Steelers Greatest Draft Hits – First Round

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

1Joe GreeneDT1969North Texas State
2Franco HarrisRB1972Penn State
3Ben RoethlisbergerQB2004Miami (OH)
4Terry BradshawQB1970Louisiana Tech
5Rod WoodsonCB1987Purdue
6Troy PolamaluS2003USC
7Lynn SwannWR1974USC
8Alan FanecaG1998Louisiana State
9Louis LippsWR1984Southern Mississippi
10Casey HamptonNT2001Texas

Joe Greene

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.

Franco Harris

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.

Ben Roethlisberger

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.

Terry Bradshaw

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.

Rod Woodson

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.

Troy Polamalu

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.

Lynn Swann

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.

Alan Faneca

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.

Louis Lipps

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.

Casey Hampton

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.


Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Two

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Three

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Four

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Five

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Six

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Seven

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Eight

Steelers Greatest Draft Picks: Round Nine +

About the Author

Michael K. Reynolds

Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic and author of the acclaimed Heirs of
Ireland series.

  • Jason

    Wait, no Ziggy?

  • RW

    You got the members right, but the order is wrong. I’m a young Steelers fan and never saw Bradshaw play, but 4 rings trumps 2 rings any day. Also consider that Bradshaw played in a run-happy league. Also think Swan should be way higher. Other than that, great job! I’ve been following all along and this has been the nicest offseason update the last few years. Keep up the great work!!

  • steeltown

    The 70’s dynasty Team was a product of a great defense and a few other moving parts, Terry Bradshaw will always be remembered as the QB of that great Team, but he is in no way better than Roethlisberger

  • AndyR34

    Michael – I am an OLD Steeler fan and I have to agree w/RW on flipping Brab and Ben…and I was one of those who thought at the time that Brad was dumber than a box of rocks! Otherwise, I think that it’s difficult to argue with your choices and rankings. Nice series and nice work! Kudos to you!


    Maybe it’s just the exuberance I remember when the Steelers finally became something, but I would put Bradshaw behind Green, then Franco, then Ben. For now, anyways.

  • 20Stoney

    I don’t know how to judge that. Roethlisberger also plays in an era that’s much more conducive to the passing. Flip a coin.

  • RW

    Let’s not be quick to forget that Ben also had a top 5 defense for both of his super bowl wins (plus a great O-line, the Bus and Hines Ward), and that Terry was responsible for at least two super bowl wins, while one of Ben’s was won in spite of him. I’m not saying Terry is better, but super bowls and MVPs matter.

  • bonairsfavoriteson

    Is this list based on the impact the picks had on the Steelers or just that they were outstanding picks? Other wise, there is no way you can discout two number ones made by Noll , Frank Lewis who was excellent for the Steelers before they made one of the worse trades in their history and lost him for nothing and the other would be Dave Brown they foolishly lost in an expansion draft.

  • JohnB

    Terrys got the rings but Ben is the EPITOME of what a Steelers QB should be. A TOUGH WINNER. Ngatas hit on him that broke his nose and he came right back…tough as nails…is exactly what id want to see from my QB.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Excellent point. However, in the 1970’s QB’s used to get picked up and dropped on their heads regularly. I saw it happen to Bradshaw. He was a tough SOB. I think in the Super Bowl against the Rams he threw the last TD to Stallworth but never saw it as he got hammered and was laying on the ground concussed. My memory is foggy as it could have been another game.

    Just to clear things up. Noll tried to keep his guys healthy. Bradshaw used to tell him to pass more. Noll told him that if they passed more with the rules of the day that he, Stallworth and Swann would probably be making several trips to the hospital during the season. So they saved the passing game more for big games like the playoffs.

    Once they changed the rules, the Blount rule, less head-hunting, then they finally let Bradshaw pass more. He would have had many more yards playing for “Air Coryell”, for example.

    Ben lost 1 Super Bowl because Aaron Rodgers was absolutely superb, and won one despite playing poorly. He gets tons of credit for doing everything necessary right to the last moment in winning against Arizona. That’s something that Bradshaw did routinely.

