The 2023 NFL Draft begins the true legacy of new General Manager Omar Khan.
After being in the shadows of the front office behind the team’s former GM Kevin Colbert, this will be his time in the spotlight. Don’t let the light burn you Omar!
There is nothing more enshrining, and declining, in a general manager’s career than the performances of their number one draft picks.
Last year the Steelers chose Kenny Pickett with their most precious selection and although it’s too early to draw firm conclusions he’s already showing clear signs of being a Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner.
After methodically exploring the Pittsburgh Steelers greatest draft hits of the past half-century in this series of articles, starting with the ninth round and working our way up, it’s finally time to reveal the true blue-chippers. The first-rounders.
No pick means more to a championship legacy in the NFL than the first round of the draft, and it can be argued the Pittsburgh Steelers have performed here as well as any other team over the past fifty years.
In the old days, the Steelers earned their draft day creds from finding gems in the lower rounds. But, as of late, it’s been Colbert’s performance in round one that kept him drawing a paycheck from the team for so long.
When it comes to choosing the greatest first-round picks in Steelers history you will certainly disrespect the favorites of fans young and old. There are so many excellent players who were the first selection of their college class it can be daunting to try to rank them in order of preference.
In fact, to avoid leaving too many Steelers greats off of this distinguished award podium, we extended the first round list to include additional picks. As a reminder, this selection process goes back only to the 1969 draft in order to make it the greatest Steelers draft picks of the Noll, Cowher and Tomlin eras.
Here’s a look at the team’s recent Round One selections under Colbert: (2022) Kenny Pickett, (2021) Najee Harris, (2019) Devin Bush, (2018) Terrell Edmunds, (2017) T.J. Watt, (2016) Artie Burns, (2015) Bud Dupree, (2014) Ryan Shazier, (2013) Jarvis Jones, (2012) David DeCastro, (2011) Cameron Heyward and (2010) Maurkice Pouncey.
And, yes, I suppose we can kind of count Minkah Fitzpatrick as the team’s 2020 first-round choice, having been traded to the Steelers from the Miami Dolphins mid-season in 2019 in exchange for the Steelers top pick.
If you’re jumping in the series late, don’t fret, there are links to all of the previous articles (from rounds two to nine) at the bottom of this post. We welcome your well-reasoned retorts, sagely comments and benevolent pontifications.
For those of you who have been following the series from the beginning, thank you for joining us on this adventurous journey through Steelers history.
And now…the moment you’ve been waiting for.
Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | First Round
|1||Joe Greene||DT||1969||North Texas State|
|2||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||2004||Miami (OH)|
|3||Franco Harris||RB||1972||Penn State|
|4||Terry Bradshaw||QB||1970||Louisiana Tech|
|8||Cameron Heyward||DE||2011||Ohio State|
|10||Alan Faneca||G||1998||Louisiana State|
|11||Louis Lipps||WR||1984||Southern Mississippi|
Defense will always be paramount in Pittsburgh and no player represents greatness on that side of the field more than Joe Greene. On the day he was drafted, the personality of the Steelers defense was forever changed. From laughingstock to being the bullies on the block, it was Greene who was more responsible for turning around the Steelers fate than any other player on the team then and in the future. “Mean Joe” Greene earned his nickname early in his career as he was said to be ornery about being drafted by the Steelers because of their losing tradition. He even reportedly spat in the face of Dick Butkus and challenged the league’s reigning “tough guy” to a fight to claim the top of the bad guy mountain. Yet, despite his foul demeanor, Greene performed well enough to win NFL Rookie of the Year. This was just the beginning of his accolades as he later was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a 10-time Pro Bowler and 5-time First Team All-Pro. This was capped by his entry into the Hall of Fame.
Because of his dominance, Greene oftentimes tied up three blockers. This freed up the relatively slight framed linebackers of the Steelers like Jack Lambert and Jack Ham to get the tackles and the glory. Greene’s fame was sealed forever with a television ad for Coca-Cola called, “Hey Kid, Catch!” in 1979, a commercial that is widely considered among the most memorable of all time. When Greene retired in 1982, his spot on the line was never replaced, as this was the same year the Steelers shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Considered one of the best to ever play defensive line in the NFL many Steelers fans firmly believe Greene to be the greatest player to wear the Black and Gold.
He also was the first (and for a long time the only) Steelers player to have his jersey (number 75) retired, further reasserting his position atop this list.
As much as Pittsburgh Steelers fans love defense, it had been painfully clear that championships aren’t won in the NFL without a franchise quarterback. Sure, there have been notable exceptions, but for those of us who suffered through the deplorable 1980s after Bradshaw retired and who had to deal with subpar quarterback play through the 1990s, it is hard to argue that few draft picks were more significant to the Steelers than the choice of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Never short on confidence or competitiveness, “Big Ben” was irate that he was the third quarterback selected in that draft (behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and spent the rest of his career proving it to be a mistake.
