By Michael K. Reynolds
No pick means more to a championship legacy in the NFL than the first round of the draft, and it can be argued the Pittsburgh Steelers have performed here as well as any other team over the last few decades.
In the past, the Steelers earned their draft day creds from finding gems in the lower rounds. But, as of late, it’s been GM Kevin Colbert’s performance in round one that has kept him drawing a paycheck from the Rooneys.
When it comes to choosing the greatest number one rounders in Steelers history, you most certainly face disrespecting the favorites of fans young and old. There are so many excellent players who were the first selection of their college class it can be daunting to try to rank them in order of preference.
In fact, to avoid leaving too many Steelers greats off of the award podium, we extended the first round list to the top ten. As a reminder, this selection process goes back only to the 1969 draft in order to make it the greatest Steelers draft picks of the modern era.
If you’re jumping in the series late, don’t fret, there are links to all of the previous articles (from rounds two to nine) at the bottom of this post. Be sure to pipe in with your comments and feedback. So far the discussion has been fairly civil, but we imagine that might all end with this post.
For those of you who have been following the series from the beginning, thanks for being along for the journey. And now…the moment you’ve been waiting for.
Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | First Round
|1||Joe Greene||DT||1969||North Texas State|
|2||Franco Harris||RB||1972||Penn State|
|3||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||2004||Miami (OH)|
|4||Terry Bradshaw||QB||1970||Louisiana Tech|
|8||Alan Faneca||G||1998||Louisiana State|
|9||Louis Lipps||WR||1984||Southern Mississippi|
Defense will always be paramount in Pittsburgh and no player represents greatness on that side of the field more than Joe Greene. On the day he was drafted, the personality of the Steelers defense was forever changed. From laughingstock to being the bullies on the block it was Greene who was more responsible for turning around the Steelers fate than any other player on the team then and in the future. “Mean Joe” Greene earned his nickname early in his career as he was said to be ornery about being drafted by the Steelers because of their losing tradition. He even reportedly spat in the face of Dick Butkus and challenged the league’s reigning “tough guy” to a fight to claim top of the bad guy mountain. Yet, despite his foul demeanor, Greene performed well enough to win NFL Rookie of the Year. This was just the beginning of his accolades as he later was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a 10-time Pro Bowler and 5-time First Team All Pro. This was capped by his entry into the Hall of Fame. Because of his dominance Greene oftentimes tied up three blockers. This freed up the relatively slight framed linebackers of the Steelers like Jack Lambert and Jack Ham to get the tackles and the glory. Greene’s fame was sealed forever with a television ad for Coca-Cola called, “Hey Kid, Catch!” in1979, a commercial that is widely considered among the most memorable of all time. When Greene retired in 1982, his spot on the line was never replaced, as this was the same year the Steelers shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Considered one of the best to ever play defensive line in the NFL many Steelers fans firmly believe Greene to be the greatest player to wear the Black and Gold.
Could one play define a player’s career? Perhaps when it is popularly credited as the greatest play in NFL history. The Immaculate Reception (during a 1972 playoff game with the Oakland Raiders) will always bring fond memories to Steelers fans but it also proved to be just the beginning of a spectacular Hall of Fame career for Franco Harris. As great as the Steelers were in the 1970’s it was the running game that fueled the offense early on and it was Harris who carried the brunt of this responsibility on his broad shoulders. In many ways, Harris was the offense. With Coach Chuck Noll believing at the time a quarterback’s greatest responsibility was to hand off the ball, Harris delivered a unique combination of power, elusiveness and agility. Hailing from PennState, Harris was often given grief for stepping out of bounds rather than lowering a shoulder, but it was this prudence that allowed him to amass 13,007 yards in his storied career. His Steelers fan base was among the largest and they called themselves Franco’s Italian Army. Harris was elected to 9 Pro Bowls having rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 8 seasons.
As much as Pittsburgh Steelers fans love defense, it had been painfully clear that championships aren’t won in the NFL without a franchise quarterback. Sure, there have been notable exceptions, but for those of us who suffered through the deplorable 1980’s after Terry Bradshaw retired and who had to deal with subpar quarterback play through the 1990’s, it is hard to argue that few draft picks were more significant to the Steelers than the choice of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Never short on confidence or competitiveness, “Big Ben” was irate he was the third quarterback selected that draft (behind Eli Manning & Philip Rivers) and has been spending the rest of his career proving it to be a mistake. The moment he stepped on the field, the Steelers became serious contenders, as he led the team to a 15-1 record in his rookie season. With three Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi’s on display already highlighting his record, the full story of Roethlisberger’s career has yet to be written.
