The Steelers didn’t always get the NFL Draft right. In fact, they got it wrong during nearly all of the futile first four decades of their existence, the biggest reason why a team founded in 1933 never won a postseason game until 1972.
For years and years, they made bad picks or no picks. They traded out of the first round almost annually under coach Buddy Parker. They made confounding picks (a West Point star facing a five-year military obligation) and downright inexplicable picks (a No. 1 overall pick unknown to the rest of the league).
When they finally stopped trading draft picks, and grasped the concept that championship teams are assembled with hard work, patience and scouting rather than via hastily assembled trades made in the angry moments after losing, they drafted better than any team before them â” or any team since.
From 1969-74, they drafted an astounding nine future Hall of Famers â” four during a five-round coup in 1974 unlike that pulled off by any other team in any other major pro sport. They won four Super Bowls in six seasons because they did.
When their genius â” and drafting magic â” vanished, and their drafts began resembling those of the other franchises, the winning stopped, too. A succession of poor drafts from 1978-83 resulted in them winning only two playoff games during the 1980s.
As soon as the drafts got good again, they did, too, playing in eight AFC Championship Games and four Super Bowls, winning two, from 1994-2010.
Obviously, there’s a trend here. Because the Steelers prefer to build from within rather than constantly rebuild through free agency, they win when they draft well and lose when they don’t.
So how will the 2014 NFL Draft play out? Will it yield four starters in the first six rounds like the 2010 draft? Or not a single player who remains after a few seasons, like the 2009, 2008 and 1985 drafts?
Will the top pick turn out to be franchise player such as Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu … or a forgettable flop such as Jamain Stephens or Huey Richardson?
The Steelers’ best first-round picks by decade (Trib Ranking, Player, Draft position, year):
15 Whizzer White (4), 1938
The Steelers (then Pirates) stunned the NFL by paying him a record $ 15,600 salary. Led NFL in rushing before enrolling in Oxford, but the outbreak of World War II allowed the future Supreme Court justice to play two more seasons for the Lions.
20 Mike Basrak (5), 1937
The star offensive lineman on Duquesne’s Orange Bowl-winning team, he was an All-Pro center in both of his NFL seasons. But reflecting pro football salaries at the time, he quit to take a high school coaching job in Altoona that paid less than $ 3,000 per year.
60 Bill Shakespeare (3), 1936
The third player drafted by the NFL and the first chosen from Notre Dame, one of college football’s biggest stars of the 1930s passed up the low-paying NFL for a business career.
No pick: 1939
9 Bill Dudley (1), 1942
Known as Bullet Bill, he was the one great pick during an era of remarkably bad ones by the Steelers. Was the NFL rushing leader during two of his three Steelers seasons. A runner and receiver, he also punted and, late in his three-team career, was a placekicker.
57 Bob Gage (6), 1949
A quarterback, he threw nine interceptions and three TD passes in two seasons, then took a textile industry job. His one highlight was a then-record 97-yard TD run.
58 Dan Edwards (9), 1948
Caught 234 passes in seven pro seasons â” none in Pittsburgh â”after choosing to sign with Brooklyn (AAFC), one of his five career teams.
59 Paul Duhart (2), 1945
Remarkably, he made the game-winning interception for Green Bay in the 1944 NFL title game but had to re-enter the draft to match up with his original college class. The Steelers drafted him, only to sell him to Boston/Brooklyn after two games.
61 Bill Daley (7), 1943
The only first-round pick by the combined Steelers/Eagles, he never played for either team. World War II kept him away from football until he signed a lucrative $ 30,000 contract with the AAFC in 1946.
64 Doc Blanchard (3), 1946
The first junior to win the Heisman Trophy, Blanchard was drafted out of West Point despite his required military obligation. Denied a furlough to play in the NFL, he became an Air Force fighter pilot who eventually flew 113 missions in Vietnam. Never played pro ball.
66 Hub Bechtol (5), 1947
A College Football Hall of Fame defensive end at Texas Tech and Texas, he passed up the Steelers to play three seasons for the Baltimore Colts of the AAFC.
67 Kay Eakin (3), 1940
The former Arkansas halfback didn’t make it through training camp before being traded to the Giants for tackle Ox Parry, who never played a game for Pittsburgh.
