Part nine of a series I’ll be exploring over the next several weeks. Kevin Colbert is calling it a career as GM, or de facto GM, of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His career has so much in it, running the team since 2000s. Lots of highs, two Super Bowls added to the trophy case, and the occasional low, but overall, a fantastic career for a – by all accounts – fantastic person.
What I’ll continue doing today is recapping and ranking all the draft picks Colbert made in his tenue with the team. Every. Single. One. That’s 176 picks from 2000 to 2021. I am, obviously, leaving out the 2022 draft class since they are impossible to judge in any capacity. But the rest are fair game. We’ll revisit and remember the best picks, the first round studs, Day Three steals to the busts and the guys who simply never did anything in Pittsburgh.
There’s a slight method to my madness. In creating the rankings, I considered *only* what the player did in a Steelers’ uniform. Even if the selection had a good or great career elsewhere, and you’ll see examples of that, it is excluding from consideration. The player may have worked out but not to Pittsburgh’s benefit and that’s the only thing that matters. What we won’t consider are circumstances that led to a player’s success of failure. If a player got hurt or traded or cut or whatever, we’ll accept it without examining it. Players struggle for different reasons but it’s too subjective trying to make those kinds of excuses.
I also weighed the round/selection the player was drafted in, slight consideration to positional value, the process in which the player was picked, and of course, the quality of the players Steelers’ career.
We’ll work down this list #176 to #1, meaning we’ll begin with the worst selection Colbert’s ever made until we get to his best pick. There may be some surprises, controversy, and plenty of blasts from the past along the way. These articles will include roughly 15 names at a time, though the number may sometimes change based on the grouping.
In Part nine of the series, we’ll work through 17 names today, #55 to #39. If you want to check out part eight, click the line here.
#55 Sean Davis/S Maryland – Round 2, 58th Overall (2016)
Davis was a smart, athletic defensive back out of college and became a 2 1/2 year starter for the team. His play was alright but Pittsburgh arguably hampered his development by moving him around so much early in his career. The initial plan was to play him at safety but after #176 on this list Senquez Golson again went down, Davis was asked to play more slot corner. He switched between corner, strong safety, and free safety throughout his career, never getting the time to sit and grow at one position.
He was a decent tackler who covered ground and made a handful of plays on the football. But he spent just five years in Pittsburgh and started just two total games across 2019 and 2020 (Davis signed with Washington in 2020 but came back shortly before the season began).
Davis ended his Steelers’ career with 32 starts in 64 games, recording 259 tackles and five interceptions.
#54 Keenan Lewis/CB Oregon State – Round 3, 96th Overall (2009)
Lewis did almost nothing his first two years and little his first three, in part due to the Steelers’ old-school approach of slow-playing rookies. He worked his way into a rotational role in 2011 and full-time starter in 2012. He didn’t intercept a pass that year but racked up 71 tackles and played well overall. Pittsburgh finally developed a corner and lost him as soon as they were getting a return on their investment, Lewis signing with New Orleans on a five-year pact worth over $26 million.
#53 Jesse James/TE Penn State – Round 5, 160th Overall (2015)
Davis was a raw underclassman coming out of Penn State and had a quiet rookie year after a disappointing initial preseason. But he became a solid tight end, especially as a #2, and served as a good tandem with Vance McDonald for several years. His blocking improved throughout his career and he found the end zone multiple times a year, at least twice from 2016-2018.
James predictably left for a better opportunity after his rookie contract expired but his career has been quiet since then. Detroit overpaid and underutilized him while he caught seven passes for the Chicago Bears last year. He’s currently a free agent and his NFL career may be coming to a close.
In Pittsburgh, James is best remembered for the catch/no catch against the New England Patriots. Steelers’ fans know what the correct call was. And the refs got it wrong.
#52 Chukwuma Okorafor/OT Western Michigan – Round 3, 92nd Overall (2018)
Okorafor was a raw prospect when the Steelers picked him who got a late start to playing football. He battled shoulder issues early in his career but worked his way into the starting lineup in 2020. After initially losing out to Zach Banner, Okorafor replaced him late in Week One when Banner went down with a season (and potentially career) ending ACL tear. Okorafor has manned the right tackle spot ever since.
He’s been wholly average ever since but arguably was the team’s best lineman last year, though that isn’t saying much. Okorafor has made small improvements and is a better pass protector than run blocker. He also re-upped with the team this offseason, signing a three-year deal, though its structure allows the team to pay as they go.
