While there are some teams more than others that try to get a jumpstart on building their team by signing veterans in free agency, most teams understand that the bedrock of a strong franchise is the draft. And it goes without saying that the most important resources in the draft tend to be the first-round draft picks.
Teams more often than not live or die with the success or failure of their first-round draft picks. They are the most likely to be high-impact players, and the scarcest commodity, so when they don’t pan out it has years-long ramifications that sets back your franchise. You don’t want to miss on too many top picks.
A recent ESPN study shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers by this metric are as successful as any team in the league, as they have retained as many of their first-round picks as any other, and they also have as many former first-round picks signed to second or third contracts.
There are only two franchises in the NFL who have at least nine of their own first-round draft picks signed to contracts (or soon to be, including this year’s draft class). The Steelers are one of them, and the Baltimore Ravens, who had two first-round picks this year, are the other).
The Steelers’ first-round picks span from the present year all the way back to 2004, when they used their 11th-overall pick on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Baltimore’s span actually goes back a year beyond, to 2003’s addition of Terrell Suggs.
But Pittsburgh doesn’t have any of its first-rounders from 2005 through 2009, though for a variety of reasons. 2005’s Heath Miller retired two years ago after having a very successful and long career. 2006’s Santonio Holmes was traded heading into his final season, but he helped them win a Super Bowl. Lawrence Timmons in 2007 played for the team for 11 years up through 2016 and is still looking for a team for this season.
I do think Rashard Mendenhall gets more grief than he should for his on-field impact. He had a couple of very good seasons, but most remember him either for his fumble in the Super Bowl or some stray comments that he made. The worst thing he did during his tenure in my estimation was not showing up during his final season here when he learned he would not be playing.
Either way, he’s not on the team and hasn’t been for several years. He retired and is pursuing other things in life. Ziggy Hood on the other hand is still playing and has been in Washington for the past two years. He played out his rookie contract with mostly solid though inconsistent play before finding other opportunities. Ironically, he would probably be a better fit in the defense today than he was at the time.
Things look pretty good after that, though. Pittsburgh hit on All-Pro talent in three straight years with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, Cameron Heyward in 2011, and David DeCastro in 2012. Unfortunately that was followed up with the worst selection of the Mike Tomlin era, that being Jarvis Jones in 2013. They got back to a positive streak in 2014 with Ryan Shazier, but we know where that situation stands.
The jury is out on the rest. Bud Dupree in 2015 had his fifth-year option picked up but still has a lot to prove and needs to not only be healthy but productive this year. Artie Burns has been a starter for a season and a half but is still too prone to making errors and his tackling must be cleaned up.
T.J. Watt does look like an early win at the outside linebacker position, which is pretty crucial considering the state of Jones and Dupree. Obviously, we haven’t seen anything from Terrell Edmunds yet.
With Roethlisberger, Pouncey, Heyward, and DeCastro all on second or third contracts, the only other teams with four first-round draft picks beyond their rookie contract are the Houston Texans and the Green Bay Packers. Shazier would be in line for a second contract now to give them five, but he has greater priorities right now.