Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits From Noll To Tomlin (7th Round)

We’ve covered the greatest hits of the eighth and ninth rounds in the two prior articles (we’re counting all the way down to round one) and so far this contest hasn’t been fair at all.

It’s been Chuck Noll all the way.

That’s not the fault of head coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. The draft was trimmed down to a maximum of seven rounds only a few years into Cowher’s reign.

So, it should be even Steven now, right? All three of the Steelers coaching legends should have equal representation in this greatest draft hits moving forward, correct?

Well. Not really.

You see, the Pittsburgh Steelers had an unfair advantage in NFL drafts in their glory days of the seventies. They had the legendary Hall of Fame scout Bill Nunn who found players in colleges other teams barely knew existed. This also was well before the age of the internet where secrets about hidden treasure players could still be kept.

Additionally, these Glory Days were before the era of modern free agency, and once drafted back then, players had a tendency to keep put. Since this list disqualifies players who didn’t stay long in Pittsburgh, both Cowher and Tomlin are at a huge disadvantage in evaluating the quality of their selections.

Because of this, any greatest draft pick list for the Steelers is going to be weighted heavily in Noll’s favor. So, prepare yourself younger fans. This isn’t some old writer living in the past. This here is just the facts.

The result of that unrivaled draft pick bonanza was one of the top Super Bowl rushes in football history.

  1. 1975. 1978. 1979.

Count ‘em. That’s four trophies. Can you imagine how awesome it was to see the Steelers raise the Lombardi Trophy so many times over such a short time span?

Yet, as great as the high was, the low was burdened by unmet expectations. This was the dark ages of the 1980s which led to even the great Chuck Noll getting the “early retirement” treatment later granted by the Rooneys to coaches like Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau.

And so began the Bill Cowher era, a Marty Schottenheimer-trained, frothing-at-the-mouth, big-chinned, high energy defensive-minded coach.

Did someone say defense? Yes…we loved Coach Cowher because in Pittsburgh, we love defense. And, unlike the cool, unflappable Noll, on the sidelines Bill acted like any one of us fools in the cheap seats or in beer-soaked bars.

We loved him for that as well.

But, even an ebullient personality like The Chin began to wear out his welcome with the faithful when he proved to be more like Marty than Chuck.

His teams were good enough to dominate in the regular season, but when it came time to the games that mattered, flashy offensive teams hailing from San Francisco, Dallas, Denver and Green Bay made us look Less Than Zero.

Even with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis roaming the sidelines, there just wasn’t enough gas in the engine to get the Bus across the line.

And this was all because Bill’s Achilles Heel was his lack of appreciation for the most important position on the field. We wanted Terry Bradshaw, he gave us Mike Tomczak.

For some reason, he was completely convinced a quarterback was only worth 25% of a fullback.

This was even with the obvious Exhibit A’s staring him in the face. His beautiful, hand-crafted defense was getting manhandled by opposing players such as Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Steve Young, John Elway and Brett Favre.

That was, until 2004 when the Steelers front office insisted he use one of his precious first-rounders on a big-armed gunslinger by the name of Ben Roethlisberger.

The team changed in that very moment as the Steelers were back on the board with a Super Bowl victory in 2005.

On January 27, of 2007, at the age of 34, Mike Tomlin took the reins of the Pittsburgh empire. He quickly showed to be a brilliant and gifted leader and rapidly delivered another Lombardi in 2009.

With defensive talent abounding, and a confident young coach of the highest character and standing, it looked like the Days of Dynasty had finally returned.

But it was not to be.

The Steelers suffered a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2011 and haven’t returned to the Big Game since.

Even the most Debbie Downer of a fan must sense a new hope coming to the Burgh. With Kenny Pickett, surrounded by a bevy of young offensive talent, and a defense boasting some of the league’s top stars, a strong 2023 draft could bring the team back to serious contention.

The NFL draft. It’s the most important day in the legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s where all of the greatest teams have been built.

If you’re wondering what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do with their two seventh-round draft picks this year, history would suggest they should follow the words sung by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

Give it away…give it away…give it away…now.

Because for the most part, the Pittsburgh Steelers have shot blanks with their seventh-rounders and almost like clockwork pick a winner at this position only once a decade.

For instance, here are the last few years worth of seventh-round draft picks not named Kelvin Beachum: (2012) Terrence Frederick, (2012) David Paulson, (2012) Toney Clemons, (2013) Nicholas Williams, (2014) Rob Blanchflower, (2015) Gerod Holliman, (2016) Tyler Matakevich, (2017) Keion Adams, (2018) Joshua Frazier, (2019) Derwin Gray, (2020) Carlos Davis, (2021) Pressley Harvin III, (2021) Tre Norwood, (2022) Chris Oladokun and (2022) Mark Robinson.

