Anybody who has spent some time following the 365-day new cycle in sports has likely observed that there are some periods of time in which there is less to write about—and thus less to read about—than others. The long post-draft process until training camp is one of those periods, during which you find outlets exercising greater creativity to come up with something to write about.
One of Pro Football Focus’ latest endeavors in this vein was to pick the best first-round draft pick at each individual selection over the course of their coverage, which began in 2006. For example, they contend that Von Miller is the best player since 2006 to have been selected second overall.
The Pittsburgh Steelers do land one name on the list in this era, and you can probably guess who it is, though I’ll argue they could have contended for at least one or two more. The one who made the cut is T.J. Watt, who since being drafted in 2017 has established himself as the best player to be selected 30th overall since 2006, and likely one of the best ever drafted in that slot.
While it’s nice to see Watt on the list, I was somewhat surprised that Cameron Heyward, the 31st overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, did not make the cut. Instead, that distinction was given to Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick, drafted in 2013. To his credit, Frederick is a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, who had to retire due to injury after just seven seasons.
But Heyward is also among the best at what he does, a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro whose candidacy had previously been hindered by his designation as an end, and thus an edge defender, before being appropriately classified as an interior lineman. Since that reclassification, he’s been on the All-Pro team every year. And that likely also affected his inability to claim a spot on the 2010s All-Decade team.
Over the past decade, he has recorded 451 tackles, including 86 for loss, with 58 sacks, 136 hurries, six forced fumbles, five recoveries, an interception, and 33 passes defensed. He entered the starting lineup in 2013, coming in behind Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, and has made the Pro Bowl each year since 2017.
One might argue that it’s an even bigger slight that PFF chose three-year veteran cornerback Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers as the best-of-the-era 18th-overall pick when the Steelers selected nine-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey at the same spot in 2010. Alexander has one Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod, both from last season, with four career interceptions and 41 passes defensed. Pouncey was regarded for a decade as one of the best players at his position.
An admittedly much less compelling case could be made for 2012 24th overall pick David DeCastro, as his competition is Cameron Jordan, a defensive end on the 2010s All-Decade Team. Jordan’s career rivals or betters that of Heyward, while DeCastro has at times been regarded as one of the best guards in the NFL. Other times, not so much. More consistency would have played in his favor, but he also had very stiff competition.
One wonders, though what 2014 15th overall pick Ryan Shazier could have accomplished if not for his career-ending injury. He certainly could have given Jason Pierre-Paul a run for his money at that slot. Pierre-Paul has been an awesome player, make no mistake, with a few Pro Bowls, 89 career sacks, and 20 forced fumbles, but Shazier was just emerging as an elite linebacker at the time of his injury.
While he missed at least three games in each of the four seasons in which he played, Shazier accumulated 299 career tackles, including 24 for lost yardage. He also had seven sacks, seven interceptions, and seven forced fumbles in just 46 career games played, not to mention 25 passes defensed. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his final two seasons, despite missing seven games between them, combining in those years for six interceptions, five forced fumbles, 20 passes defensed, and 12 tackles for loss.