NFL Draft

Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits Of The Past 50 Years (1st Round)

After methodically exploring the Pittsburgh Steelers greatest draft hits of the past half century, starting with the ninth round and working our way up, it’s finally time to reveal the true blue chippers. The first rounders.

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 past fifty years.

In the old days, 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 first round picks 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 past 50 years. And yes…I added a year. YOU try leaving out Mean Joe Greene!

Here’s a look at the team’s recent Round One selections under Colbert: (2019) Devin Bush, (2018) Terrell Edmunds, (2017) T.J. Watt, (2016) Artie Burns, (2015) Bud Dupree, (2014) Ryan Shazier, (2013) Jarvis Jones, (2012) David DeCastro, (2011) Cameron Heyward and (2010) Maurkice Pouncey.

And, yes, I suppose we can kind of count Minkah Fitzpatrick as the team’s 2020 first round choice, having been traded to us from the Miami Dolphins mid-season last year in exchange for our top pick in this year’s draft.

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 Wild Toad’s…and hopefully entertaining…journey through Steelers history.

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

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | First Round

1 Joe Greene DT 1969 North Texas State
2 Ben Roethlisberger QB 2004 Miami (OH)
3 Franco Harris RB 1972 Penn State
4 Terry Bradshaw QB 1970 Louisiana Tech
5 Rod Woodson DB 1987 Purdue
6 Troy Polamalu DB 2003 USC
7 Lynn Swann WR 1974 USC
8 Alan Faneca G 1998 Louisiana State
9 Louis Lipps WR 1984 Southern Mississippi
10 Cameron Heyward DE 2011 Ohio State


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!” in1979, 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.

He also is the only Steelers player to have his jersey (number 75) retired, further reasserting his position atop this list.

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 sub-par 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 completely written. Last year’s season was cut early due to injury, and we’re far from knowing if he will be able to return back to the top of his game. If he can, there may be another trophy or two to add to this resume.

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 Chuck Noll’s doghouse and none probably were the brunt of more jokes. The Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson once famously said Terry 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?

His induction this Summer into 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.

Cameron Heyward
Heyward started his career off slowly (by impatient fan standards), but then seemed to get better each and every year. One thing that didn’t take him long at all, was to establish himself as the leader of the defense, and perhaps the entire team. Heyward, the son of former NFL star Craig “Ironhead” Heyward may have enjoyed his greatest year as a Pittsburgh Steeler last season as he contributed mightily to the squad’s rise back up to the top of the league. With presumably several strong years still ahead of him, Cameron has already amassed 54 sacks and 6 forced fumbles, statistics unheard of for an end on a 3-4 defense.

Heyward most likely won’t receive league-wide admiration like he earns in Pittsburgh, but, with him being this generation’s best version of Joe Greene in terms of leadership on the defense, he makes this list, and just might continue to rise.

Just Missed:

Casey Hampton (2001) 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.

Heath Miller (2005) 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 questions as to whether he would rebound, but his strong recovery and the last few stellar years of his career sealed his legacy as one of the team’s most beloved players.

Still Competing:

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 always had the raw talent to match Dawson, but he’s lacked the durability of Webster. Pouncey’s injuries seem to be a thing of the past, and with a few more strong years, he can forge a reputation as one of the Steelers greats. If you think Big Ben is the leader of the offense, you would be mistaken. It’s always been Pouncey, and much like Heyward, he’s been a rock for the team since he’s arrived.

David DeCastro (2012) DeCastro was brought into the Steelers with the label of being the “next Alan Faneca”. That’s not a bar any player wants to have to clear, but DeCastro quietly and meticulously has earned his way up the ladder of NFL success. His unique ability to pull as a guard and to control the trenches is matched only by a few of his positional peers.

T.J. Watt (2017) Watt has already won the hearts and cheers of Steelers Nation with his rapid ascent among the league’s defensive talents. Last year’s phenomenal performance included 14.5 sacks and 8 forced fumbles a feat that had him in discussions as a legitimate Defensive Player Of The Year candidate. In only three years, he’s already collected 34.5 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers putting him on pace to completely obliterate the team’s record. Yet, despite this electric start to his career, you have a hard time making these lists until you’re well into your second contract. You’ve got to be committed to Steelers Nation, to be top of the charts in our hearts. So…young man, talk to your agent…and set things straight!

Special Consideration:

Ryan Shazier (2014) Shazier landed on the Steelers with high expectations due to his draw-dropping measurables at the NFL Combine. Sprinter speed, high character, and a nose for the ball. Before his traumatic injury suffered a few years ago, Shazier was clearly flashing the ability and performance to rank among Steelers linebacker elite…which in Pittsburgh is saying a great deal. His ongoing path to recovery has already proved to be legendary.

9th Round Greatest Draft Hits
8th Round Greatest Draft Hits
7th Round Greatest Draft Hits
6th Round Greatest Draft Hits
5th Round Greatest Draft Hits
4th Round Greatest Draft Hits
3rd Round Greatest Draft Hits
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