When I went through this exercise a few years ago, I got in a virtual bar fight in the comments section when someone insisted Matakevich should have been included. Just further evidence, the Spin is always right.

So…don’t get too excited about the seventh round.

But then again, we are Steelers Nation and always believe this year…is THE year.

After all, didn’t the San Francisco 49ers turn 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant (last pick of the draft) into a Cinderella Story? QB Brock Purdy turned out to be…well pretty good!

And it might…just…be possible we choose the greatest seventh-round draft pick of all time this draft. Or not. Only time…and probably this season…will tell.

Before that story is told, let’s get back to reviewing the greatest draft hits from Noll to Tomlin. We’re in Round Seven, historically not the organization’s best tree for the picking. Still, there has been a few apples.

So…what follows are not merely the obvious choices…but pretty much the only choices.

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | Seventh Round

1 David Little LB 1981 Florida
2 Brett Keisel DE 2002 Brigham Young
3 Carlos Emmons LB 1995 Arkansas State
4 Edmund Nelson DT 1982 Auburn
5 Kelvin Beachum T 2012 Southern Methodist

David Little

You won’t see too many defensive highlight reels in the woeful Steelers decade of the 1980s but if you do, chances are it will include middle linebacker David Little making a tackle, causing a fumble or getting an interception. The Steelers weren’t THAT bad…but for those of us spoiled by 70’s greatness…these were difficult days indeed. (Really? You mean the Steelers don’t win the Super Bowl every year?) Little kept the tradition of great Steelers linebackers alive and provided much-needed occasional joy for diehard fans those days, serving up punishing blows and being a stalwart of the defense. Tragically at age 46, Little died when the 250 pounds of weight he was lifting crushed him when he dropped it on his chest after suffering from a sudden cardiac flutter.

Brett Keisel

“Da Beard” will rank much higher in Steelers lore than in NFL gen-pop as such is the fate of defensive ends in the team’s 3-4 scheme. Just ask Aaron Smith…one of the greatest to play the position. When Keisel joined the roster as a rookie there was buzz and bewilderment about his athleticism, especially for such a big man. A talented basketball player who even had NBA aspirations at one point, he was slow to establish a starting role having suffered early career injuries. But when Kimo von Oelhoffen left for free agency in 2006, Keisel stepped in and made the position his own, quickly emerging as one of the leaders of what once was one of the NFL’s perennially best defenses.

Carlos Emmons

Technically, Carlos Emmons’s tenure in Pittsburgh was too short to qualify for this list but the talent in the seventh round is paper thin so he gets a reluctant nod. Yet another in the long line of great edge rushers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Emmons had to bide his time behind the likes of Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd until he got his chance. Much like Jason Worilds, he was considered a late bloomer mostly because of who was in front of him rather than from a lack of potential. When he did get his chance in the limelight, he shined brightly. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, it was too brief of a flash as free agency and the Philadelphia Eagles drew him to the dark side of the state. If you’re wondering why old timers were frustrated about Bud Dupree taking so long to show his pedigree and then demanding big bucks, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.

Edmund Nelson

Edmund Nelson’s greatest ascent in Pittsburgh Steelers history is as a jumbo-sized commentator for local television broadcasts, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t establish himself while in uniform. He came on the scene in 1982 just as Steelers legends Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood were hanging up their cleats. This drain of Steeler Curtain greatness proved a devastating blow and created a hole that even a man of Edmund Nelson’s size couldn’t adequately fill. This was also the time when Chuck Noll began introducing variants of the 3-4 that were being made vogue by the success of the Orange Crush defense of the Denver Broncos. Nelson never was a dominating player but he makes this list because he helped (alongside Gary Dunn) innovate the nose tackle position in Pittsburgh and…of course…because of his on-air Steelers chops.

Kelvin Beachum

Had fate dealt him a better hand, Kelvin Beachum could well be at the top of this list. If not for a catastrophic knee injury in the last year of his rookie contract Beachum might have emerged as one of the greatest draft steals in team history. Considered undersized, Beachum was intent on proving everyone wrong and combines an impressive work ethic with a student-like intensity in seeking to master the game. After recovering from his injury, free agency pulled him away to other fields of glory and he continues to enjoy a long and fruitful career in the NFL. But as one of the greatest character guys ever drafted by the Steelers, he’ll be hard to shake off this list.

Previous Greatest Hits

Ninth+ Round Greatest Selections
Eighth Round Greatest Selections

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