To the donkeys on the message boards at Steelers Fever - though the title of this post could be more clear, do yourself a favor and actually read something in its entirety rather than just skimming through a list. If you turned your brain on for a second to do so, you'd surely see the stipulation written by the post's author about none of the picks being a 1st Round Draft pick. You may go back to your caves now. - Blitz- (Michael B.)
The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is frequently lauded as one of the best drafting organizations in the NFL and their success over the past two decades is certainly tied to their ability to field talented teams without having dip their toes into the dicey and often overrated pool of free agency. During the "Aughts," or whatever you prefer to call the period from 2000 to 2009, the Steelers certainly went through some changes including a new coach and a new franchise quarterback, but in the end one thing remained fairly constant. They won. In ten seasons they endured just one losing season (2003) but went to the playoffs six times and hoisted two Lombardi trophies. Throughout the decade they stock piled talent via the draft and the current roster is full of players who were drafted by this organization and have never known anything other than Steelers' football. In all 19 of 22 starters on the 2009 Steelers were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by this organization.
All that being said, you might think it's virtually impossible to pick out the ten best draft picks of the past decade, but that's exactly what we've set out to accomplish. First a couple of parameters though. We excluded first round picks since there is an expectation that each and every top draft pick should become at least a quality starter, although we'll take a look at this impressive list sometime down the road. We also excluded a couple of undrafted free agents, whom I'm sure would have made the list (James Harrison and Willie Parker), but we wanted to keep this list exclusive to players that were actually drafted. With those two stipulations out of the way, here we go.....
Clark Haggans (5th round - 137th overall - 2000): Haggans spent eight seasons of his career donning the Black and Gold but currently calls himself an Arizona Cardinal, where he's still a starter. Here's what Blitz had to say about Haggans last year when reviewing the 2000 draft:
The Colorado State product started 61 games over his eight year career with the Steelers and has been the primary starter for the past four seasons. Haggans didn't have his best year in 2007 but his contributions the past eight seasons shouldn't be overlooked. He's had four seasons with at least six sacks and three seasons with at least 50 tackles. He also started and recorded a sack in the Super Bowl. Not bad for a fifth round pick.Haggans was good enough to contribute when he was younger and had more lively legs, but now that he's on the downhill part of his career, he doesn't have the size, speed or strength to really be a force in a defense that aims to be atop the league standings each year. Hence Pittsburgh's decision to let him get away to Arizona, where he played an integral role as a reserve LB for Arizona's run to the Super Bowl.
Chris Hope (3rd round - 94th overall - 2002): Hope only spent four seasons in Pittsburgh but the hole he left at free safety is the reason he's included on this list. Here's what Blitz had to say:
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 unappreciated 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. He has had three productive season with Tennessee reenforcing his second round value.
Larry Foote (4th round - 128th overall - 2002): Foote was finally shown the door this past off season but his seven years of service, including five as a starter, will not be forgotten for some time. Here's more from Blitz:
The Michigan product has been a Steeler his entire career, playing in 110 games over the past 7 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 80th consecutive start at RILB and the Super Bowl was his 12th consecutive playoff start. In his seven seasons he's totaled 432 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 7 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, as evidenced by keeping 2007 first round draft pick, Lawrence Timmons, from cracking the starting lineup. The 2009 season could be the last for Foote in a Steeler uniform since this is the last year of his contract, and with many other big names to sign Foote will more than likely be testing free agency for the first time in his career.
Brett Keisel (7th round - 242nd overall - 2002): Keisel was the Steelers final pick of what proved to be a truly fantastic 2002 draft and all he's done since become a solid starter on one of the best defensive lines in the league. Blitz's turn:
The 242nd overall pick of the 2002 draft has had a great career to this point for a 7th round selection. He has totaled 181 tackles and 11.5 sacks in his long, productive 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. After two straight seasons of starting every game he missed six games this season due to a calf injury. The Steelers will be looking to upgrade the defensive line in the near future, but that should not taint what has already been a far better career than what your average late seventh round pick can boast.
Ike Taylor (4th round - 125th overall - 2003): Taylor isn't without his faults but the seven year veteran hasn't missed a game since 2004 and has been the team's #1 corner for two Super Bowl titles. Not bad for a fourth round pick. Blitz:
Ike was selected as the 125th overall pick in the 2003 draft out of Louisiana Lafayette. After two years as a reserve in '03 and '04, Taylor broke out in a huge way in 2005. That year, Taylor recorded a career best 91 tackles and established himself as one of the better run-stopping corners in the league. I had forgotten this, but Taylor also had two huge playoff INTs in '05. The first came against Denver in the AFC Championship game that helped us race out to a early lead. The other came in the Super Bowl on a Seahawks' drive that appeared to be leading to points.
It's easy to understand why Taylor was rewarded with a huge extension prior to the '06 season. 2006 was a tough year though for Ike, but as we've seen with Kendall Simmons, Troy P. and countless other around the league over the years, the season following a big extension often times are disappointing. I don't question Taylor's effort that year, but for a number of reasons, he seemed to regress significantly along with the rest of the pass defense.
Taylor had a solid rebound year in '07. He still has stones for hands and that's just probably not going to change...ever. That's unfortunate because he does such a great job putting himself in position to make plays on the football. Even though Taylor finished with three picks last year, he should have at least 6, maybe even more. He'll have a hard time garnering the respect he may deserve around the league unless he can get that statistic up. Taylor has been remarkably durable as a Steeler and should be considered one of the better selections we've made in recent years. At just 27 years of age, Taylor has at least five more years of good football left in him. I sure hope so, because he is, and will remain, one of the higher paid Steelers.
