Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – First Round

Without further adieu, pomp and circumstance, or dancing elephants, it’s time to unveil the first round list of the Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits.

No pick means more to a championship legacy in the NFL than the first round of the draft, and it can be argued the 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 General Manager Kevin Colbert’s performance in round one that has kept him drawing a paycheck from the team.

When it comes to choosing the greatest number one rounders in Steelers history you will certainly disrespect 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 this distinguished 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. We welcome your well-reasoned retorts, sagely comments and benevolent pontifications.

For those of you who have been following the series from the beginning, thank you for joining us on this bumpy ride through Steelers history.

And now…the moment you’ve been waiting for.

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | First Round

1Joe GreeneDT1969North Texas
2Ben RoethlisbergerQB2004Miami (OH)
3Franco HarrisRB1972Penn State
4Terry BradshawQB1970La Tech
5Rod WoodsonDB1987Purdue
6Troy PolamaluDB2003USC
7Lynn SwannWR1974USC
8Alan FanecaOG1998LSU
9Louis LippsWR1984Southern Miss
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!” in 1979, 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.

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 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.

No, Ben is no Mean Joe Greene in terms of temperament or leadership qualities. But he had an equal impact on returning the Steelers to Super Bowl glory and because of this, is second only to Joe.

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 Penn State, 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.

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 adrenaline 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.

Next big play for Polamalu? The NFL Hall of Fame.

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 the team is still struggling to replace.

Heath Miller

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 considered him among the best all around tight ends in the league. A serious knee injury toward the end of his career brought serious question to whether he belonged on this list, but his strong recovery and last few stellar years of his career sealed his legacy as one of the team’s most beloved players.

Still Competing:

Ryan Shazier (2014) Shazier landed on the Steelers with high expectations due to his draw-dropping measurables at the NFL Combine. Sprinter speed, leadership ability, and a nose for the ball. The only question has been his durability in the league as he has been beset by injury. If he can stay healthy (and doesn’t leave for other free agency pastures), Shazier has the ability to rank among Steelers linebacker elite…which in Pittsburgh is saying a great deal.

David DeCastro (2012) DeCastro was brought into the Steelers with the label of being the “next Alan Faneca”. That’s not a bar any rookie wants to have to clear, but DeCastro is quietly, and meticulously earning his way up the ladder of NFL success.

Maurkice Pouncey (2010) When you play center for the Steelers, wrong or right, you are going to be compared to Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson. That’s just life in the Burgh. Pouncey has had the raw talent to match Dawson, but he’s lacked the durability of Mike Webster. Hopefully, Pouncey’s injuries are a thing of the past, and if so, he can forge a reputation as one of the Steelers greats.

Cameron Heyward (2011) Heyward started his career off slowly (by impatient fan standards), but in the past few years has established himself as the team leader on defense. 2016 was a rough year for Heyward with his injury, but if he can reclaim his rising reputation in the NFL, he may have an impact on this list when it’s all said and done.

Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Ninth Round +
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Eighth Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Seventh Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Sixth Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Fifth Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Fourth Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Third Round
Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits – Second Round

About the Author

Michael K. Reynolds

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

  • Jeff McNeill

    I would move Rod and Troy ahead of Franco and Terry.

  • Tedbert

    I would move Bradshaw, Polamalu and Rod above Harris and BR.

  • John Noh

    I was about to get all indignant about leaving Jack Ham off this list but then looked up the 1971 draft and realized he was the second-round selection that year – Frank Lewis was the first rounder. Dobre Shunka would make a different list of the second-round steals. He and Lambert would be on that list.

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    I might add Robin Cole to the back end of the list and I’d probably remove Louis Lipps. or make him last.

  • Steve Johnson

    Roethlisberger ahead of Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Rod Woodson? Are you kidding me? I would put Roethlisberger at #5 behind the guys I mentioned with Greene at #1.

  • Jaybird

    Woodson should be number two behind Mean Joe. Woodson, like Greene is one of the greatest players of all time, period.
    And Terry should be off the list for not showing up to Mr Rooney’s funeral.

  • Good news John. Jack Ham is already on my second round Greatest Draft Hits list. Just scroll up a bit at the bottom of the post and you’ll see links to articles in this series from Round 9+ to this one.

  • Jaybird

    Exactly. Woodson is easily number two.

  • Steve Johnson

    I understand your frustration, can’t understand Terry at all. But you have to acknowledge what he did in the playoffs. He was Money in the big games. Yes, he had an All Star Cast, but they still needed a Field Marshall.

  • Jaybird

    Michael it says ” round two ” above the list ? Typo?

  • Jaybird…Rod Woodson is my favorite all-time Steeler. But…he didn’t have the impact on the Steelers that Big Ben has. The Steelers went 25 years without winning a Super Bowl until Ben came into town. He went 15-1 as a rookie. Most of the time he played, it was behind a poor offensive line. Don’t forget as well that Rod ended up wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey. The Rooneys said letting him go in free agency was one of the worst decisions they made. I was DEVASTATED. But he’s still below Big Ben as an impact player on the team.

  • Jaybird

    He was totally clutch. But he still ain’t a better player than Woodson. Forget the Steelers all time list , Rod is on the NFL’s all time list. One of the greatest ever.

  • Good catch…

  • Jaybird

    If you can penalize Rod for wearing a Ravens jersey, then I can penalize Bradshaw for not showing up to either Art or Dans’ s funeral! What kind of “Steeler” doesn’t show up to either of those two’ s funeral?
    It’s all good though, cool piece Michael. I enjoyed it.