    Do you know that Bradshaw passed for 300 yards for the very first time in his career in one of the last Super Bowls he played. Whatever it took, he did it. Period. End of story. If a huge game is on the line, I take Bradshaw over Ben and I don’t care if Ben throws the ball better.

  • walter mason

    Remember the game Bradshaw was taken away on a stretcher and came back and played in the same game.? Terry was just a tough a Big Ben

  • walter mason

    Ill bet they were mostly Best Player Available or Best Available Athlete. Im sure Greene, Woodson, and Polamalu were.

  • JohnB

    I wasn’t just talking about his ball throwing skills. Nor was I talking just about superbowls, he’s consistently giving it his all. His toughness is used in the game when he extends plays, he keeps us in games. Mendenhalls fumble is a huge part of the reason we didn’t win that game. and other than the interceptions he matched Aaron Rodgers with completion percentage. I’ll give you that he played like crap vs seattle but he got us there in a superb way. The fact that this is even debatable shows how great both QBs actually are.

  • Krankor

    Another point which must be made in Terry’s favor: People forget, but back in the era Terry played, the qb was also responsible for *calling the plays*. That was an important part of the skill set. Terry got his job back from Joe Gillium because Noll was unhappy with the way Gillium was calling the *run* game. Terry was great, for instance, at getting the defense to focus on stopping Franco, and then crossing them up with a handoff to Rocky Bleier, which would get big yards. Adding it all up, I think it’s too close to call between Terry and Ben, and doing so is really just splitting hairs. They’re both champions.

  • Krankor

    I agree with the picks, if not the order. In particular, I think Casey Hampton needs to be higher. Not so much because he was a better player, but because the *pick* itself was so brilliant. Remember: they traded *down* to get him.

  • It seems as if this has boiled down to a Bradshaw – Roethlisberger debate for the most part. It is a razor thin difference but here’s why Big Ben got the nod. It took Bradshaw about four years to be Bradshaw. Ben became Ben the first time he stepped on the field. NOW…if Ben fizzles in the last few years of his career then it might shift back to Bradshaw (and Ben could fall a few positions) who finished off his career strong. I’m voting that Ben still has several great years ahead of him and still has a chance of getting that fourth ring himself.

  • It was…that…close.

  • Thanks for the Kudos RW! First of all…I had both Bradshaw and Swanny posters on my wall as a kid and when I played quarterback I was Bradshaw and when I was receiver I was Swann (complete with diving catches into the couch). But I think Ben gets it by a a few inches and I believe that Stallworth was actually the more productive receiver of the two and an even better selection in his round.

  • With a tag name like AndyR34 you are old brother! Just like me. Thanks for the comments.

  • I think it’s a fair argument that both Ben and Bradshaw could jump ahead of Franco, but I like the order as it is for reasons described above.

  • I didn’t think Frank Lewis made it in the top ten here. As for Dave Brown…yes, they had to spend a fair amount of time with the Steelers to qualify and Brown did not.

  • Krankor…that’s actually a good point had the location of the pick been factored in. For the purpose of this exercise a number one round draft was considered a number one draft pick whether they first overall or last to to be selected. By your measure…yes…Hampton was that much better of a selection. Part of that had to do with less teams valuing the nose position at that time (fewer 3-4 defenses).

  • AndyR34

    You look young in your pic…I remember Buddy Parker coming to coach and the trade for Bobby Layne. I remember my dad talking about what a good thing that was!

  • Yes…you definitely have seniority! (PS…that’s one of the big reasons I started the list from 1969 because my history gets foggy before that date).

  • Brantley Stockton

    Santonio. For the 2008 postseason.
    Freakin love that guy


    If I was somewhat on the fence, you have convinced me.

  • Matty

    Ben made alot of Big plays in superbowl 40, 3rd and 29 to Ward , Scoring the only TD of the first half, The Huge block that freed up randle el to Hines for a TD, Plus he had a td dropped in the endzone that he threw perfectyl so i wouldnt say in spite of. If he didnt make thos eplays we don’t win that game!