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Steelers

Steelers strike gold with free agents

| Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The first day is akin to the first game of the year, in Steelers coach Bill Cowher's estimation, while the second day of the NFL Draft "may be more important than the first."

Still, it doesn't end there.

It won't for the Steelers this weekend, even after two days and 240 NFL selections.

"You look at a Nate Washington from last year, who was selected after the seventh round on a phone call that was made in that room well after the draft," Cowher said. "Here was a guy that made some of the biggest plays in the Denver game, a big third-down conversion, broke up an interception in the end zone."

Washington joined the Steelers as a rookie free agent wide receiver from Tiffin.

Yet, there he was making plays against the Broncos with the AFC championship at stake.

"There's a lot of good football players out there, and our scouts have done a good job not overlooking anybody," Cowher said.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert isn't as quick to credit his scouts when rookie free agents such as Washington wind up making the roster the hard way. Colbert's take is the player probably should have been drafted.

Washington cracked last year's roster at the expense of, among others, No. 4 pick Fred Gibson, a decorated receiver from Georgia who was cut in training camp.

Cowher, who began his NFL career as a rookie free agent in 1979, an era when the draft lasted 12 rounds, is less concerned with where players are found than he is with finding enough each season to create the competition in training camp that allows individuals and teams to elevate their play "to the next level."

The Steelers will stalk rookie free agents as the defending Super Bowl champions for the first time Sunday night, which may make a challenging task even more difficult.

"You're still looking at an opportunity," Cowher said. "We have proven, if you're a free agent, you're gonna get a look here. Free agents have made our football team; it is well-documented.

"That's the thing we try to sell to these guys. I've said before, it's not how you got here, it's what you do when you're here (that matters). Certainly, how you got here may create more opportunity for some people. But at some point, if you're on this football team, even as a (rookie) free agent, you're going to get an opportunity. Now, if you're able to seize that, then you're going to have a chance to make this team.

"We've never locked ourselves in to people before we see them play on the field. We've stayed pretty open-minded. Our past record, it speaks for itself. I know if I was a free agent, I would take that into account, the history of the football team. I think our history proves to be pretty good."

Additional Information:

Left out of the draft

Members of the 2005 Super Bowl-champion Steelers who entered the NFL as a rookie free agent:

K -- Jeff Reed (2002)

CB -- Chidi Iwuoma (2001, with Detroit)

FB -- Dan Kreider (2000)

RB -- Willie Parker (2004)

LB -- Arnold Harrison (2005)

LS -- Greg Warren (2005)

NT -- Chris Hoke (2001)

WR -- Nate Washington (2005)

LB -- James Harrison (2003)

Injured reserve

S -- Russell Stuvaints (2003)

LB -- Andre Frazier (2005)

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