Steelers Spin: Greatest Draft Hits From Noll To Tomlin (2nd Round)

The end is near.

There are only two rounds left to analyze in this series exploring the Pittsburgh Steelers drafting history over the past 50+ years (since 1969).

What will the past predict about the potential of success for the Steelers during the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft?

Apparently, it comes down almost to a flip of a coin. And, as of recently, even better than that.

This is exceptionally good news since the team has two second-round picks in this year’s spring football extravaganza.

Here’s a look at the team’s recent Round Two selections under General Manager Kevin Colbert: (2022) George Pickens, (2022) Pat Freiermuth, (2020) Chase Claypool, (2018) James Washington, (2017) JuJu Smith-Schuster, (2016) Sean Davis, (2015) Senquez Golden, (2014) Stephon Tuitt, (2013) Le’Veon Bell, (2011) Marcus Gilbert, (2012) Mike Adams, (2010) Jason Worilds, (2008) Limas Sweed, (2007) Lamar Woodley, (2005) Bryant McFadden, (2004) Ricardo Colclough and (2003) Alonzo Jackson.

Surprisingly, the front office didn’t do too well with second-round draft selections during the glory years of the 1970s and their picks at this level in the 1980s were abysmal.

Conversely, the second-round draft picks during the Bill Cowher reign were superb and largely responsible for the team’s ascent back into being a perennial championship threat.

Then the team hit some draft day second-round potholes with Will Blackwell (1997), Jeremy Staat (1998) and Scott Shields (1999). Ouch, front office…ouch.

It was Kevin Colbert to the rescue in 2000, with a three-pack of second-round gold nuggets in (2000) Marvel Smith, (2001) Kendrell Bell and (2002) Antwaan Randle El. Yes, Bell was more prospect than player, but these certainly were three exciting young players who impacted the team immediately.

But then the Colbert genius hit a rough patch before recovering to what has been a strong track record as of late in this round.

Let’s explore his picks in contrast with those of his predecessors.

Admittedly, the first three on this greatest-hits list were relative no-brainers (although the order may be challenged). After that? Not so easy.

So…here it goes. Grab your flaming torches and pitchforks and let’s do this.

Pittsburgh Steelers Greatest Draft Hits | Second Round

1 Jack Lambert LB 1974 Kent State
2 Dermontti Dawson C 1988 Kentucky
3 Jack Ham LB 1971 Penn State
4 Levon Kirkland LB 1992 Clemson
5 Carnell Lake DB 1989 UCLA


Jack Lambert

To fans young and old Jack Lambert was as close to a superhero as any of the great 1970s players. With Lambert at your side, you were automatically the toughest team on the field. His presence was palpable on every play and his toothless snarl is firmly embedded in Steelers lore. At 6’4 and just a shade over 200 pounds in his rookie year Lambert was a wiry man made of solid steel and gristle. Although Joe Greene is widely considered the foundation of the Steelers defensive greatness of that era, no one embodied toughness on the team more than Lambert. The Hall of Famer was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 6-time First Team All-Pro and won NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year and later in his career won overall NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Perhaps Lambert’s greatest play was in Super Bowl X when he slammed the Dallas Cowboys Cliff Harris to the ground after the player taunted Steelers kicker Roy Gerela following a missed field goal. That play (which quite nearly got Lambert ejected from the game) shifted the tone of the match around instantly and was the key reason the Rooneys were able to put another Lombardi in their trophy case. Chuck Noll later referred to Lambert as a player who “defended what was right”. A true all-time Steelers great.

Dermontti Dawson

Few athletes of any size combined grace, power and speed like Dermontti Dawson. His teammates called him “Dirt” because of the way he would grind opponents into the ground. Dawson single-handedly redefined his position as a “pulling center”. No one before and no one since could pull to the edge with such pace and agility only to deliver a blow with tremendous force on some poor cornerback or outside linebacker. It was like watching pins fly at a bowling alley. Almost matching his greatness on the field was Dawson’s humility off of the field which made him one of the most beloved players in the league. Dawson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, was named to nine straight Pro Bowls and was a 6-time First Team All-Pro.

Jack Ham

Despite the long and storied parade of great Steelers linebackers to choose from, many old-timers still consider Jack Ham the best of the bunch, and more than a few wise individuals feel he is the greatest outside linebacker of all time. A superb athlete, he was equally adept at pursuing the passer, stopping the run or shooting out to cover receivers, something he could do as well as any NFL safety. Chuck Noll once said Ham was the “fastest Steeler for the first ten yards” which included the running backs and receivers. Ham created a mismatch for any offensive coordinator who literally had to accommodate for his unique skill set and often chose to ignore his side of the field as they would with a shutdown corner.