#51 Jason Worilds/EDGE Virginia Tech – Round 2, 52nd Overall (2010)
Worilds never became the next great Steelers’ pass rusher but he’s a little better than people give him credit for. Over his final two years, he complied 15.5 total sacks, leading or tying the team lead both seasons (admittedly, they were some pretty lean sack years).
In five years with the Steelers, he started 37 games, recording 25.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles. Just as his career was rounding the corner, Worilds decided to retire and become a Jehovah’s Witness.
I also remember the Worilds pick well for the Steelers straying away from their draft board. Pittsburgh had off-ball LB Sean Lee as the higher rated player but Tomlin pounded the table for Worilds instead. Despite his injuries, Lee turned out to be the better player.
#50 Tyler Matakevich/LB Temple – Round 7, 246th Overall (2016)
The top 50. Dirty Red as they called him. Seventh round gem, as I call him. Matakevich was a tackling machine at Temple and parlayed that “find the ball” ability into being a premier special teamer around the league. No one had more special teams tackles than his 37 in his four years with the team and he more than doubled the next-closest Steelers. It’s just a shame he lasted only four seasons, his rookie deal, and got a decent payday in Buffalo, where he’s accomplished similar. He was *only* a special teamer and had a limited/negative impact defensively but still, his contributions on special teams were huge.
#49 Emmanuel Sanders/WR SMU – Round 3, 82nd Overall (2010)
Sanders became part of the Young Money crew and one of the best stretches of Colbert draft picks ever. Mike Wallace in 2009, Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010, two definite hits and one legendary swat out of the park. Sanders was never “the guy” in Pittsburgh and often became third fiddle, stuck between the end of Hines Ward’s career and the start of Brown’s legendary run. But Pittsburgh valued him and even prevented the Patriots from poaching him with a RFA offer sheet. The Steelers matched it.
Sanders best season came in his final year in Pittsburgh, catching 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns. That played itself into a nice deal with Denver where he made his first Pro Bowl, becoming the man over there with 100+ receptions for more than 1400 yards.
#48 Rashard Mendenhall/RB Illinois – Round 1, 23rd Overall (2008)
The first 1st round running back Kevin Colbert took and only one until Najee Harris, Mendehall’s rookie year ended as quickly as it started thanks to Ray Lewis busting up his shoulder. But Mendenhall bounced back his sophomore year, rushing for over 1100 yards while sporting a healthy 4.6 yards per carry. He entered true workhorse status the following year, carrying the ball 324 times for nearly 1300 yards, though his per-carry average and overall efficiency took a dive.
Mendenhall’s numbers scaled back from there, held under 1000 yards in 2011 and tearing his ACL late in the season. He returned in 2012 but in reserve capacity and was suspended by the team for not showing up to a game against the Chargers after learning he wouldn’t play.
Unfortunately, his most vivid memories were mostly negative ones. Lewis breaking him in half and of course (sorry to restart your therapy) his Super Bowl fumble against the Green Bay Packers. Mendenhall did have a nice game-winning OT touchdown against Atlanta but the negative here outweighs the good, though back-to-back 1000 yard seasons shouldn’t be as easily dismissed as they are.
#47 Chris Kemoeatu/OG Utah – Round 6, 204th Overall (2005)
Alan Faneca, Kemoeatu was not, but he landed on the team at the right time. Before the NFL went all-in on the current passing world we’re living in and just before the offense officially became Ben Roethlisberger’s team, Kemoeatu needed until 2008 to start but meshed with the team’s power running back. A below average pass protector and penalty machine (26 of them from 2008 to 2011) but he could pull and maul in the run game. He was the team’s starting left guard en route to their sixth Lombardi trophy and earned two rings with Pittsburgh, netting his first his rookie season. For a sixth round pick with 53 starts, this is pretty hard to beat.
#46 Chase Claypool/WR Notre Dame – Round 2, 49th Overall (2020)
Of the 176 names on this list, Claypool is certainly one of the toughest players to rank. His rookie season? Fantastic. His sophomore season? Not so much. 2021 was full of nagging injuries, drama, and frustrating play. Not all of it was his fault, Ben Roethlisberger certainly isn’t his style of quarterback but most of his issues were self-induced. How Claypool performs in a critical Year Three determines how much this ranking swings in either direction but I think he’s capable of bouncing back and playing closer to that 2020 season than last year. But he has to go prove it.
