Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits From Noll To Tomlin (9th Round+)

The Pittsburgh Steelers and their legion of global fans head into the 2023 National Football League draft with Great Expectations (a wonderful novel by Charles Dickens by the way) once again.

With their brand spanking new quarterback in Kenny Pickett and an infusion of store-bought talent from free agency, the Steelers appear to be a team on the rise.

Yet, their work is far from done. They must tap wisely into the gold vein of this year’s NFL Draft motherlode.

That’s if they expect to have any hope of being competitive in a difficult division that includes the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens…and yes…even the Cleveland Browns. This is a quarterback-rich grouping that features the likes of Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson, who should rebound from his disappointing return-to-the-field play of 2022.

On top of this, the Steelers share a conference with this year’s Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, who look nearly invincible for as long as Patrick Mahomes’ tenure in the NFL will last.

The good news is the Steelers have an opening to advance as the Bengals need to start shedding players to be able to pay for Burrow’s post-rookie contract, and Jackson will be an unhappy player after being tagged and shockingly ignored by other quarterback-desperate teams in the NFL.

Still, although unwavering Coach Mike Tomlin fans ardently saluted his continued non-losing season streak, more levelheaded observers would note this streak includes long patches of mediocrity. This includes last year’s 9-8 finish that had Steelers players sitting on couches watching other teams compete in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh will need to boost their odds of being a renewed contender by having a much better than average draft performance. To do this, they’ll have to outwit 31 other NFL teams hoping to accurately forecast the careers of a host of star collegiate players.

What better way to predict the future than to explore the past efforts of the Steelers front office in trying to pull rabbits out of hats across the course of seven decades?

Every three years for Steelers Depot, the Spin goes through every pick of the team during the modern era to determine the Greatest Drafts Hits and this edition covers every selection during the reign of head coaches Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin.

Which of these talented coaches and their front office partners end up with the most drafting sensations? I guess you’ll have to read every episode of this series to find out.

We begin our journey by choosing from rounds nine and above, and then article by article we’ll count down all the way to the first.

It should be noted the eighth round (and beyond) of the draft disappeared in 1994 as a result of a players lawsuit led by Hall of Famer Reggie White that resolved itself with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. (Yes…the dreaded CBA). It made free agency…well…really free…and in the process for better or worse made true NFL dynasties much more difficult to thrive (although there are some folks in Boston who would disagree).

It also left us with slim pickings since our list only goes back to 1969, which was essentially the beginning of the Steelers transition to greatness as this was when Noll participated in his first draft for the Steelers. (Remember who he chose as his first pick ever?)

To be clear, this list doesn’t include ANY undrafted free agents. That’s a whole different story. And, for players to be considered on these lists, they had to spend their prime years playing for the Black and Gold.

Are you ready to travel back in time with us? It’s the Steelers greatest drafts pick…from Noll to Tomlin, beginning with the Ninth Round + (back in 1969, there were 17 rounds in the draft).

So, here we go Steelers…here we go!

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Picks | Ninth Round +

1 L.C. Greenwood (Rd. 10) DE 1969 Ark Pine-Bluff
2 Mike Wagner (Rd. 11) DB 1971 West, Illinois
3 John Jackson (Rd. 10) T 1988 East Kentucky
4 Merril Hoge (Rd. 10) RB 1987 Idaho State
5 Justin Strzelczyk (Rd. 11) T 1990 Maine


L.C. Greenwood

L.C. Greenwood was selected nine rounds below Mean Joe Greene in the historic 1969 draft that began the seismic shift converting the Pittsburgh Steelers from perennial losers to arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time. Greenwood emerged as one of the central characters of the original Steel Curtain. A six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, many cite Greenwood as the most egregious oversight by the Hall of Fame selection committees, especially now that teammate Donnie Shell finally got his gold jacket. Though being a Hall finalist six times his chances of one day getting enshrined may be fading. But for those who were blessed to see his trademark gold shoes chasing after hapless quarterbacks he will remain one of the most colorful personalities and talented players to don a Steelers jersey. And by being drafted in the 10th round, he is also one of the team’s best-ever value picks.

Mike Wagner

When Steelers fans throw out Troy Polamalu’s name as the greatest safety in the history of the team it is with some apologies to the play of Mike Wagner. Even with names like Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake in the mix there has never been a Pittsburgh secondary like the one that was part of the Steelers great defense of the seventies and Wagner was as big of a contributor as anyone else. Although he didn’t make Superman plays by hurtling over tall linemen in a single bound like Polamalu, he was excellent at…well…doing what safeties should do. He backed up his corners, squelched big plays and dished out punishing hits back in the days when receivers weren’t protected in bubble wrap. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and ended up with 36 career interceptions during an era in the NFL when passing was just a passing thought.

John Jackson

Jackson was one of those players who early in his career received little acclaim outside of Pittsburgh, and even by his coaches and the front office. Despite others being drafted to take his position, Jackson fought off all naysayers and established himself as the Steelers’ left tackle. His perseverance paid off as he emerged as one of the top players at his position by the end of the decade and leveraged it into a big free agent contract with San Diego at the tail end of his career.

Merril Hoge

Truth be told, Merril Hoge doesn’t make this list alone through his on-field performance as his burst into Steelers Nation lore was cut short by concussion concerns. Yet, the fans’ favorite “factor back” gets some extra points for…well being such a Black and Gold homer on national television as an ESPN broadcaster…before he got canned a few years back. Well played Hogey. Always faithful.

Justin Strzelczyk

Besides having the greatest Steelers Scrabble name of all time Justin Strzelczyk was also one of the best utility players to wear a Pittsburgh uniform. Strzelczyk, who looked as if he stepped off a Harley Davidson, was more Duck Dynasty than Hollywood and didn’t mind rolling in the mud by playing almost all positions on the offensive line. He never complained when he was shuffled more than a three-card Monte game and was loved by players, fans and coaches. Probably one of the best Sixth Men the Steelers have had, he was a steal in the 11th round.

Just Missed the Cut:

Frank Pollard (1980 – 11th) A true bowling ball of a player who was knocking them down long before The Bus came to town. Never spectacular but a steady contributor during the Dark Ages for Steelers fans (the 1980s).

Jerry Olsavsky (1989 – 10th) A true fan favorite and a Steelers coach until just a few weeks ago, he was the team’s “Rudy,” playing a major role in special teams and filling in admirably whenever the great starting linebackers of the 1990s needed a spell. A devastating injury hurt his chances of becoming an established starter.

For Steelers Trivia Buffs:

Mike Mayock (1981 -10th) Not much of a player at the pro level…but one heck of an analyst after his NFL career ended! His career as a former general manager for the Oakland Raiders was undistinguished.

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