Most younger fans only know Terry Bradshaw from scratchy NFL reels and as the stumbling, bumbling analyst on FOX’s football coverage. In many ways, this comical image of Bradshaw also defined his career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Few players enjoyed more quality time in Noll’s doghouse and none probably were the brunt of more jokes. The Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson once famously said Bradshaw couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “C” and the “A”. But for all of the ribbing he received, Bradshaw had the last laugh and proved to be a genius with the ball in his hand and the big game on the line. He was clutch enough to earn two Super Bowl MVP awards in 1979 and 1980. A player blessed with a tremendous arm and athletic talent and with an obvious charm and wit, he was the perfect leader for the offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Early in his career he was too mistake prone to earn Noll’s full trust, but towards the end of Bradshaw’s decade of greatness, it was on his broad shoulders that the team was carried.
Just as Joe Greene did decades before, Rod Woodson brought the once-proud Steelers defense out of the ashes the moment his name was called at the NFL draft in 1987 (even though he had a prolonged holdout before signing his offer sheet). A superb athlete (a collegiate hurdles champion and Olympic caliber competitor), Woodson turned the defense into an all-star show each time he stepped on the field of play. Woodson was a scintillating punt returner and this adrenalin rush translated to defense as well whenever he managed to get an interception. He still holds the record for NFL interception returns for touchdowns with 12 and in 1993 was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. A big-time playmaker, if ever there was one, he also had 71 interceptions and 32 fumble recoveries. Perhaps his greatest recovery was from an ACL tear in 1995. He was the first player in history to return from that injury in the same season and after knocking down a ball from the Cowboys Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX, he hopped on one foot and pointed to his surgically reconstructed knee to celebrate in the face of his trash-mouthing opponent. Woodson is easily one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Excellent players are those among the best at their position. Once in a generation, players like Troy Polamalu completely redefine their position. After struggling in his rookie season to get on the field, Polamalu came back in his sophomore season to dominate at the strong safety position like none before and possibly like none will since. With the famous locks of his Samoan hair flowing from his helmet, Polamalu combined uncanny instincts with tremendous talent. Whenever the team needed something big to happen, Polamalu was there to deliver with impeccable timing and flare. Both reckless and calculating at the same time, he emerged as one of the most exciting defensive players of all time. The ultimate compliment was paid by offensive coordinators and opposing quarterbacks alike who said they had to account for the Steelers strong safety on each and every down. Now in the waning years of his tenure at Pittsburgh, Polamalu still has a few thrills left in the treads.
If this list was judged solely on style points, Lynn Swann would be soaring far above the rest. The NFL highlight reels have never been so well treated than with the artistry of Swann’s acrobatic and graceful receptions. His spectacular catch in Super Bowl X will probably never be matched in terms of magnificent beauty and for those of us blessed to see him play at his prime it was only one of many in his repertoire. Many Steelers fans would argue Swann put on his ballet shoes and retired much too early, but for the legendary receiver this was most likely perfect timing. Always the showman, Swann left the crowds wanting for more.
For a team that celebrates the running game so earnestly, Steelers fans are often slow to credit the big men up front. But few road graders in Steelers past and present had more of an impact than 1998 first rounder Alan Faneca. From the time he stepped into camp during his rookie season, the Steelers knew they had struck the equivalent of draft gold. Faneca instantly upgraded the offensive line and his pulls and clear-outs were a picture of joy and violence. A 9-time Pro Bowler and 9-time All Pro Faneca is considered to be among the best to have ever played his position.
There was little offensive joy in Steelersville during the 1980’s and what little there was could just about all be attributed to wide receiver Louis Lipps. Sadly, Lipps has become somewhat of a forgotten man in team history, but this has more to do with the dismal memories of the decade rather than the player. After getting mentored by Hall of Famer John Stallworth in his rookie season, Lipps went on to take the torch as the next great Steelers receiver. Not only was he a great ball catcher but he was one of the league’s best at punt returning. Although he didn’t get great acclaim throughout the league, his value was understood by his team as they voted him twice as their Most Valuable Player.
One of the few players that was able to jump from the draft board into the Steelers starting defensive lineup, Casey Hampton made a huge impact (and we do mean huge) from the beginning of his rookie season moving forward. The man affectionately known as “Big Snack” by his teammates played as big a role as any in providing consistency and excellence in Dick LeBeau‘s defenses. Given the responsibility of plugging up the run and eating up interior blockers, Hampton took on the task with pride, tenacity and his own brand of humor. A player that will be difficult to replace.
Just Missed the Cut:
Heath Miller (2005) A quarterback’s best friend and a consummate gentleman and professional, Heath Miller is one of Steelers Nation’s all-time fan favorites. Although the Pittsburgh run-focused system kept Miller out of the national limelight, his coaches and teammates consider him among the best all around tight ends in the league. How well he’ll be able to fully return from a knee injury from a couple of seasons ago will determine the complete legacy of this beloved player.
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