelers success in staying competitive speaks for itself. Outsiders marvel at their record, asking “how do they do it?”
Those on lookers need do nothing more than browse the list above.
Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have drafted well, but their consistent success with rookie free agents has pushed Pittsburgh over the top. Lombardi’s number five and six offer proof.
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