The moment he stepped on the field, the Steelers became serious contenders, as he led the team to a 15-1 record in his rookie season. With three Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi’s highlighting his record, the full story of Roethlisberger’s career has yet to be completely written as Steelers fans expect him to be eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame. His retirement last year left his fans reeling and wondering if there would ever be as good of a quarterback again in Pittsburgh. No. Ben is no Mean Joe Greene in terms of temperament or leadership qualities. But he had an equal impact on returning the Steelers to Super Bowl glory and because of this, is second only to Joe.
Could one play define a player’s career? Perhaps when it is popularly credited as the greatest play in NFL history. The Immaculate Reception (during a 1972 playoff game with the Oakland Raiders) will always bring fond memories to Steelers fans but it also proved to be just the beginning of a spectacular Hall of Fame career for Franco Harris. As great as the Steelers were in the 1970s, it was the running game that fueled the offense early on and it was Harris who carried the brunt of this responsibility on his broad shoulders. In many ways, Harris was the offense. With Coach Chuck Noll believing at the time a quarterback’s greatest responsibility was to hand off the ball, Harris delivered a unique combination of power, elusiveness and agility.
Hailing from Penn State, Harris was often given grief for stepping out of bounds rather than lowering a shoulder, but it was this prudence that allowed him to amass 13,007 yards in his storied career. His Steelers fan base was among the largest and they called themselves Franco’s Italian Army. Harris was elected to 9 Pro Bowls having rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 8 seasons.
Franco finally got his number 32 retired as a Steeler, but sadly passed away just days before the ceremony last year.
Most younger fans only know Terry Bradshaw from scratchy NFL reels and as the stumbling, bumbling analyst on FOX’s football coverage. In many ways, this comical image of Bradshaw also defined his career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Few players enjoyed more quality time in Chuck Noll’s doghouse and none probably were the brunt of more jokes. The Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson once famously said Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “C” and the “A”. But for all of the ribbing he received, Bradshaw had the last laugh and proved to be a genius with the ball in his hand and the big game on the line. He was clutch enough to earn two Super Bowl MVP awards in 1979 and 1980. A player blessed with a tremendous arm and athletic talent and with an obvious charm and wit, he was the perfect leader for the offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Early in his career, he was too mistake-prone to earn Noll’s full trust, but towards the end of Bradshaw’s decade of greatness, it was on his broad shoulders that the team was carried.
Just as Joe Greene did decades before, Rod Woodson brought the once-proud Steelers defense out of the ashes the moment his name was called at the NFL draft in 1987 (even though he had a prolonged holdout before signing his offer sheet). A superb athlete (a collegiate hurdles champion and Olympic-caliber competitor) Woodson turned the defense into an all-star show each time he stepped on the field of play. Woodson was a scintillating punt returner and this adrenalin rush translated to defense as well whenever he managed to get an interception. He still holds the record for NFL interception returns for touchdowns with 12 and in 1993 was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
A big-time playmaker, if ever there was one, he also had 71 interceptions and 32 fumble recoveries. Perhaps his greatest recovery was from an ACL tear in 1995. He was the first player in history to return from that injury in the same season and after knocking down a ball from the Cowboys Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX, he hopped on one foot and pointed to his surgically reconstructed knee to celebrate in the face of his trash-mouthing opponent. Woodson is easily one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Excellent players are those among the best at their position. Once in a generation players like Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu completely redefine their position. After struggling in his rookie season to get on the field, Polamalu came back in his sophomore season to dominate at the strong safety position like none before and possibly like none will since. With the famous locks of his Samoan hair flowing from his helmet, Polamalu combined uncanny instincts with tremendous talent. Whenever the team needed something big to happen Polamalu was there to deliver with impeccable timing and flair. Both reckless and calculating at the same time, he emerged as one of the most exciting defensive players of all time. The ultimate compliment was paid by offensive coordinators and opposing quarterbacks alike who said they had to account for the Steelers strong safety on each and every down.
Watt has already won the hearts and cheers of Steelers Nation with his rapid ascent to being among the league’s most premium defensive talents and it will grieve younger fans his name isn’t higher on this list. Be patient. If he can stay healthy, he’ll continue to rise, but also keep in mind those are some big peaks above him on his climb. After winning the Defensive Player of the Year for the 2021 season, T.J. Watt struggled through injuries at the beginning of 2022. Bangs and nicks have slowed him throughout his relatively young career, but no offensive lines have been able to claim the same. Watt, a member of a royal NFL family, is an unstoppable force and performs each play as if it’s his last. His statistics are drop-dead gorgeous. In only six years he’s already amassed 77.5 sacks which means James Harrison will have to give back his participation trophy soon enough. On top of this, he has 23 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and six interceptions. Talk about a game-changer!
