Over the past week, we’ve been counting down the Pittsburgh Steelers greatest draft hits and so far the discussion has remained…cordial. Well…now it’s time for the gloves to come off as things will get much tighter and difficult to discern in this round.
Most likely, there will be some generational conflict, as some of these names are only known to the old-timers of Steelers Nation.
To be fair, the pre-free agency players had a better chance of making these lists, because they had a much lower opportunity of finding employment elsewhere.
This certainly is the challenge with some of the brighter, more recent names below. Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert would come through with a big hit, but then they couldn’t retain the young talent beyond their rookie contract.
And, as a reminder, to qualify for these lists of the greatest draft hits of the past 50 years, stronger consideration was given to those players who played the bulk of their prime as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
So…to get things started, here’s the recent contenders: (2009) Mike Wallace, (2009) Keenan Lewis, (2010) Emmanuel Sanders, (2011) Curtis Brown, (2012) Sean Spence, (2013) Marcus Wheaton, (2014) Dri Archer, (2015) Sammie Coates, (2016) Javon Hargrave, (2017) James Conner, (2017) Cameron Sutton, (2018) Chukwuma Okorafor, (2018) Mason Rudolph and (2019) Justin Layne.
As you can, a lot of that talent left Pittsburgh for what they perceived to be greener pastures (including, sadly, the Gravedigger), and in the process working themselves off of this list.
In reality, you could shuffle the order of several of the names below and have a reasonable argument (including a couple of the alternates). But somebody has to start the conversation, so it might as well be me.
Let’s get going with the latest edition of the Steelers Depot draft history series.
Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | Third Round
|3||Joey Porter||LB||1999||Colorado State|
|4||Jason Gildon||LB||1994||Oklahoma State|
|5||Jon Kolb||LT||1969||Oklahoma State|
To some more recent fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers it may be considered blasphemy to rank Mel Blount ahead of Hines Ward. However; Blount is already in the Hall of Fame, and unlike Ward, Blount was almost unanimously considered the league’s best at his position during the 1970’s and in 1975 was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Many still consider him the best cornerback of all time in the NFL. Not only was Blount a shutdown corner, he was a beat-the-living-daylights-out-of-you defender. Receivers hated playing against Blount because it meant they would spend most of the game with their facemask buried deep in the mud.
Such was Blount’s dominance in the NFL that they changed the ways receivers could be treated. The five-yard bump rule that started in 1978? Not only was it due to the bullying style of the Steelers great corner but it was actually named the “Mel Blount Rule”. Unlike Deion Sanders, Blount never made “business decisions” in avoiding contact and was glad to participate in stopping the run as well. He finished his storied career in the league with 57 interceptions and is easily one of the greatest Steelers of all time. Like so many other players for the Black and Gold, Blount was also a Hall of the Famer off the field in performing great charity work. Ironically, after tormenting so many offensive players through the years, he served as the Director of Player Relations for the NFL during the 1980’s.
If ever a master craftsman was designing the ultimate Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, his work of art would look very much like Hines Ward. Hines was one of the toughest players and best blockers to ever play the receiving position. Disappointed that he wasn’t drafted until the third round Hines Ward carried this chip on his shoulder like his best imaginary friend and used it as a powerful motivator throughout his career.
Perhaps if he ever gets a well-deserved nod for the Hall of Fame he’ll be willing at last to lay that chip down. Even his coaches and the front office doubted Ward because of a perceived lack of big play ability and they spent their next two number one draft picks trying to replace him (Troy Edwards 1999 & Plaxico Burress 2000). This only added fuel to the fire and Ward responded with a career that had him break nearly every significant team receiving record. What makes these milestones so significant is a large majority of his catches were made on critical and clutch third down and end-of-the-game-plays.
To this day, Ward’s play has many fans believing the home stadium should be rightfully called “Hines Field”. A strong leader and colorful person in the locker room Ward was a winner of Dancing With The Stars and even played a zombie in an episode of The Walking Dead. Ward will always be remembered as a player who celebrated as much over a bone rattling crack-back block than a game winning touchdown. A true Pittsburgh classic.
