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Steelers Greatest Draft Hits – Second Round


By Michael K. Reynolds

The end is near. Only two rounds left in analyzing Pittsburgh Steelers drafting savvy during the modern football era. What can we learn from the second rounds of past Steelers drafts?

Surprisingly, they didn’t do too well with them during the glory years of the 1970’s and their picks at this level in the 1980’s were abysmal. The second round draft picks during the Bill Cowher reign were superb and largely responsible for the team’s ascent into perennial championship threat once again.

Then they hit some potholes, lost significant talent through free agency and the team suffered once again. It was Kevin Colbert to the rescue in 2000, but with the possible exception of 2013 he’s had mediocre results as of late.

Part of the Steelers recent line struggles can be explained by their investment in second round offensive tackles Mike Adams (2012) and Marcus Gilbert (2011) who to date have provided very limited returns on their hefty size and investment.

Other swings and misses in the Colbert era during this critical round include Limas Sweed (2008) and Ricardo Coclough (2004) as well as Alonzo Jackson (2003).

But keep in mind, Colbert got off to a good start in his career with the Steelers with a three pack of second round gold nuggets in Marvel Smith (2000), Kendrell Bell (2001) and Antwaan Randle El (2002). Yes, Bell was more prospect than player but these certainly were three exciting young players who impacted the team immediately.

Prior to this the Steelers had a real losing streak leading into the new millennium with Will Blackwell (1997), Jeremy Staat (1998) and Scott Shields (1999). Ouch front office…ouch.

There is no question the quality of these picks are handicapped greatly by the team’s position in the draft. An end-of-the-round second is more like an early third but that doesn’t excuse or diminish the necessity of a team to score big in rounds one and two.

There is no question few people breathed a bigger sigh of relief than Colbert when the 2013 second rounder Le’Veon Bell suddenly made the Steelers general manager look smart again.

So how did Colbert’s selections in the number two spot compare with draft picks of the past? We are so glad you asked. As it turns out, he’s still responsible for several second rounders in the top ten.

Admittedly, the first three on this greatest hits list were relative no-brainers (although the order may be challenged). After that? Meh…not so easy. But here it goes and gentlemen (and ladies)…start your engines.

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | Second Round

RANK NAME POSITION YEAR DRAFTED COLLEGE
1 Jack Lambert LB 1974 Kent State
2 Dermontti Dawson C 1988 Kentucky
3 Jack Ham LB 1971 Penn State
4 Levon Kirkland LB 1992 Clemson
5 Carnell Lake DB 1989 UCLA

Jack Lambert

To fans young and old, Jack Lambert was as close to a super hero as any of the great 1970’s players. With Lambert at your side you were automatically the toughest team on the field. His presence was palpable on every play and his toothless snarl is firmly embedded in Steelers lore. At 6’4 and just a shade over 200 in his rookie year Lambert was a wiry man made of solid steel and gristle. Although Joe Greene is widely considered the foundation of the Steelers defensive greatness of that era, no one embodied toughness on the team more than Lambert. The Hall of Famer was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 6-time First Team All-Pro and won NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year and later in his career won overall NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Perhaps Lambert’s greatest play was in Super Bowl X when he slammed the Dallas Cowboys Cliff Harris to the ground after the player taunted Steelers kicker Roy Gerela following a missed field goal. That play (which quite nearly got Lambert ejected from the game) shifted the tone of the match around instantly and was the key reason the Rooneys were able to put another Lombardi in their trophy case. Chuck Noll later referred to Lambert as a player who “defended what was right”. A true all-time Steelers great.

Dermontti Dawson

Few athletes of any size combined grace, power and speed like Dermontti Dawson. His teammates called him “Dirt” because of the way he grinded opponents into the ground. Dawson single-handedly redefined his position as a “pulling center”. No one before and no one since could pull to the edge with such pace and agility only to deliver a blow with tremendous force on some poor cornerback or outside linebacker. It was like watching pins fly at a bowling alley. Almost matching his greatness on the field was Dawson’s humility off of the field which made one of the most beloved players in the league. Dawson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, was named to nine straight Pro Bowls and was a 6-time First Team All Pro.

