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NFL teams, draft prospects find value in pro days

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
The Steelers' Will Johnson blocks for running back Jonathan Dwyer on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers fullback Will Johnson cuts during practice Aug. 11, 2012, at St. Vincent.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert flew to Phoenix for the NFL meetings then was back on a plane again almost before he could unpack his bag. After all, it was time for another pro day at a BCS school.

Pro day can be the workout that jumps an NFL prospect a couple of rounds in the draft or dooms a player to a lower round than he anticipated.

Just like that, hundreds of thousands of dollars or more are gained or lost in a single workout that isn't as comprehensive as those at the NFL Scouting Combine but is one in which jobs are won or lost. Only last spring, the Steelers found their starting fullback, Will Johnson, at West Virginia's pro day, more than a year after he last played.

For the players not considered elite enough to be chosen for the combine, their pro day might determine whether they are drafted or signed at all.

Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin concentrate on schools where they have identified potential first- or second-round players.

Colbert and Tomlin attended LSU's pro day Wednesday for example; Thursday was the last day for major-college schools to hold a pro day.

Other schools are targeted by position coaches or scouts; quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner attended the Miami (Ohio) pro day to watch quarterback Zac Dysert — the Steelers have a good track record with quarterbacks from that school.

In fact, the Steelers have attended a large number of pro days featuring quarterbacks, perhaps a sign they will use a relatively early-round pick on a quarterback for the first time since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami in 2004.

“The position coaches, we really try to get them to see any (potential) drafted player,” Colbert said. “Sometimes they watch them work out at the combine.

“If a kid was injured, (the position coaches) have to go, because he didn't work out at the combine and we want to have a coach present.

“You just try to get as much exposure as possible.”

Colbert said it's not imperative to attend every pro day. All teams have access to the workout videos of the top 300 or so prospects from the combine, and all pro days are taped. And many teams now demand that potential high draft picks work out for them exclusively.

But at a time when some teams are cutting back on saturation scouting at pro days — there wasn't a single NFL head coach at Alabama's pro day — the Steelers still like the personal touch, the information they can gather only by watching a prospect in person.

Nearly 40 years ago, for example, the Steelers stole future Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth in the fourth round — Chuck Noll lobbied to take him in the first — partly because scout Bill Nunn stayed after the regular pro day (even if it wasn't called that at the time) and obtained better 40-yard dash times for him.

“We don't do it positionally. We do it based on the player that's going to be available at a certain school,” Colbert said, explaining how the Steelers divide up pro day scouting. “The pro days overlap, but we have to cover as many as we possibly can.”

If the Steelers like the player, he might be one of the up to 30 they bring into Pittsburgh for personal interviews.

And who could have envisioned this only a few decades ago?

Not only do millions watch the NFL Network as players in workout gear going through sprints, cone-running and pass-catching drills at the combine, some pro days — such as Southern Cal's on Wednesday — are televised.

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith's pro day might go down in the books after he completed 60 of 64 passes. In less than a month, Smith will learn if it was a day that made him millions.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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