Steelers GM Kevin Colbert enters final NFL draft, Mike Tomlin prepares for change

PITTSBURGH -- As Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert approached the dais at Heinz Field for their final pre-draft news conference, Tomlin grinned and offered his longtime colleague some directions.

“Kev, don’t sit on that side,” the coach said with a chuckle. “You always sit on this one.”

The two men shuffled behind the table, Colbert taking a seat to Tomlin’s left, just like always.

It’s the kind of familiarity and routine that reflects 15 years of working with each other. But Tomlin will have to get used to a new person sitting -- and working -- beside him. After 22 years with the Steelers organization, including 11 as the official general manager, Colbert will work his final draft this week before stepping down from the position later this spring (Round 1 of the draft is Thursday on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN App.) .

“I’ve tried not to think about it, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said Monday. “It went through my mind a little bit when we were traveling because we’ve just had such great times over the years traveling and gathering information, the necessary information to get to know the young men. But we’ve been up against it pretty good, so there haven’t been a lot of those moments. Obviously, it’s been a pleasure to work alongside him. We’ll see where the roads lead us.”

Colbert joined the organization in 2000 as the director of football operations and was named the team’s first official general manager in 2011. Though he’ll relinquish the title in the coming months, Colbert said he could stay on in another advisory role, but those specifics haven’t been determined. Since announcing he would step down as general manager after the draft, Colbert hasn’t been overly nostalgic about his slate of lasts alongside Tomlin.

“It’s been a great process to work with Coach,” Colbert said. “You don't take those things for granted. He loves this part of the process, and that always makes it an easier endeavor. It's fun to be out and watch him interact with these young men and their families, and the respect that he commands on the road, it's very impressive. And the information that he comes away with that I might have missed is very helpful. It's been a nice working relationship, but it's been more than that.

“You share the highs, you share the lows, and it's been great. But quite honestly, we haven't had the time to think about that. Now, I think that time will come whenever it comes, but right now we've got to get this thing right, and that's what we are focused on.”

While Colbert hasn’t allowed himself to get sentimental on the pre-draft trail this offseason, Tomlin has relished their final few months together on the road.

The pair particularly enjoyed dining out together and taking top prospects out to dinner ahead of pro day workouts.

“We eat a lot,” Tomlin said. “We sample regional dining, depending on where we are. But there’s a method to that, as well. We enjoy the informal settings of breaking bread with the young people in their towns and getting to know them. And hopefully that’s a setting where we can legitimately get to know them in a non-football way.”

Though Tomlin wouldn’t divulge the pair’s favorite haunts, he did tip his hand to a favorite region’s restaurants.

“I'm a sweet tea guy,” Tomlin said. “So, there are certain regions of the country that have high-grade sweet tea. That's where I like to go.”

The Steelers completed at least one interview with 16 candidates to replace Colbert, and they’ll resume the process after the draft. Among the lengthy list of names are a few familiar faces, including internal candidates Brandon Hunt and Omar Khan, the Steelers’ pro scouting coordinator and vice president of football operations and business administration, respectively. There’s also Doug Whaley, who spent 11 years as the Steelers’ pro scouting coordinator before four as the Buffalo Bills general manager, and Andy Weidl, a Pittsburgh native who began his career as a Steelers player personnel assistant and is the current Philadelphia Eagles vice president of player personnel.

But no matter who takes over the position, Tomlin will have to adjust to some amount of change -- something that both makes him nervous and gives him energy.

“I acknowledge that there is some angst, if you will, regarding some of the changes and uncertainty,” Tomlin said. “But that's always positive fuel for me. I'm a glass-half-full guy, and I'm always excited about the platform that transition could provide us in terms of getting better.”

That improvement was one of the reasons Colbert cited in explaining his decision to step down. After a fifth consecutive season without a playoff win, Colbert talked about the need for the Steelers to improve and to modernize within the bounds of the core organizational tenets.

“We always have to be open to new ways to do things and more current ways to do things, quite honestly, and I encourage our younger scouts to push me in that regard,” Colbert said in February. “But the better solution may be outside the organization. We don't know, but I just think from a personal side for sure it’s time. Even from a professional side we have to be open to trying to stay ahead of the game.”

With the future rapidly approaching, Colbert isn’t thinking about the past and the numerous draft classes he’s helped assemble or the Super Bowl-winning teams he helped craft. There will be a time for that soon. But right now, he has work to do and a final mark to make.

“There's too many to look back on,” Colbert said of his drafts. “And maybe there's not enough to look back on, too, because Coach and I are never going to be satisfied with what our results were or are to this point. I hope this one's the best one.”