Max Starks (3rd round - 75th overall - 2004): Few Steelers have had a more polarizing career than Starks and he remains to be a rather hot-button player with most fans. He became the starter for the 2005 season and started every game that season, playoffs included, and fourteen of sixteen games the following season. The 2007 season though would see Starks lose his job but still pick up four spot starts towards the end of the season. With very little depth at tackle the Steelers slapped the transition tag on Starks before the 2008 season and the insurance policy would pay off as he'd start eleven games at left tackle. After seeing what Starks could do on Big Ben's blindside the Steelers inked him to a four year, 26.3 million dollar contract that included ten million in guarantees. Despite some struggles earlier in his career, Starks has rounded into a very serviceable left tackle in this league and was named as one of the ten most irreplaceable players prior to the 2009 season:
If either or our starting tackles go down for a long stretch you could actually see Big Ben absorb more sacks than the 47 he received in 2007 . The Steelers depth at tackle is young and inexperienced and besides Trai Essex none of the back-up tackles currently on the roster have regular season experience. A loss of one of our starting tackles for a significant period of time could force the Steelers to dig deep on the waiver wire to bring in a tackle with game experience.
Chris Kemoeatu (6th round - 204th overall - 2005): Kemo has quickly turned into a decent starter and despite missing the final four games of the season, has solidified himself as this team's left guard for the forseeable future. While he'll probably never fill the shoes left by Alan Faneca, it's worth noting that this sixth round pick has been a great pick and Blitz saw it coming:
Kemoeatu is borderline overweight at 340+ lbs. He's a massive presence, but is not extremely athletic or mobile. Kemoeatu didn't enter a game in 2005, but he was more than impressive at Utah, where he garnered 1st Team All-American Honors his senior year while not allowing a sack. I still expect solid things from him, perhaps even a starter by 2007. I think this was an extremely solid 6th Round pick.
Willie Colon (4th round - 131st overall - 2006): If Max Starks has been a polarizing figure than Willie Colon has been a downright toxic subject between fans. The 'short-armed' tackle won the right tackle job from Starks late in the 2006 season and has since started in 54 straight games, playoffs included. Despite his durability though Colon has struggled mightily at times and has taken some licks here at BTSC. In 2007 he was named as one of the most disapointing players and heading into the 2009 season Blitz doubted the reports coming out of camp that he'd improved greatly. Colon turned a corner though during the '09 season and was even named as the most improved player at the mid-season mark:
In my opinion, not one player has improved so dramatically this year than right tackle Willie Colon. I don't have sack statistics handy and I don't have the time to try to assess how many rushing yards have come behind his blocks in the running game, but I don't think too many Steelers fans would argue that they're thrilled to not be screaming #74's name on regular occasion, something that was an all too regular occurrence the previous two years. Colon is still just 26 years old, and with 42 games of experience under his belt, it's exciting to think that he still can, and likely will, improve even more. It will be interesting to see what kind of money he commands when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
LaMarr Woodley (2nd round - 46th overall - 2007): Despite some concerns that he was too big and not agile enough to make the transition from college DE to professional OLB, Woodley has been impressive from the first day he stepped on the field for the Steelers. Whether it was the two sacks he recorded in his first preseason or the three sacks he recorded in his first six regular season games, it didn't take long for him to win over the fans as well as the coaching staff. Woodley's regular season success, 29 sacks through 44 games, has been bested only by his amazing post season dominance, eight sacks in four games. Needless to say, Blitz hit the nail on the head just two months into Woodley's rookie season when he said:
There's been some discussion about getting rookie LB LaMarr Woodley on the field more as the season progresses. Problem for Woodley is Clark Haggans is playing some of the best football in his life. But when he's been given the chance to play, be it in the preseason or in the Steelers' first five regular season games, Woodley has looked intriguing: he's not been caught out of position, he hasn't missed tackles, and he's made a few athletic plays in pass coverage. I think we all agree he's going to be a special player down the road for us.
Mike Wallace (3rd round - 84th overall - 2009): For as productive and popular as Woodley was as a rookie, Wallace might have been even more impressive. After having an under the radar type preseason, Wallace basically played the entire regular season like an experienced veteran. The regression of Limas Sweed certainly played a part in Wallace's increased role as the season progressed but only twice in 16 games did he fail to record at least two catches and he had more than 50 yards in eight games. By season's end Wallace was in the starting lineup and averaged 75 yards and a touchdown per game over the final three contests. It goes without saying that Wallace will be a big part of the Steelers offense for the forseeable future. Here's his mid-season award from Blitz and DYMS:
There is no real argument over this one, Mike Wallace has been outstanding in his rookie season. Wallace was taken in the third round and has more receiving yards than any of the ten wide receivers taken ahead of him in the 2009 NFL draft, how about them apples! Wallace's emergence has been crucial for the Steelers this season with Limas Sweed still struggling to make a difference Wallace has given the Steelers three explosive wide receivers. Wallace has allowed Bruce Arians and company to force opposing secondary's to "pick their poison." Ziggy Hood has shown promise in his limited playing time, but Wallace is clearly the most pleasant surprise out of the 2009 rookie class. If you don't think what Mike Wallace is doing is special consider he is on pace to have the most receiving yards of any Steeler rookie besides Louis Lipps in 1984, and Jimmy Orr in 1958.
Looking back over the past ten year's of draft history for the Steelers, it's amazing how many quality players they've been able to pluck out of the middle to late rounds of the draft. Looking back really helps you understand why the Steelers don't have to be big players in the free agent market and makes you appreciate the consistency and dedication that they've put into talent evaluation. How yould you rank the top ten? Best pick of the decade?