#45 Matt Spaeth/TE Minnesota – Round 3, 77th Overall (2007)
One of my favorite obscure Steelers’ facts, and I’m full of them, is blocking-extraordinaire Matt Spaeth was college football’s John Mackey Award winner his final year in college. Those receiving chops didn’t translate but Spaeth’s size was tackle-like and he became an excellent blocker and complement to Heath Miller, a fantastic blocker himself. Spaeth caught double-digit passes just once in his entire NFL career, 17 with Pittsburgh in 2008 but spent most years as a complete afterthought in the pass game.
He did at least catch three touchdowns on just five receptions his rookie year, the only Steeler to achieve such a feat and just the fourth player since 2006 to do it joining Tony Curtis, Todd Yoder, and JJ Watt.
Spaeth’s first stint with the team spanned four years before he looked for greener pastures in Chicago for the next two seasons. Pittsburgh brought him back in 2013 and he resumed his blocker role even more, catching just five balls over the next three years. His most memorable receiving moment came on a 33-yard score against Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger’s sixth TD pass of the day.
As a Steeler, Spaeth played in 92 games, making 56 official starts, and catching 42 passes and seven scores.
#44 Alex Highsmith/OLB Charlotte – Round 3, 102nd Overall (2020)
Perhaps a touch high here but I’m projecting out a bit where Highsmith is headed too. He took over for the injured Bud Dupree late in the 2020 season and became the team’s full-time starter at ROLB in 2021 when Dupree secured the bag in Tennessee. His 2021 training camp was earnestly the best I’ve ever seen from a Steeler. He didn’t quite set the world on fire to start the regular season but ended the year on a high note with three sacks over his final three games. He could flirt with double-digits this season and has improved against the run. He won’t be the team’s next elite pass rusher but he’s a solid #2 in that Clark Haggans type of mold.
#43 Terrell Edmunds/SS Virginia Tech – Round 1, 28th Overall (2018)
At first blush, I know this feels several rungs too high. And I get it. Edmunds was not a home run first round hit like other names you’ll soon see on this list. In hindsight, he was at best an average selection and is your average, low-upside box safety.
But the aggregate numbers are hard to ignore. The dude’s been a starter since Day One and barely come off the field. According to PFR, here are his yearly snap counts.
2018: 966 (16 games, 15 starts)
2019: 1036 (16 games, 16 starts)
2020: 865 (15 games, 12 starts)
2021: 1145 (17 games, 17 starts)
That’s 4012 defensive snaps across four years, more than 1000 per season. How many players, first round pick or not, can say that? His play has slowly but surely improved over the years and he’s gotten more comfortable in coverage too. Pittsburgh declined his 5th year option and let him sit in free agency for months before signing him back right before the draft so they’re going to get a fifth starting season out of him. It’s not a lot of sizzle but the Edmunds’ pick has been filling.
#42 Pat Freiermuth/TE Penn State – Round 2, 55th Overall (2021)
I’m bullish on Freiermuth, clearly. Just one year in, I know, but it was a good one, especially for a rookie. Freiermuth’s 60 receptions without even being the full-time starter out of the gate is remarkable. He came to Pittsburgh exactly as he was advertised as one of the most sure-handed players the team has had in years. It was a true show-stopping moment whenever he did drop a pass. Freiermuth became a reliable weapon for Ben Roethlisberger’s final year, especially important after the team lost JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Freiermuth should hit the ground running in 2022 as his new quarterback’s best friend. Hopefully he’s able to make some downfield plays after averaging well under nine yards per catch, a fact he’s well-aware of. But he has the makings of the tight end of the long-term future and ten years from now, we could still be talking about him.
#41 Kendrell Bell/LB Georgia – Round 2, 39th Overall (2001)
Oh what could have been. Bell’s career got off to a red-hot start, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 82 tackles and nine sacks as a rookie, making a Pro Bowl for his efforts. I think people think he was a one-year wonder but he’s not entirely true. 2001 was his best year but he put up 50 tackles in 12 starts in 2002 and hit the 100-tackle mark in 2002 along with five sacks and a 61-yard interception return.
But 2004 is when knee injuries did him in, limiting him to just three games and eight tackles that season. Pittsburgh cut ties with him shortly thereafter and he spent his next three seasons in Kansas City, starting two of them, but never replicating the success he had in the black and gold.