Jack Ham

Despite the long and storied parade of great Steelers linebackers to choose from many oldtimers still consider Jack Ham the best of the bunch and many feel he is the greatest outside linebacker of all time. A superb athlete, he was equally adept pursuing the passer, stopping the run or shooting out to cover receivers, something he could do as well as any NFL safety. Noll once said Ham was the “fastest Steeler for the first ten yards” which included the running backs and receivers. Ham created a mismatch for any offensive coordinator who literally had to accommodate for his unique skill set and often chose to ignore his side of the field as they would with a shutdown corner. Ham was as brilliant as he was talented and fox-like instincts led him to 25 sacks (unofficially), 21 fumbles recovered and 32 interceptions. Should he be at the top above Jack Lambert? Some would say so, although the nod went to Lambert due to his…winning personality. Still, Ham was a Hall of Famer, 8-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All Pro and easily among the list of Steelers legends.

Levon Kirkland

As a player, Levon Kirkland was a big, big man. Surprisingly nimble for his size (only 6’1 but pushing 300 pounds at times) it was like having a nosetackle with dance moves on the field. Kirkland was an undisputed champion when it came to plugging up the middle against the run and considering that stout Joel Steed was on the line in front of him most offenses simply avoided running up the middle. After Greg Lloyd went down with a season-ending injury Kirkland took over the nickel linebacker position. Opposing teams targeted him at first until they realized he was even more agile than the man he replaced and Kirkland finished that season with four interceptions. When Kirkland was paired with Chad Brown in the middle and with Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene at the edges, it was arguably the Steelers best linebacking squad of all time…and definitely the finest in the team’s 3-4 era.

Carnell Lake

After playing outside linebacker in college, Lake was such a gifted athlete he made the transition to strong safety in the NFL as if he was born to play there. Incredibly fast, he had no risk of being outrun and with his linebacking instincts he could come into the box and fill the gap like no other player during his time. Although Rod Woodson was the undisputed star of the secondary, Lake was equally valuable and earned 5 Pro Bowl nods. Lake was one of those players who received more recognition by Steelers fans than in the rest of the league (mostly because the team was saturated with defensive stars) but even Peter King of Sports Illustrated gave his vote of NFL MVP to Lake in 1997. A sharp player, his instincts and character gave rise to a career as a valued position coach for the Steelers.

Just Missed the Cut:

Chad Brown (1993) A linebacker who was one of the most physically gifted players the Steelers have ever drafted and a lover of snakes his rise to Pittsburgh glory was short-lived because free agency (and the Steelers feeble attempts to keep their players during those years) took him off into the sunset.

Marvel Smith (2000) A left tackle who held the flank for one of the more formidable lines the Pittsburgh Steelers have boasted. Back problems got him just at the time when he finally had a decent quarterback to block for in Ben Roethlisberger.

Kordell Stewart (1995) They really is no such thing as a “beloved” quarterback in Pittsburgh and Kordell Stewart’s downfall probably was his insistence on playing behind the center. In his famous and early “Slash” role (wide receiver/running back/quarterback) he was one of the most exciting players in the NFL.

Antwaan Randle El (2002) In Kordell Stewart and Hines Ward the Steelers struck it rich with former collegiate quarterback types. Randle El was the most exciting player to arrive in the draft and he didn’t disappoint once he hit the big leagues. His pass in the Super Bowl XL will live as his greatest NFL moment.

LaMarr Woodley (2007) Now here’s a touchy subject. LaMarr Woodley making the “just missed” list. The truth is had the power edge rusher been able to stay healthy and perhaps had a stronger work ethic we might be talking about him as one of the all-time Steelers linebacker greats. So we shed a tear for what could have been.

Kendrell Bell (2001) Talk about a flash in the pan, Kendrell Bell was the ultimate. But oh did he flash! When he burst onto the scene (and he literally did) Bell would obliterate offensive lines en route to the ball handler. An explosion waiting to happen his style proved to be his downfall as his NFL tenure was short.

Le’Veon Bell (2013) Not so soon, son. I hear you, I hear you. But none can deny the impact Le’Veon Bell had in his rookie year, especially considering it was so short due to injury. Will Bell shoot up this list? 2014 could hold the clues.