  • I didn’t mean to penalize Rod for wearing a Raven’s jersey. Also…I think he wanted to stay, and was given the cold shoulder by the Steelers. It was noting that a good chunk of his career was played outside of Pittsburgh. Brent Jones was drafted by the Steelers, but was cut as a rookie. He’s not on any of these lists although he was legendary for the San Francisco Niners. There is some extra consideration for players who stayed here their whole career. Still…even if Rod Woodson played here his whole career, it would have been tough to say he had a larger impact than Big Ben. Again…if this list was “Michael’s favorite Steelers” Rod would be number one. In fact, I can’t believe I’m defending him not being the best. Just move him up there! Thanks for the encouragement…

  • Jeff…out of curiosity, and for the purpose of my unofficial poll…would you share your age?

  • Robin Cole was a great player! However; he only made All-Pro and Pro Bowl once, both in the same year. Lipps was a two time All Pro and Pro Bowler, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1984 and the Steelers MVP in 1989. And this was playing with some TERRIBLE quarterbacks. I’m sticking with Lipps…although Robin Cole probably should have been noted.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    You should be clear before giving your list as to the method used. I understand from your comments to other posters that you meant a list in terms of impact to the Steelers. Not best players or favorite players. This is why I would rank woodson higher than ben. But seeing now your method, I agree woods on had less impact than ben.

  • Now I’m arguing…just for the sport of arguing…but isn’t that what I said here: “No, Ben is no Mean Joe Greene in terms of temperament or leadership qualities. But he had an equal impact on returning the Steelers to Super Bowl glory and because of this, is second only to Joe.”

  • T3xassteelers

    Big Ben > Bradshaw

    Bradshaw just had those great defenses to fall back on.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    In a backhanded sort of way! Before you ever started with number 1, you should have stated how you were handling this. Constructive criticism is all! I enjoy your posts and enjoyed this one too. Just from reading the comments and the confusion is what drove me to write my post.

  • mem359

    Rather than being penalized, I figured it was about Rod’s accomplishments being split over more than one team. So in this case about the Steelers, comparing 100% Bradshaw to 75% Woodson (or whatever the appropriate numbers are.)

  • Jaybird

    I hear what your saying . I think it’s how you place value on the players. I’m not giving anything more for winning superbowls or turning a franchise around or being an intimidating figure or stuff like that. I’m just basing it on who is the better player- who would you want if you were starting a franchise. For me , I’d take Rod Woodson as my corner all day long . I can’t say I’d take Terry or Ben though( I’d have to go with Brady, Marino, Montana etc… ) . Guys like Woodson , Blount, Greene, Dawson And Ham are some the best all time in the history of the league. I’d take those guys in a heart beat .
    I think it just comes down to how we value a player and what you use to measure their greatness.

  • Jeff McNeill

    48, I have been a fan since the 1977 season.

  • Alright…then you’ve experienced them both live. I see your point…Rod and Troy are SO dynamic. But…moving Franco and Terry out of the way? I don’t know. They are definitely close calls regardless.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I think Franco and those two are very close calls. Terry though was just over 50% completions and 212/210 touchdowns to interceptions. Calling all his own plays and the way he played in the first 3 Super Bowls helps him, but I think he is overrated.

  • Brenton deed

    I agree; put Ben behind #52 in the 70s with that OL and the greatest defense of all time… there are no words …

    Don’t forget what Ben did behind a mediocre/bad OL in the first half of his career.

  • Bill

    On Ben Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, I don’t know. The great thing about Ben was his ability to play behind a terrible line but you may be overlooking the defense’s role, which was more significant than the offense’s, in the most recent super bowl winning seasons. Terry’s first two super seasons were due to the defense but the second two had as much to do with him as it did with the defense, which by then was no longer the smothering unit of the early 70s.
    On Franco Harris (comments rating him lower): he was the Steelers offense of the early 70s. In his rookie season he had seven 100 yard games. In the Super Bowls against Dallas, overplaying Franco’s runs led to their demise. They sure as heck respected him. He was also a good receiver. He was a 9 time pro bowler and at the time of his retirement was second only to Jim Brown in rushing yards.
    On Shazier: I think you’re rating him on potential, which he has not played up to. Yes, he’s fast and he gets to plays few LBs would get to, but then misses tackles.He’s touted as being able to cover tight ends but rarely does it because they are successful against the Steelers. I don’t know why that is, perhaps it’s the defensive play calling. Also, he sometimes gets blown up by offensive linemen; I mean knocked into the next county! Linebackers especially ILBs have to be stout against blocks. As far as their play, I think both Pouncey and Decastro should be rated above him.

  • We bemoaned the Steelers defense of the past two Super Bowls because we were comparing them with the defense of the first two Super Bowls. I believe those early defenses were flat out the best of all time…and would be competitive even in today’s modern environment. But the latter Super Bowl defenses were still very strong. I had a Bradshaw poster in my bedroom, and when I played football with friends, I WAS Bradshaw. But still…he took years to get his game on track. Big Ben on the other hand was amazing in his rookie year and hasn’t looked back. I have a hard time believing that Big Ben on the 70’s Steelers wouldn’t have done as well…or better. They might have won six Super Bowls. As for Shazier, he definitely is being rated on potential. That’s why the header above it says, “Still Competing” Currently I agree that he is below Pouncey and DeCastro. It’s just I think he has a higher ceiling and the best chance to break the Top Ten…which is a CHORE with that list. I also had a Franco Harris poster on my wall! And yes…when I was diving on couches as a kid, I WAS Franco Harris. However; when it comes down to team impact, I’m giving a slight (oh so very slight) edge to Ben because I think he was the singular difference in why the Steelers started winning (and competing for) Super Bowls. Franco was Franco…but the fact that he was so good may have slowed the Steelers down from using their passing game earlier. So…could they have won without Franco. We’ll never know, but for all of this, slight nod to Ben.