Pittsburgh certainly got the evaluation right on him but were bitten by the injury bug, the ultimate doom-bringer for guys who didn’t fully make it. #41 may feel high but this was a Pro Bowler, award winner, and short-time stud and there aren’t many guys on the list above him who can say all that. Bell at least wasn’t a first-round pick either, which helps numb some of the pain.
#40 Martavis Bryant/WR Clemson – Round 4, 118th Overall (2014)
Similar to Bell, we’re left wondering what Bryant’s career would’ve looked like had it not been for the off-field problems and repeated suspensions. Bryant had all the talent in the world and showed it seven weeks into his NFL career. In his first game, he caught a 35-yard touchdown near the end of the first half in an eventual rout of the Houston Texans. He finished the rest of his rookie season as a feast/famine deep threat, averaging over 21 yards per catch, including a 94-yard score against the Bengals, the longest catch by a NFL player that year.
Bryant became a more consistent player his second season, catching 50 balls and finding the end zone six times. He was tall, long, with great straight-line speed, a physical freak of the physical freaks.
But trouble began at the start of that 2015 season, suspended by the league the first four games of the season. He was popped again in 2016, this time missing the entire year. He came back in 2017 and did well though wasn’t his quite electric self. Pittsburgh had no plans to trade him but the Raiders bugged the Steelers enough and upped their offer to the point where Colbert and company couldn’t turn down a third-round pick for him. It was the smart move. Bryant was released by the Raiders at the start of the new year and suspended a third time by the league near the end of the season.
Since, he’s bounced around different leagues, spending a game in the Indoor Football League with the Massachusetts Pirates. He’s had some CFL interest but hasn’t stuck. Apparently, he’s now in the Fan Controlled League playing for the FCF Beasts. I don’t know what that is either.
If Bryant was drafted in today’s age, where players won’t get suspended for weed, he probably would’ve been a star.
#39 Willie Colon/OT Hofstra – Round 4, 131st Overall (2006)
Colon isn’t as flashy as the last two names on the list. But he had more staying power, starting 62 games across six seasons with the team. Playing guard and tackle, he wasn’t a Pro Bowler or anything all that close to it but helped the Steelers win a ring. He was also one of Ben Roethlisberger’s best buds. Colon spent three more seasons in the NFL after losing Pittsburgh, starting exactly 100 career games. One of the few small schools Kevin Colbert took a chance on and here, he was rewarded.
KEVIN COLBERT’S DRAFT RANKINGS
#176. Senquez Golson – Rd. 2
#175. Alonzo Jackson – Rd. 2
#174. Fred Gibson – Rd. 4
#173. Danny Farmer – Rd. 4
#172. Kraig Urbik – Rd. 3
#171. Bruce Davis – Rd. 3
#170. Artie Burns – Rd. 1
#169. Orien Harris – Rd. 4
#168. Alameda Ta’amu – Rd. 3 (Trade Up)
#167. Dri Archer – Rd. 3
#166. Limas Sweed – Rd. 2
#165. Thaddeus Gibson – Rd. 4
#164. Nathaniel Adibi – Rd. 5
#163. Willie Reid – Rd. 3
#162. Ricardo Colclough – Rd. 2
#161. Doran Grant – Rd. 4
#160. Tony Hills – Rd. 4
#159. Ryan McBean – Rd. 4
#158. Mathias Nkwenti – Rd. 4