Heyward started his career off slowly (by impatient fan standards), but then seemed to get better each and every year and continues that track even in his thirties. One thing that didn’t take him long at all, was to establish himself as the leader of the defense, and eventually the entire team. Heyward, the son of former NFL star Craig “Ironhead” Heyward contributed mightily to the defensive squad’s rise back to respectability in the league over the past few years. With presumably still a few strong years ahead of him, Cameron has already amassed 78.5 sacks and 8 forced fumbles, statistics unheard of for an end on a 3-4 defense. Heyward doesn’t receive league-wide admiration like he earns in Pittsburgh, but with him being this generation’s best version of Joe Greene in terms of leadership on the defense, he’s earned this high position on this list. In terms of his role both on and off of the field, he might just be the most prototypical Steeler in the organization’s history.
If this list was judged solely on style points Lynn Swann would be soaring far above the rest. The NFL highlight reels have never been so well treated than with the artistry of Swann’s acrobatic and graceful receptions. His spectacular catch in Super Bowl X will probably never be matched in terms of magnificent beauty and for those of us blessed to see him play at his prime, it was only one of many in his repertoire. Many Steelers fans would argue Swann put on his ballet shoes and retired much too early, but for the legendary receiver this was most likely perfect timing. Always the showman, Swann left the crowds wanting for more.
For a team that celebrates the running game so earnestly, Steelers fans are often slow to credit the big men up front. But few road graders in Steelers past and present had more of an impact than 1998 first-rounder Alan Faneca. From the time he stepped into camp during his rookie season, the Steelers knew they had struck the equivalent of draft gold. One of the league’s most recent Hall of Famers, Faneca instantly upgraded the offensive line and his pulls and clear-outs were a picture of joy and violence. A 9-time Pro Bowler and 9-time All-Pro, Faneca is considered to be among the best to have ever played his position.
There was little offensive joy in Steelersville during the 1980s and what little there was could just about all be attributed to wide receiver Louis Lipps. Sadly, Lipps has become somewhat of a forgotten man in team history, but this has more to do with the dismal memories of the decade rather than the player. After getting mentored by Hall of Famer John Stallworth in his rookie season, Lipps went on to take the torch as the next great Steelers receiver. Not only was he a great ball catcher but he was one of the league’s best at punt returning. Although he didn’t get great acclaim throughout the league, his value was understood by his team as they voted him twice as their Most Valuable Player.
Just Missed The Cut:
Casey Hampton (2001) One of the few players that was able to jump from the draft board into the Steelers starting defensive lineup Casey Hampton made a huge impact (and we do mean huge) from the beginning of his rookie season moving forward. The man affectionately known as “Big Snack” by his teammates played as big a role as any in providing consistency and excellence in Dick LeBeau’s defenses as any other on the roster. Given the responsibility of plugging up the run and eating up interior blockers Hampton took on the task with pride, tenacity and his own brand of humor.
Heath Miller (2005) A quarterback’s best friend and a consummate gentleman and professional, Heath Miller is one of Steelers Nation’s all-time fan favorites. Although the Pittsburgh run-focused system kept Miller out of the national limelight, his coaches and teammates considered him among the best all-around tight ends in the league. A serious knee injury toward the end of his career brought serious questions as to whether he would rebound, but his strong recovery and the last few stellar years of his career sealed his legacy as one of the team’s most beloved players.
Maurkice Pouncey (2010) When you play center for the Steelers, wrong or right, you are going to be compared to Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson. That’s just life in the Burgh. Pouncey has always had the raw talent to match Dawson, but he’s lacked the durability of Mike Webster. Pouncey’s injuries harassed him, but he still persevered to forge a reputation as one of the Steelers greats. If you think Big Ben was the leader of the offense, you would be mistaken. When they both were on the field, it always was Pouncey, and much like Heyward, he had been a rock for the team since he arrived.
David DeCastro (2012) DeCastro was brought into the Steelers with the label of being the “next Alan Faneca”. That’s not a bar any player wants to have to clear, but DeCastro quietly and meticulously earned his way up the ladder of NFL success. His unique ability to pull as a guard and to control the trenches was matched only by a few of his positional peers.
Ryan Shazier (2014) Shazier landed on the Steelers with high expectations due to his draw-dropping measurables at the NFL Combine. Sprinter speed, high character, and a nose for the ball. Before his traumatic injury suffered years ago, Shazier was clearly flashing the ability and performance to rank among Steelers linebacker elite…which in Pittsburgh is saying a great deal. There were questions whether he would ever be able to walk again, yet his path to recovery also proved to be legendary.
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