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Steelers reassessing character issues during NFL Draft

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Luke Joeckel runs a drill during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Joeckel is considered a possible first pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday, April 25, 2013.
Luke Joeckel runs a drill during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Joeckel is considered a possible first pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday, April 25, 2013.
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter makes a catch for a touchdown over Troy defensive back Josh Spence during their game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter makes a catch for a touchdown over Troy defensive back Josh Spence during their game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Kevin Colbert is considered among the preeminent general managers in the NFL. He can boast of having more hits than misses, especially when evaluating the character of draft selections during his tenure with the Steelers.

However, the jury is still out on the 2012 draft class, partly because of lingering questions of why the organization seemingly overlooked — or excused — a couple of draft picks' apparent character flaws while in college.

Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu and running back Chris Rainey were entangled in off-field incidents that left a black eye on an organization that prides itself on weeding through character deficiencies.

Ta'amu, a fourth-round pick, was once considered the heir apparent to Casey Hampton. But a drunken foray through the streets of Pittsburgh last fall still clouds his future.

Ta'amu, sentenced to 18 months probation earlier this month, pled guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunken driving stemming from an incident in which his SUV struck four parked vehicles and injured a female passenger.

The Steelers suspended Ta'amu and waived him a few days later. By season's end, he was back on the roster.

Rainey, a fifth-round selection, was arrested after a domestic dispute shortly after the regular-season finale. Colbert said in a statement that Rainey's actions were “extremely disappointing” when the Steelers released him.

Yet, the Steelers haven't reconciled their reasoning for keeping Ta'amu on the roster for actions that endangered lives.

“Over the course of Colbert's tenure there, he's been among the best at drafting solid citizens, and the coaches have done a good job of developing them into players,” said Charlie Casserly, a former general manager with Washington and Houston. “If I'm a Steelers fan, I'm not going to panic because the Steelers have a track record of success.”

On Monday, Colbert insisted this year's draft isn't unlike any other. The organization hasn't changed the way it assesses potential character flaws of players on its draft board — except consulting with family members to gauge the athletes' temperament.

However, the Steelers were in the unenviable position of having to reassess their pre-draft evaluations of Ta'amu and Rainey.

While coach Mike Tomlin appeared disappointed at the incident involving Ta'amu, there were signs of possible trouble. Ta'amu told the Tribune-Review last fall that the organization was aware of his previous legal troubles while attending the University of Washington.

Ta'amu had been charged with driving under the influence in 2009 while at Washington, which ended with a guilty plea of negligent driving. Rainey was charged with aggravated stalking during his junior year at the University of Florida.

Still, Colbert insisted nothing has changed in how potential draft picks are being evaluated, particularly with matters of character.

“It's been the same evaluation, the same process,” said Colbert, in his third year as general manager after spending 11 years as director of football operations. “When you try to figure out a player's character, it starts with the reports from college that we get.

“It follows up with our own personal interviews and background checks. Coach Tomlin and I did a lot of follow-up work this past spring when we visited the pro days.”

In an effort to remedy possible flawed evaluations, the organization focused more on having discussions with the families of draft-eligible players to better assess their character.

“We actually tried to be a little more proactive in trying to meet families,” Colbert said. “It is something that Coach Tomlin started three years ago. After we draft players, we start to bring their families in to get to know the kids that we drafted.”

“I just think it helps us develop a more complete picture about whom and what a player is, and maybe more importantly, what he is capable of being,” Tomlin said. “I think the more you look at where they come from and who they come from, it helps you paint that well-rounded picture.”

Colbert said efforts have been made to meet with potential draft picks and their families during pro days. However, it's often a difficult task when a player's family doesn't reside near campus.

“We did try to make a conscious effort to extend the program Coach Tomlin started three years ago, visiting with families as a pre-draft thing,” Colbert said. “I think that would be the only difference. All the background checks and the psychological examinations or interviews that we do are exactly the same.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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