68 Johnny Podesto (10), 1944
Known as âœPodesto from Modesto,â the former star at St. Mary’s in California impressed as a passer early in training camp but injured a leg and was cut before the season opener. Never played an NFL game.
No pick: 1941
11 Frank Varrichione (6), 1955
An oft-overlooked player in team history, he was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in five of his first six seasons before finishing his 11-season career with the Rams.
22 Lynn Chandnois (8), 1950
A multi-dimensional offensive player who twice made the Pro Bowl. Had 470 yards rushing, 412 yards receiving and a league-best 1,593 all-purpose yards during a 12-game season in 1953. Led NFL in kickoff returns in 1951 and 1952.
36 Johnny Lattner (7), 1954
A good pick dogged by bad luck. Totaled seven TDs and 1,028 all-purpose yards during a Pro Bowl rookie season, but career was ended by a knee injury during his required two-year military commitment.
47 Ed Modzelewski (6), 1952
Had 304 scrimmage yards as a rookie before spending two years in the Air Force. The Steelers then unwisely traded him to Cleveland, where he was one of the NFL’s top fullbacks the next two seasons.
48 Ted Marchibroda (5), 1953
A quarterback, he started only one of his three seasons before being cast off to Cardinals. Later became an NFL head coach with the Colts (twice) and Ravens.
49 Len Dawson (5), 1957
The Steelers never let him off the bench in three seasons before trading him to the Browns. His career (27,111 passing yards) didn’t take off until he moved to the AFL in 1962.
55 Art Davis (5), 1956
An exceptional college player at Mississippi State, he badly injured a shoulder during the College All-Star Game even before joining the Steelers. A brief career that included only five carries and one reception ended with another serious injury (knee).
65 Butch Avinger (9), 1951
Drafted while in the Army, the Alabama fullback didn’t join the Steelers until 1953, only to be traded to the Giants for punter Pat Brady during training camp.
71 Gary Glick (1), 1956
They could have had Lenny Moore or Forrest Gregg, Sam Huff, Bart Starr or Willie Davis, but the Steelers instead tried to outsmart the NFL based on a single letter by Glick’s coach at tiny Colorado A&M to coach Walt Kiesling. A young Dan Rooney pleaded for another pick, but Kiesling stubbornly took Glick, a defensive back who played seven nondescript NFL seasons with four teams. The Steelers didn’t watch film of Glick until after they drafted them. When they finally saw him playing against a terrible opponent in a deserted stadium in which there were as many loose dogs as spectators, they realized the mistake they made.
No pick: 1958, 1959
1 Joe Greene (4), 1969
Forty years of misery began to end for the Steelers when they hired Chuck Noll and drafted Joe Greene days apart. Greene went on to terrorize NFL offensive lines, leading a best-ever 1976 defense that allowed only two touchdowns in its last nine games.
27 Paul Martha (10), 1964
Initially envisioned as a wide receiver, he ended up starting six seasons at safety, making 15 interceptions, before finishing his career in Denver. Later became a lawyer and president of the Penguins.
54 Mike Taylor (10), 1968
Played one-plus season until being one of the numerous players Noll ran off during his first season, via a trade to New Orleans. Played only 46 NFL games.
56 Jack Spikes (6), 1960
A tough, 210-pound fullback, he played eight pro seasons â” none with the Steelers after choosing to sign with Dallas of the new AFL.
63 Bob Ferguson (5), 1962
A superb, tough-yardage fullback at Ohio State, he couldn’t make the leap to the NFL and was traded a year later to Minnesota, which cut him before the 1964 season. He later vanished from his family, lived under an assumed name and had a stroke at age 35.
70 Dick Leftridge (3), 1966
Somehow drafted No. 3 overall following a 744-yard season at West Virginia, he showed up to camp weighing somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds. Carrying only eight times all season, he wasn’t even the Steelers’ leading rookie rusher. Never played in the league again.
No pick: 1961, 1963, 1965, 1967
2 Terry Bradshaw (1), 1970
First franchise QB in Steelers history, and it took only 37 years to get him. Threw 30 career postseason TD passes â” 10 more than any other player of his era or any other Steelers QB. Playoff record: 14-5.
3 Franco Harris (13), 1972
Noll wanted to draft Robert Newhouse, but Dan Rooney and others talked him into taking Harris (11,950 yards, 100 total touchdowns). The Steelers might have won four Super Bowls because they did.
