When cgolden and I started thinking about doing this series, our initial thought was to just cover the past five drafts, but when cgolden perused the 2002 draft, he argued convincingly for the need to extend it to six years. You'll see why soon enough. Just to explain what we're trying to accomplish in this series: as we approach April's critical draft, we wanted to look back and see how we've fared in recent years obtaining players that have played a major role in our overall long tenure of success. We decided to grade each draft class for discussion's sake, but really our aim was to see how we've done building teams based on needs over the years.
This year's draft is an important one for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that we're absolutely set in several critical positions. However, we must avoid any and all temptations to draft the 'best-available', because those aspects of the team that are superior won't be able to excel unless some of our more pressing needs are taken care of. Finally, we tried not to let their play in 2007 outweigh their career contributions collectively, and we also forced ourselves to rememeber where they were drafted and what we expected at the time when evaluating the production they provided over the years. Hope you enjoy and as always, jump in and tell us what you agree and disagree with.
-Blitz and cgolden-
To set the table a bit, the Steelers had the 30th overall pick in the 2002 draft and were coming off of a 13-3 season that ended at home in the AFC Championship game. The 2002 draft consisted of four offensive players and five defensive players. Overall that draft has produced five starters and one productive backup. Four of those six were starters on the Super Bowl team of 2005. Since 2002 those eight drafted Steelers combined to start 228 games and play in a total of 378 games for the stable organization. Any draft that produces that many starters has to be considered an overwhelming success. The only knock we could conceivably make on this draft class is that it didn't produce a 'star' player, though some might consider Antwaan Randle-El a star of sorts. Overall Grade: A-
Round 1 - Kendall Simmons
His 2007 season has soured our opinion of Simmons but the fact remains he's started 76 games in his 6 year career. That's not a bad number considering he missed all of 2004 with a torn ACL. Simmons doesn't have one area of his game that he excels in particularly, but he's been more than serviceable in all areas, at least until the 2007 season when he took a noticeable step backwards. Perhaps not conincidentally, Simmons signed a hefty extension last summer. Only time will tell if having new starters playing on either side of him was the cause of his poor play or if his play last year was a sour taste of what to expect moving forward. Grade: B-
Round 2 - Antwaan Randle El
Say what you will about him not being a prototypical #2 receiving threat, but don't forget he was arguably the most versatile offensive player in Steelers history. During his four seasons with the Steelers he combined to catch 162 passes, have 54 rushing attempts, return 168 punts, return 78 kickoffs, and complete 14 passes. Not to mention he scored a total of 14 touchdowns touchdowns in every way except rushing. After the Super Bowl season though Antwaan was a free agent and couldn't help but accept being overpaid by the Redskins to the tune of 6 years for $31 million. Randle El didn't show the long-term commitment to the organization that we may have liked to see, but he still helped us win some jewelry for the thumb. For that, he should have a special place in our memories for years to come. Grade: B+
How Randle El will always be remembered.
Round 3 - Chris Hope
Hope had two seasons at the front-end of his career in which he played mostly special teams before stepping into a starting role in 2004. Hope would go on to record at least 90 tackles in each the next two seasons while also snagging four interceptions and forcing two fumbles. After the Super Bowl season though, the Steelers were unable to resign Hope. Hope departed for the Music City with a SB ring in hand, as well as a 6-year contract in the neighborhood of $4 million a year. Hope might have been one of the more underrated and underappreciated Steelers in the salary cap era. He was no Carnell Lake, Rod Woodson or Troy Polamalu, but he was a savvy player who could make the big hit while still being relied upon to not recklessly expose the defensive collectively in either the passing or the running game. Grade: B+
Round 4 - Larry Foote
The Michigan product has been a Steeler his entire career, playing in 94 games over the past 6 seasons. In fact, Foote hasn't missed a game since his rookie season. The final game of the regular season this year was Foote's 64th consecutive start on RILB and the playoff game was his ninth consecutive playoff start. In his six seasons he's totaled 414 tackles, 13 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 6 forced fumbles. Foote has never been the most physically gifted athlete but he gets the most out of his talent. Foote may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he still has some gas left in the tank. If surrounded by other ball-hawking LBs moving forward, Foote should still be able to provide this defense with solid contributions for the remainder of the decade at least. Grade: A
Round Four - Verron Haynes
The Georgia Bulldog fullback played in 53 games in his first four seasons before tearing his ACL halfway through the 2006 season. His best seasons were in 2004 and 2005 when he combined for 414 and 387 yards from scrimmage respectively, with five touchdowns to boot. Haynes came back for one last hurrah after FWP broke his leg this season and caught one pass in the regular season finale for 12 yards. Haynes has been kind of an enigma for this franchise. On the one hand, he was a big part of the SB run, helping protect Big Ben in blocking assignments and serving as an acceptable outlet in the passing game. On the other hand, he never truly had the breakthrough season we all thought he might be able to provide heading into 2006. Haynes' career can't really be viewed as a bust, but it also can't be seen as anything note-worthy or impressive. Grade: C+
Round 5 - No Draft Selection
Round 6 - Lee Mays
Mays was the first draft pick of this class that failed to have any significant impact at any point for the Steelers. He played just 3 seasons for the Steelers (even though he was on the roster with no stats for the next two) and during that time he caught just 11 passes for 154 yards. His biggest contribution was returning 32 kickoffs his rookie year for an average of 21 yards per return. Luckily for him though he was on the roster in 2005, so the UTEP product dons a Super Bowl ring somewhere. Hopefully last year's 2nd-Day WR selection Dallas Baker will avoid the career trajectory of Mays, but then again, it's not entirely clear that Baker will even see the field enough to match May's limited contributions. Grade: C-
Round 7 - LaVar Glover
Glover never broke camp with the Steelers, although he did play two games during the 2002 season for the hated Bengals. Glover is still a football player and champion however, as he won the Grey Cup with the BC Lions (CFL) in 2006. Congratulations to Glover for his stick-to-it-tive-ness, and a microscopic kudos to the Steelers for at least seeing the qualities in Glover that helped make him a champion, even if it was not in the world's premiere league. Grade: D
Round 7 - Brett Keisel
The 242nd overall pick of the 2002 draft has had a great career to this point for a 7th round selection. He has totaled 141 tackles and 10.5 sacks in his long, injury-free career. Keisel first made a name for himself as a special teams terror before taking over as a starter in 2006 for the first time. Keisel's true role may be as a special teams ace and as a back-up pass rusher who's athletic enough to make important plays in 3rd down situations. For now though, he remains a starter in our 3-4 defense. An upgrade is probably in the deck of cards in the near to intermediate future, but that should not taint what has already been a far better career than what your average late seventh round pick can boast. Grade: A+
So how would you have graded them and are there any guys that you remember from this draft that you wish the Steelers have taken instead? The 'what-if' game is easy (and fun) to play, so jump in with reminders on who might have been on the board, but also take the time to remember fondly those players that helped us win that fifth SB in 2005.