By Michael K. Reynolds
Who should the Pittsburgh Steelers take with their first round draft pick this year? Third round? Fifth? Should they emphasize offense or defense? With what positions should they take a risk? When should they play it safe?
The correct answers to these questions may not lie within the impressively coiffed head of Mel Kiper, Jr., but rather in the yellowed, tattered draft books of the past. For although history is…yes, yesterday’s news…it can provide invaluable lessons for the future.
Especially when looking at the drafting record of a team with such a storied and steadied ownership as the Steelers. The Rooneys have had a strong influence on the talent acquisition strategies of the past and will certainly leave their mark on this year’s draft.
How did they build Super Bowl championship teams? By developing their squads through successful drafts and primarily…as you’ll see…finding hidden football gems in small colleges. Now, with the sophistication of the scouting process and the explosion of social media and the web, it’s harder for the Steelers to get away with this approach. Great talent is tougher to stash away which is why free agency is a game that must be played well in today’s NFL.
But this doesn’t diminish the critical, dynasty-building nature of successful drafts.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing my countdown of the greatest draft picks in Steelers history (during the Super Bowl era). We’ll start with the Ninth Round (plus) and work our way up to the greatest first round Steelers picks of all time. Consider this merely starter fuel for what should be a formidable fire of second guessing and all-out vigorous debates.
Many of these selections will only make sense to some of our more seasoned fans…those of us who were hanging posters of Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert and Lynn Swann on our walls during our youth and have been rooting for the team for many years. But if some of the names are unfamiliar…consider yourself fortunate. That means you’re not having to worry about gray hairs and healthcare like the rest of us geezers.
A brief programming note. To qualify for these lists you had to have actually been drafted (which means the selections won’t include undrafted free agents) and you had to have been with the Steelers long enough for permanent citizenship in Steelers Nation (sorry…Mike Wallace).
So we start off with the ninth round and above (which, surprisingly doesn’t include any ninth rounders). Yes…there was a time when there were more than twenty rounds in the draft. This was long before the players unions asserted itself.
But enough with the opening ceremonies. Time for the fireworks to begin.
Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Picks | Ninth Round +
|1||L.C. Greenwood (Rd. 10)||DE||1969||Ark Pine-Bluff|
|2||Mike Wagner (Rd. 11)||DB||1971||West, Illinois|
|3||John Jackson (Rd. 10)||T||1988||East Kentucky|
|4||Merril Hoge (Rd. 10)||RB||1987||Idaho State|
|5||Justin Strzelczyk (Rd. 11)||T||1990||Maine|
L.C. Greenwood was selected nine rounds below Mean Joe Greene in the historic 1969 draft that began the seismic shift converting the Pittsburgh Steelers from perennial losers to arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time. Greenwood emerged as one of the central characters of the original Steel Curtain. A six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, many cite Greenwood as the most egregious oversight by the Hall of Fame selection committees. Though being a Hall finalist six times his chances of one day getting enshrined may be fading. But for those who were blessed to see his trademark gold shoes chasing after hapless quarterbacks he will remain one of the most colorful personalities and talented players to don a Steelers jersey. And by being drafted in the tenth round, he is also one of the team’s best ever value picks.
When Steelers fans throw out Troy Polamalu’s name as the greatest safety in the history of the team it is with some apologies to the play of Mike Wagner. Even with names like Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake in the mix there has never been a Pittsburgh secondary the likes of the Steelers great defense of the seventies and Wagner was as big of a contributor as anyone else. Although he didn’t make Superman plays by hurtling over tall linemen in a single bound like Polamalu he was excellent at…well…doing what safeties should do. He backed up his corners, squelched big plays and dished out punishing hits in the days when receivers weren’t wrapped up in bubble wrap. He was a two-time Pro Bowler (as well as many of his teammates of the time) and ended up with 36 career interceptions during a time in the NFL when passing was just a passing thought.
If Kelvin Beachum is looking for a source of career inspiration he need only dip into the 1990’s when a young tackle by the name of John Jackson was getting as little respect as Rodney Dangerfield. Despite others being drafted to take his position Jackson fought off all naysayers and established himself as the Steelers left tackle. His perseverance paid off as he emerged as one of the top players at his position by the end of the decade and leveraged it into a big free agent’s contract with San Diego at the tail end of his career.
Truth be told, Merril Hoge doesn’t make this list alone through his on-field performance as his burst into Steelers Nation lore was cut short by concussion concerns. Yet, the fans’ favorite “factor back” gets some extra points for…well being such a Black and Gold homer on national television as an ESPN broadcaster…and somehow keeping his job! Well played Hogey. Semper Fi.
Besides having the greatest Steelers Scrabble name of all time Justin Strzelczyk was also one of the best utility players to wear a Pittsburgh uniform. Strzelczyk, who looked as if he stepped off a Harley Davidson was more Duck Dynasty than Hollywood and didn’t mind rolling in the mud by playing almost all positions on the offensive line. He never complained when he was shuffled more than a three card monte game and was loved by players, fans and coaches. Probably one of the best Sixth Man the Steelers have had, he was a steal at the eleventh round.
Just Missed the Cut:
Mike Mayock (1981 -10th) Not much of a player at the pro level…but one heck of an analyst after his NFL career ended!
Frank Pollard (1980 – 11th) A true bowling ball of a player who was knocking them down long before The Bus came to town. Never spectacular, but a steady contributor during the Dark Ages for Steelers fans (the 1980’s).
Jerry Olsavsky (1989 – 10th) A true fan favorite and current Steelers coach, he was the team’s “Rudy” playing a major role in special teams and filling in admirably whenever the great starting linebackers of the 1990’s would need a spell. A devastating injury hurt his chances of becoming an established starter.