5 LYNN SWANN (21), 1974
Led off the greatest draft by any team in any sport: four Hall of Famers in five rounds (and Steelers didn’t have a third-round pick). Sixty TD catches in nine seasons, counting playoffs.
17 J.T. THOMAS (24), 1973
A Pro Bowl player in 1976, he started at safety on three of the four of the Steelers’ Super Bowl winners of the 1970s. He missed the 1978 season with a blood disorder. Career-high five interceptions in 1974.
23 Bennie Cunningham (28), 1976
Gave Bradshaw a tall, reliable pass receiving threat â” especially in the red zone â” to complement Swann and John Stallworth. Made 20 career touchdown catches.
24 R obin Cole (21), 1977
A one-time Pro Bowl player, he never was a big stats producer but was part of the Steelers’ defense for 11 seasons. Made 15 career fumble recoveries.
30 Ron Johnson (22), 1978
Immediately plugged in as a starting cornerback on a Super Bowl winner as a rookie. Played seven Steelers seasons, but career was interrupted by injuries.
32 Frank Lewis (8), 1971
One of only two first-round picks between 1969-74 who didn’t make the Hall of Fame. Never had more than 30 catches in any of his seven Steelers seasons but averaged 45 catches in six Bills seasons.
45 Dave Brown (26), 1975
Didn’t start a game during his rookie season, then was unwisely exposed to Seahawks in the expansion draft and went on to enjoy a 15-season career with Seattle and Green Bay.
52 Greg Hawthorne (28), 1979
Started only 11 games while averaging slightly more than 100 yards per season in five failed Steelers seasons. Hhad more yards as a receiver.
4 Rod Woodson (10), 1987
The only Hall of Famer drafted by the Steelers in the first round in the past 39 years. Made 11 Pro Bowls (seven with Pittsburgh), more than any other player drafted by the Steelers.
14 Louis Lipps (23), 1984
Made Pro Bowl in his first two seasons. His 6,018 yards receiving in eight seasons are third in team history behind Hines Ward and Stallworth.
34 Walter Abercrombie (12), 1982
Drafted to be Franco Harris’ replacement, he ran for 3,343 yards and 22 TDs in six seasons but never had a 1,000-yard season or was the game-changing back the Steelers envisioned.
35 Keith Gary (17), 1981
Steelers saw him as an L.C. Greenwood-type disruptive force but botched his contract negotiations and he spent his first two seasons in the CFL. Had 25 sacks in his first five NFL seasons, but he never became a star.
40 Mark Malone (28), 1980
An excellent athlete â” he once had a 90-yard TD catch on a trick play â” he had 54 TD passes and 68 interceptions in seven Steelers seasons.
43 Tim Worley (7), 1989
One of two failed first-rounders in same draft. Had a promising start with 770 yards as a rookie. But was suspended in 1991 for missing a drug test, then was traded to Chicago early in the 1992 season.
46 Aaron Jones (18), 1988
Major bust who started 12 games as a rookie but just 10 more the next four seasons; made only 91â„2 sacks. Was drafted after line coach Joe Greene said he âœbeggedâ for him.
50 John Rienstra (9), 1986
The Steelers were certain the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Rienstra would be a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. But he fought a bleeding ulcer, anxiety issues that hospitalized him during 1988 training camp and alcohol problems, and he started only one full season.
51 Darryl Sims (20), 1985
One of a succession of failed first-round defensive line picks. Didn’t start a game in two seasons before the Browns took him off the Steelers’ hands.
53 Tom Ricketts (24), 1989
The Steelers just couldn’t get the â˜89 draft right. One of their first 300-pound offensive linemen, the former Pitt player never secured a starter’s job amid a succession of injuries and position switches.
NR Gabe Rivera (21), 1983
The Steelers, desperate for a young pass rusher, were one of 26 teams to pass on Dan Marino (and Darrell Green, another Hall of Famer drafted right after Marino) in one of the NFL’s greatest drafts. Rivera was paralyzed in a one-car accident six games and two sacks into his rookie year and never played again.
8 Alan Faneca (26), 1998
The lead blocker for Jerome Bettis, he made seven Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams as arguably the best guard in team history.