Ham was as brilliant as he was talented and his fox-like instincts led him to 25 sacks (unofficially), 21 fumbles recovered and 32 interceptions. Should he be at the top above Jack Lambert? Some would say so, although the nod went to Lambert due to his…winning personality. Still, Ham was a Hall of Famer, 8-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All-Pro and easily among the list of Steelers legends.

Levon Kirkland

As a player, Levon Kirkland was a big, big man. Surprisingly nimble for his size (only 6’1 but pushing 300 pounds at times) it was like having a nose tackle with dance moves on the field. Kirkland was an undisputed champion when it came to plugging up the middle against the run and considering that stout Joel Steed was on the line in front of him most offenses simply avoided running up the middle. After Greg Lloyd went down with a season-ending injury Kirkland took over the nickel linebacker position. Opposing teams targeted him at first until they realized he was even more agile than the man he replaced and Kirkland finished that season with four interceptions.

When Kirkland was paired with Chad Brown in the middle and with Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene at the edges it was arguably the Steelers best linebacking squad of all time…and definitely the finest of the team’s 3-4 era.

Carnell Lake

After playing outside linebacker in college, Lake was such a gifted athlete he made the transition to strong safety in the NFL as if he was born to play there. Incredibly fast, he had no risk of being outrun and with his linebacking instincts, he could come into the box and fill the gap like no other player during his time. Although Rod Woodson was the undisputed star of the secondary, Lake was equally valuable and earned 5 Pro Bowl nods. Lake was one of those players who received more recognition by Steelers fans than those of the rest of the league (mostly because the team was saturated with defensive stars) but even Peter King of Sports Illustrated gave his vote of NFL MVP to Lake in 1997. A sharp player, his instincts and character gave rise to a career as a valued position coach for the Steelers.

Just Missed the Cut:

Le’Veon Bell (2013) Bell certainly had the talent, and was the perfect fit in the Steelers offense to move completely to the top of this list. But, the fates, multiple suspensions, and a questionable decision to sit out a year before leaving town left him with more infamy than fame in Pittsburgh. Le’Veon will be one of the ultimate, woulda, coulda, shoulda players in Steelers history.

Chad Brown (1993) A linebacker who was one of the most physically gifted players the Steelers have ever drafted…and a lover of snakes…his rise to Pittsburgh glory was short-lived because free agency (and the Steelers feeble attempts to keep their players during those years) took him off into the sunset.

Marvel Smith (2000) A left tackle who held the flank for one of the more formidable lines the Pittsburgh Steelers have boasted. Back problems got him just at the time when he finally had a decent quarterback to block for in Ben Roethlisberger.

Kordell Stewart (1995) In the 80’s and 90’s there really was no such thing as a “beloved” quarterback in Pittsburgh and Kordell Stewart’s downfall probably was more linked to the team’s inability to understand his true art as a player. In his famous and early “Slash” role (wide receiver/running back/quarterback) he was one of the most exciting players in the NFL.

Antwaan Randle El (2002) In Kordell Stewart and Hines Ward the Steelers struck it rich with former collegiate quarterback types. Randle El was the most exciting player to arrive in the draft and he didn’t disappoint once he hit the big leagues. His pass in the Super Bowl XL will live as his greatest NFL moment.

LaMarr Woodley (2007) Now here’s a touchy subject. LaMarr Woodley making the “just missed” list. The truth is had the power edge rusher been able to stay healthy and perhaps had a stronger work ethic we might be talking about him as one of the all-time Steelers linebacker greats. So, we shed a tear for what could have been.

Kendrell Bell (2001) Talk about a flash in the pan, Kendrell Bell was the ultimate. But oh did he flash! When he burst onto the scene (and he literally did) Bell would obliterate offensive lines en route to the ball handler. An explosion waiting to happen, his style of play proved to be his downfall as his NFL tenure was cut short due to injuries.

Stephon Tuitt (2014) Many saw Cameron Heyward as the Steelers best defensive player for years, but there were times he might not have even been the best defensive lineman on the team. Tuitt was fully on the rise to greatness before he suffered major injuries and ultimately family tragedy that pulled him out of the game.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017) When it came to personality, Schuster is already an All-Time Pittsburgh Steeler. And, with his meteoric rise his rookie year, he looked like he would be on his way to top every list. Unfortunately, after Antonio Brown departed, he didn’t fare as well as a number one receiver as he did a number two, and he ended up leaving Pittsburgh for fairer, and eventually Super Bowl-winning pastures.

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