READ PAST ARTICLES OF THIS SERIES

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 +

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About Michael K. Reynolds

Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic and author of the acclaimed Heirs of Ireland series. MichaelKReynolds.com
  • blackandgoldBullion

    Lambert is my all-time favorite! Everyone thought of him as some huge intimidating maniac, because of the huge shoulder pads and the lack of teeth. But the guy would come into camp at around 215 lbs., and melt it away, playing most of the season under 200. Yet he still handled much bigger men, hammering RB’s that were bigger, while flying from sideline to sideline.

    Here’s the kicker: Chuck Noll once said that Lambert was brilliant, and helped the D immensely in that regard. That was something that the sports media never recognized. Known as the “Bear” back then, I liked to call him “Manimal”, half man half animal.

    Along with guys like Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, Jack Lambert was the epitome of a football player. He is also obviously a model example of a great Steeler. Long live Lambert!

  • Randy Neff

    Ernie Stautner was a second round pick.

  • chris ward

    Nice list, Can’t go wrong with Lambert at number 1, Lambert was the symbol of the 70’s Steelers defense with his toughness and grit.

  • Madi

    I was a fan in the 90s, but… Dawson over Ham? I think Dawson could be the best to ever play his position, and still don’t agree with putting him over Ham.

  • Madi

    Kirkland and Lake truly were freaks that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time… A 300 pound run stuffing monster that could not only speed around sideline to sideline, but also turn and run with tight ends and running backs downfield, and a guy that could play at Pro Bowl levels at LB, S, and CB… seriously, who else can you think of that fits either of those descriptions?

  • Bill Molinaro

    It’s hard to dispute any of the players in the top 5; they were all great. Lambert to me and a lot of others, was the face of the Steelers great defense of that era. However, I believe Jack Ham should be at number 2. He was the best outside linebacker of his time and though many know that he was good I don’t believe many really knew how good. He was quiet and understated and thus unnoticed by many. He simply was always where he was supposed to be at the time he was supposed to be there. He was excellent in every phase of the game. I believe he had considerably more impact on the Steelers performance than Dawson.

  • http://www.michaelkreynolds.com/ Michael K. Reynolds

    Ernie was drafted in 1950 by the Steelers. Although not mentioned in this article, the selection process was in modern Steelers era defined as 1969 and beyond.

  • http://www.michaelkreynolds.com/ Michael K. Reynolds

    It’s hard to argue that ranking. As I mentioned the order of the first three could be up for strong debate. Originally I had Ham at the number two spot before switching places with Dawson. I did it for two reasons. One is that we as Steelers fans can sometimes put linebackers above all over positions. Secondly, I thought that Dawson meant more to his team than Ham did…which would make him a stronger draft pick. In the end, it’s a question of inches as both players are arguably the best at their position of all time.

  • http://www.michaelkreynolds.com/ Michael K. Reynolds

    Yes…it would be like seeing Casey Hampton run fly patterns.

  • http://www.michaelkreynolds.com/ Michael K. Reynolds

    Bill…there is no doubting that Ham was AMAZING. Both Dawson and Ham were understated and quietly went about their jobs. In the end I thought that Dawson meant more to his team than Ham did to his. I think the Steelers were so good at that time that they could have played without Ham (as they did because of some of his injuries) and still dominate. Without Dawson I think the Steelers line went from dominant (with the run) to average. But…this might be a case where we’re both right! Heck, I even had a hard time putting Lambert above Ham but it was Lambert’s intangibles that rested his securely at the top.

  • GoSteelerz

    Stautner would have fit perfectly on those 70’s teams. He was worthy of a championship… Too bad the Steelers were so bad in his time…

  • Randy Neff

    Drafted in the second round, 22nd overall. Wasn’t trying to be a smartass. All I heard about growing up from my father and uncles was about Ernie Stautner. Let’s not forget about him, okay.

  • Steve

    Loved when Lambert said “Put a skirt on all the Quarterbacks”. IMO Ham, Lambert and Andy Russel were the best group of linebackers the Steelers ever had.

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