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Recounting some of the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers ‘draft crushes’

Taking a look back at some of the greatest Steelers “draft crushes” in BTSC history.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Baylor at SMU Photo by Manny Flores/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For those who have frequented BTSC for a few years, you may remember the hype surrounding a certain nose tackle out of Baylor University back in 2016. Andrew Billings was the draft crush of many Steelers’ fans that year, myself included. Those who had fallen for him argued passionately for his selection in the comments section of BTSC articles for months on end.

Why Billings? Well, the Steelers were a 3-4 defense without a nose tackle. Casey Hampton had retired in 2012 and the Steelers had not adequately replaced him. The defense was in decline and, according to the narrative, unless we had a player with Andre the Giant-like size clogging both A-gaps, there was no way to revive it.

Billings fit the profile. He was huge, he moved well and, best of all, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert attended his Pro Day workout at Baylor. The Steelers had a need and obviously there was interest. That combination created a Billings fan club that initiated a campaign for the ages at BTSC, arguing fervently for his selection in the first round. BTSC in those days was a rowdier, more hostile place than today’s kinder, gentler version. The arguments about Billings made a “Trump vs. Hillary” debate tame by comparison.

(For pure entertainment, I wanted to link to one of these articles. However, while the articles still exist, the new Coral system has wiped out all of the comments).

Billings did not go to the Steelers in the first round of the 2016 draft. Nor to any team. He did not go in the second round. Or the third. Finally, in an epic draft slide, the Cincinnati Bengals selected him in round four. Billings, it turns out, was the victim of a burgeoning trend that is now the norm in the NFL: the sub-package defense. With so many teams transitioning out of their three and four DL looks on passing downs, and with the passing game becoming increasingly prevalent in the league, one-trick ponies like Billings who could do little more than occupy gaps were becoming obsolete. Those who had argued this on BTSC were vindicated. Those who had not licked their wounds and moved on.

Billings, for his sake, promptly ripped up his knee in training camp. He played three more fairly obscure years in Cincinnati and departed for Cleveland, where he opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid concerns. There is no telling how his career may have unfolded had the Steelers chosen him. It’s safe to say, however, he would not have fulfilled the prophecy of the second coming of Casey Hampton so many of us had predicted.

The Andrew Billings story is one of many over the years where posters or writers have advocated passionately for a particular player. I joined the site in 2009 (Cliff Harris is Still A Punk!) and began contributing regularly around 2012. That year, the big debate centered on two defenders — Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe (Dont’a vs. Dontari!). Which should the Steelers take with their pick at #24 in the first round? The site divided up into their respective camps. Note that I said “respective” and not “respectful,” as, again, passions ran in an inverse relationship to civility in those days. To paraphrase Poe supporters, those who preferred Hightower were “poopy-heads.” To the pro-Hightower crowd, Poe supporters ate their own boogers. Alas, the Steelers landed neither player. Hightower was snatched up by the hated New England Patriots while Poe went to the Carolina Panthers.

The following year, with fans remaining convinced the Steelers needed a thumper at linebacker, Kansas State’s Arthur Brown became the apple of many eyes. The Steelers passed on Brown in the first round, selecting Jarvis Jones, then passed again in the second for Le’Veon Bell. When Brown was finally snapped up by the Baltimore Ravens at pick #56, posters lambasted the front office for their stupidity and speculated on how Brown would wreak havoc on our offense for years to come.

Brown did not. He played parts of four seasons in the league, amassed 20 career tackles and half a sack. He was not Ray Lewis 2.0, to say the least.

In subsequent years, Maxx Williams, William Jackson III, Leighton Vander Esch and Sony Michel became the subjects of pre-draft crushes. In Jackson’s case, fans were furious when the Bengals took him one selection in front of Pittsburgh in the first round in 2016, leaving the Steelers to scramble to fill their need at corner. Pittsburgh hastily selected Artie Burns, to disastrous results. BTSC conspiracy theorists surmised the Bengals only took Jackson because they knew the Steelers wanted him. Similar theories emerged when the Ravens chose Williams one pick before the Steelers selected Senquez Golson in 2015. While there may be truth to the notion of a team killing two birds with one stone by drafting a player at a position of need while simultaneously keeping him from a division rival, to hear BTSC tell it, the Williams and Jackson selections bore the makings of an Oliver Stone film.

In addition to my Billings crush, I lobbied hard in 2019 for Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was taken eighth overall by the Detroit Lions. I believed (and still do) the Steelers needed a versatile tight end who could both block and catch to unlock the potential of their offense. I advocated for selecting Hockenson over Devin Bush in that draft, and possibly trading up to do so. Two years into his career, Hockenson is proving to be a nice player. But he’s not transformational. All things considered, Bush is probably the better addition.

Of course, the most notorious draft crush of all-time does not belong to anyone here at BTSC. It is the property of Mike Ditka, who as head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1999 was so gaga about running back Ricky Williams that he traded his entire draft to acquire him. The Washington Redskins, to whom Ditka traded eight picks, converted them into future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey and Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, among others. Williams lasted just three seasons in New Orleans before being shipped to Miami. Ditka, for his part, went 3-13 in Williams’s rookie year and was promptly fired.

The funny thing about the BTSC draft-crushes mentioned above is that the Steelers wound up with none of them. And, while some are authoring solid careers (Hightower, Jackson and Hockenson), none have been spectacular. In fact, several (Billings, Brown, Williams, Michel) have fallen far short of their pre-draft hype. If any of their output had matched our pre-draft proclamations of greatness, Canton would be chipping away at their busts.

The fact we are often wrong about these players we lobby so passionately for does not stop us from lobbying. This year, I find myself rooting hard for the Steelers to select Alabama center Landon Dickerson. Dickerson is a mauler whose physical style of play would be perfect for the rebuild the Steelers’ are proposing along their offensive line. He was a team captain for the national champions and his film is replete with plays like this one, where he flattens a twisting edge player then administers a finishing shot for good measure:

What’s not to love? Well, for starters, Dickerson has had multiple knee surgeries which kept him from completing a single season in college. That’s a pretty significant red flag. Yet I am so enamored by Dickerson’s play that I’m willing to overlook the huge medical risk his selection would entail because, when he’s healthy, I believe he’s the best center in this draft. Intellectually, I know when he’s healthy is like saying about a thief, “When he’s not stealing, he’s a really good person.” Emotionally, though, I will be thrilled if we select Dickerson.

Plato characterized emotion and reason as two horses pulling in opposite directions. Such is the draft crush. Be careful to whom you grow attached, for the odds of them landing in Pittsburgh are slim. And often, despite the blow to our ego, that’s for the best.