19 Eric Green (21), 1990
The Steelers never built their offense around a tight end until Green arrived in a big way, making seven TD catches in only six starts as a rookie. A two-time Pro Bowl pick, he caught 24 TD passes and averaged nearly 40 catches in five seasons before signing with Dolphins.
25 Chad Scott (24), 1997
A seven-season starter at cornerback who made 19 career interceptions and 366 tackles for Steelers.
26 Mark Bruener (27), 1995
A reliable tight end who never caught more than 26 passes during any of his nine Steelers seasons, he helped power what was annually one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses.
28 Charles Johnson (17), 1994
Had one 1,000-yard season and two 60-catch seasons in five years with Pittsburgh. Made seven TD catches in 1998.
29 Leon Searcy (11), 1992
A reliable offensive tackle who didn’t miss a start during the final three of his four Steelers seasons. Team made the playoffs in every season.
39 Troy Edwards (13), 1999
He made 61 catches as a rookie, but had only 37 the next two seasons before being jettisoned as one of Tom Donahue’s biggest draft-day disappointments.
42 Deon Figures (23), 1993
Made only one interception during four disappointing Steelers seasons before ending career with Jaguars.
62 Jamain Stephens (29), 1996
Started a lone game as a rookie from North Carolina A&T, only to be cut two days into 1997 training camp after throwing up during running drills he couldn’t complete.
69 Huey Richardson (15), 1991
The Steelers drafted him as a pass rusher even though they knew he didn’t have the size to play defensive end or the quickness to play outside linebacker in their 3-4. Broke his nose during a walk-through as a rookie, then was cut by Bill Cowher in camp a year later.
6 Troy Polamalu (16), 2003
Steelers traded up to get him in one of Kevin Colbert’s best decisions. Reinvented how the safety position is played with his ability to play anywhere in the defense. Eight-time Pro Bowl pick.
7 Ben Roethlisberger (11), 2004
Make the right draft moves, and you win Super Bowls. All-time team leader in passing yards and touchdowns, and his 10-season career doesn’t appear close to being over.
10 Casey Hampton (19), 2001
Immediately made the middle of the line almost impenetrable for opposing running backs. Among Steelers defensive linemen, only Greene and L.C. Greenwood have more Pro Bowl selections than his five.
12 Heath Miller (30), 2005
With Miller serving as a reliable receiver and blocker, Steelers went to the Super Bowl in three of his first six seasons. His 466 catches are more than twice as many as any other tight end in team history.
16 Santonio Holmes (25), 2006
An impact player from the start, he made 20 TD catches and averaged nearly 60 receptions per season before being traded to Jets after 2009 season. His last-minute TD catch beat Arizona in Super Bowl XLVIII.
18 Plaxico Burress (8), 2000
Teamed with Hines Ward to give the Steelers one of NFL’s best receiving duos of the time. Averaged nearly 1,000 yards during his final four Steelers seasons before signing with the Giants.
21 Lawrence Timmons (15), 2007
The first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era, he still anchors a defense that annually led or was near the top of the league from 2007-12. Has a combined 16 interceptions and fumble recoveries.
33 Rashard Mendenhall (23), 2008
Ran for 1,000-plus yards in each of first two full seasons, but final-game knee injury in 2011 effectively ruined his career and he retired several months ago.
37 Kendall Simmons (30), 2002
Started every Steelers game he played during six seasons at right guard.
41 Ziggy Hood (32), 2009
Started for most of three seasons but never had more than three sacks in a season. Signed with Jaguars in March.
13 Maurkice Pouncey (18), 2010
The first center in NFL history to be chosen for the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
31 David D e Castro (24), 2012
If his career progresses as expected, he’ll likely be much higher up any such list by the time he retires. Could be a Pro Bowl-caliber right guard by this season.
38 Cam Heyward (31), 2011
Finally winning a starter’s job, he had a breakout 2013 season with five sacks, a fumble recovery and one of the highest grades on the Steelers defense.
44 Jarvis Jones (17), 2013
Should be given an incomplete. Only one sack as a rookie, and it’s still too early to tell if he will develop into an elite puss rusher.
The Editor & Chief, the brains so to say, behind Pittsburgh Blitz. Jim is a rabid sports fan who just loves his Stillers, Pens and Buccos. Feel free to contact us at info[@]pittsburgh-blitz.com if you have any questions or comments or would like to join our staff and write for Pittsburgh Blitz.