#157. Jarvis Jones – Rd. 1
#156. Terry Hawthorne – Rd. 5
#155. Cameron Stephenson – Rd. 4
#154. Shaq Richardson – Rd. 5
#153. Charles Davis – Rd. 5
#152. Omar Jacobs – Rd. 5
#151. Wesley Johnson – Rd. 5
#150. Mike Adams – Rd. 2
#149. Joe Burnett – Rd. 4
#148. Sammie Coates – Rd. 3
#147. Colin Holba – Rd. 6
#146. Sutton Smith – Rd. 6
#145. Bo Lacy – Rd. 6
#144. Roger Knight – Rd. 6
#143. Mike Humpal – Rd. 6
#142. Jordan Zumwalt – Rd. 6
#141. Keith Williams – Rd. 6
#140. Drew Caylor – Rd. 6
#139. Marvin Philip – Rd. 6
#138. Jason Gavadza – Rd. 6
#137. Ra’Shon Harris – Rd. 6
#136. Quincy Roche – Rd. 6
#135. Travis Feeney – Rd. 6
#134. Chris Scott – Rd. 5
#133. Brian St. Pierre – Rd. 5
#132. Shamarko Thomas – Rd. 4 (Trade Up)
#131. Chris Rainey – Rd. 5
#130. Anthony Smith – Rd. 3
#129. Frank Summers – Rd. 5
#128. Devin Bush – Rd. 1 (Trade Up)
#127. Jerald Hawkins – Rd. 4
#126. Gerod Holliman – Rd. 7
#125. Eric Taylor – Rd. 7
#124. Lavar Glover – Rd. 7
#123. Chris Taylor – Rd. 7
#122. Nick Williams – Rd. 7
#121. AQ Shipley – Rd. 7
#120. Shaun Nua – Rd. 7
#119. Rob Blanchflower – Rd. 7
#118. Toney Clemons – Rd. 7
#117. Cedric Humes – Rd. 7
#116. Doug Worthington – Rd. 7
#115. JT Wall – Rd. 7
#114. Josh Frazier – Rd. 7
#113. Terence Frederick – Rd. 7
#112. Keion Adams – Rd. 7
#111. Derwin Gray – Rd. 7
#110. Crezdon Butler – Rd. 5
#109. Noah Herron – Rd. 7
#108. Tee Martin – Rd. 5
#107. Brian Allen – Rd. 5
#106. Chris Combs – Rd. 6
#105. Dallas Baker – Rd. 7
#104. Anthony McFarland – Rd. 4
#103. Antoine Brooks Jr. – Rd. 5
#102. Matt Kranchick – Rd. 6
#101. Curtis Brown – Rd. 3
#100. Chris Carter – Rd. 5
#99. Rian Wallace – Rd. 5
#98. Justin Brown – Rd. 5
#97. Kendrick Clancy – Rd. 3
#96. Demarcus Ayers – Rd. 7
#95. Baron Batch – Rd. 7
#94. Carlos Davis – Rd. 7
#93. Isaiah Buggs – Rd .6
#92. Josh Dobbs – Rd. 4
#91. David Paulson – Rd. 7
#90. Sean Spence – Rd. 3
#89. LT Walton – Rd. 6
#88. Buddy Johnson – Rd. 4
#87. Dennis Dixon – Rd. 5
#86. Hank Poteat – Rd. 3
#85. Daniel McCullers – Rd. 6
#84. Justin Layne – Rd. 3
#83. Ulysees Gilbert III – Rd. 6
#82. Marcus Allen – Rd. 5
#81. Chukky Okobi – Rd. 5
#80. Stevenson Sylvester – Rd. 5
#79. Lee Mays – Rd. 6
#78. Kendrick Green – Rd. 3
#77. Mason Rudolph – Rd. 3 (Trade Up)
#76. Pressley Harvin III – Rd. 7
#75. Isaiahh Loudermilk – Rd. 5 (Trade Up)
#74. Ryan Mundy – Rd. 6
#73. Zach Gentry – Rd. 5
#72. Tre Norwood – Rd. 7
#71. Rodney Bailey – Rd. 6
#70. Ziggy Hood – Rd. 1
#69. Jonathan Dwyer – Rd. 6
#68. Jaylen Samuels – Rd. 5
#67. Benny Snell – Rd. 4
#66. Dan Moore – Rd. 4
#65. Kevin Dotson – Rd. 3
#64. Landry Jones – Rd. 4
#63. Verron Haynes – Rd. 5
#62. Daniel Sepulevda – Rd. 4 (Trade Up)
#61. David Johnson – Rd. 7
#60. Trai Essex – Rd. 3
#59. Anthony Chickillo – Rd. 6
#58. James Washington – Rd. 2
#57. Markus Wheaton – Rd. 3
#56. Cortez Allen – Rd. 4
#55. Sean Davis – Rd. 2
#54. Keenan Lewis – Rd. 3
#52. Jesse James – Rd. 5
#52. Chukwuma Okorafor – Rd. 3
#51. Jason Worilds – Rd. 2
#50. Tyler Matakevich – Rd. 7
#49. Emmanuel Sanders – Rd. 3
#48. Rashard Mendenhall – Rd. 1
#47. Chris Kemoeatu – Rd. 6
#46. Chase Claypool – Rd. 2
#45. Matt Spaeth – Rd. 3
#44. Alex Highsmith – Rd. 3
#43. Terrell Edmunds – Rd. 1
#42. Pat Freiermuth – Rd. 3
#41. Kendrell Bell – Rd. 2
#40. Martavis Bryant – Rd. 4
#39. Willie Colon – Rd. 4