Speaking of flamboyant, few players talked a better game in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform than Joey Porter. But this big dog had both a bark and a bite ending his career with the Black and Gold with 60 sacks. Porter would have been higher on this list if he hadn’t left Pittsburgh early in his career. Even after his Steelers era he continued to thrive in the pursuit of quarterbacks ending with 98 in the record book before he hung up his cleats. Some of Porter’s most famous moments include chasing after Ray Lewis on the Ravens bus after a match and on another occasion getting kicked out of a game for fighting…before it started. Sometimes his antics drew attention away from people appreciating his talent. Yet, with all of Porter’s actions, they came from a genuine passion to win games and inspire his team to playing great defense.
Having to wait impatiently behind the likes of Steelers linebacker greats Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, fans questioned Gildon’s abilities early on in his career and wondered if he was a bust. But when it was Gildon’s turn to take the torch…oh my, my. All he did was become the Steelers all-time sack leader with 77 recorded during his career (until he was passed up by James Harrison a few years back). A three-time Pro Bowler and 1-time first team All-Pro, Gildon was considered among the best pass-rushing threats in the league. Gildon wasn’t as flamboyant as some of the Steelers linebackers before and after him.
Instead he just quietly and consistently went about his business. He made big plays constantly, turning games around during a period when the Steelers struggled mightily on offense.
In 1969, the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense changed dramatically with the selection of the legendary Joe Greene. But during that same year, in the third round, the offense received a similar boost with the pick of Jon Kolb.
This jumpstarted the formation of the great Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line, one which would dominate defensive fronts for years to come. As being in the marquee position (left tackle) of one of the most prolific rushing offensive lines in NFL history, Kolb deserves credit here as being a great Steelers draft hit. A powerful man (he once placed fourth in a World’s Strongest Man Competition) Kolb went on to be strength and conditioning coach for the Steelers until Chuck Noll retired and Bill Cowher cleaned house. Kolb kept in amazing shape for his age (Google “Kolb Windshield Wiper” to see his YouTube hit).
Just Missed the Cut:
Joel Steed (1992) A quiet performer and powerful man who anchored the defensive line as nosetackle for those great 1990’s Steelers defenses.
Mike Merriweather (1980) Another in the famous line of Steelers linebackers, he dominated play during the 1980’s. He wasn’t with the team long enough to make the top five here and these lists can’t be ALL linebackers.
Neil O’Donnell (1990) Pittsburgh has never been kind to quarterbacks (even Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw was regularly booed), but few have gotten more abuse than Neil O’Donnell after he single-handedly made Dallas Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown the Super Bowl XXX MVP with two devastating interceptions. A bit on the wimpy side for Pittsburgh fans, but the man could throw the ball and it took years to replace his productivity at the position when he fled town to play for the New York Jets.
Mike Wallace (2009) The draft class of 2009 had a chance of being one of the best ever for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the front office failed to retain the talent. Wallace is no longer a popular name in the ‘Burgh following his quest for bigger fish in Miami before going to Minnesota and then…gasp…Baltimore…and his time was too short with the Steelers to make the list. But he should get a tip of the hat for the thrills he provided his first few seasons as he burst onto the scene.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010) Sanders was drafted as the member of “Young Money” with the most potential to start right away as he’s always been a polished route runner. Several nagging injuries slowed him down early in his Pittsburgh career and it was in Denver where he blossomed into one of the top receivers in the NFL. Traded last season, he was able to play a key role in San Francisco’s drive to the Super Bowl.
Keenan Lewis (2009) Lewis’s departure in free agency (especially considering the Steelers ensuing struggles in filling the cornerback position) was seen initially as one of the teams’s biggest free agency blunder in years. But, as it turns out, Lewis’s career was cut short by injury.
Javon Hargrave (2016) The loss of the Gravedigger in free agency from this year’s rapidly rising Steelers defense may end up being felt negatively for years. His combination of power and quickness will be tough to replicate.
James Conner (2017) Conner will need to keep out of the trainer’s room in order to move up this list any further. A true fan favorite, Conner flashes big talent, and brings a hometown flair. If he can shake his injury bug, the future remains bright. This season will be make or break for him to establish himself as a long-term solution at running back.