Sorry for the delay (and a preliminary apology for the length, since this is the longest article of this series), but we’re back with part 3 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team. If you haven’t seen the previous edition of this sequence, they’re linked below, along with an apologia in the first edition. The ground rules for this project are as follows:
1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/”Pirates.”
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.
For past essays:
With that in mind, here’s part three of the mixed-multitude of the Steelers all time All Rookie team — position group by position group.
Quick Note: the poll at the bottom only allows one choice (I can’t figure out how to change that), but I’m naming three starters to the team.
Part 3: Wide Receivers
Like most positions, deciding who even qualifies at wide receiver is tricky. In this case, oddly, there aren’t that many greats who started their careers with other franchises. Yancey Thigpen is probably the biggest name who doesn’t make the cut, as he played his rookie season in San Diego (and didn’t even make a single catch).
However, there are plenty of familiar names that did very little as rookies. For example, don’t expect mediocre players like to see Andre Hastings, Jeff Graham, Weegie Thompson, Dwite Stone, Ernie Mills, or Mark Stock. Ditto for Plaxico Burress, Roy Jefferson, Emmanuel Sanders, Frank Lewis, and Elbie Nickel, each of whom actually had more respectable careers, but none of whom were impressive as rookies. Charles Johnson and Eli Rogers were probably the closest that didn’t cut it, but we had to shut the door somewhere.
Finally, there’s the big three. Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Hines Ward also didn’t make this team. The three most recognizable Steelers wideouts in history averaged 14 catches and one touchdown as rookies. None of them finished in the top 4 on the team in receptions, nor in the top 75 in the NFL catches, yards, or touchdowns. Swann was a pretty impressive punt returner, but that’s a different category. These were not Hall of Fame rookies at wideout.
Seems like there’s a lesson in there about not judging a player’s career by just his opening season… but I’m not sure that that would be. Oh well. Let’s look at WRs.
Jimmy Orr (1959)
33 receptions (led the Steelers)
910 receiving yards (#3 in NFL / Steelers rookie record for 58 years)
27.6 yards per reception (#1 in NFL)
7 touchdown catches (#5 in NFL)
Also punted 51 times, 39.7 avg
AP Offensive Rookie of the Year
Let’s start with the most complicated character on the list. Jimmy Orr is not often discussed among Steelers greats, but not because of his production in black and gold. You might recognize Orr from his All Pro career in Baltimore (including perhaps the most famously ignored “hey I’m open!” moment in NFL history). But he was a Pro Bowler in Pittsburgh first. He’s complicated because he was drafted by Los Angeles Rams in 1957, but he never played a down there. He was eventually acquired by Pittsburgh and played his official rookie season in 1958, where he teamed with new Steeler QB Bobby Layne to great effect.
On a short list of AP Offensive Rookies of the Year to come through town, Orr also set the Steelers rookie receiving record that stood until JuJu Smith-Schuster broke it nearly six decades later (and even then, only by seven yards). And Orr did it in a 12 game season. He finished in the league’s top 5 in three major WR categories, helping the team to its first winning season in 11 years, and their second best record ever (at the time).
Louis Lipps (1984)
45 catches, 860 yards
19.1 yards per catch (#5 in NFL)
9 touchdown catches (#7 in NFL)
Also had rushing and punt return TDs
12.4 avg on punt returns (#3 in NFL)
1587 all purpose yards
Pro Bowler as rookie
AP Offensive Rookie of the Year
Another NFL Rookie of the Year, Lipps was a star receiver, with 45 catches for 860 yards (19.1 ypc), as well as punt returner. Perhaps equally as important, his talent helped free up the old veteran, John Stallworth, to record the finest season of his HOF career in 1984, as the Steelers came one game from getting their “one for the thumb” Super Bowl title despite starting a rotation of David Woodley, Cliff Stoudt, and Mark Malone at quarterback. Who knows what kind of career Lipps could have had if he’d have been blessed with a QB like Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger. But his rookie campaign was sublime.
Chase Claypool (2020)
62 catches (Steelers rookie record), 873 yards
9 receiving TDs (#10 in NFL)
84 yard catch (3rd longest in NFL)
11 offensive touchdowns (#12 in NFL)
Team rookie record 4 touchdowns, wk 5 (vs Philly)
NFL Offensive Player of the week (wk 5)
I probably don’t need to tell you much about Chase Claypool. An absolute physical specimen, Claypool has been favorably compared to Calvin Johnson (though he hates the nickname, “Mapletron”), and was in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year for parts of 2020. His four touchdown laser-light show against Philadelphia was one of the finest performances anyone posted all season. And, though he got lost in the wash by the end of the season, one gets the sense that that may have been a Randy Fichtner issue more than a Chase Claypool problem. In any case, he was a star as a rookie in ways one rarely sees in these parts.
Ron Shanklin (1970)
30 receptions, 691 yards, 4 touchdowns (led Steelers in all categories)
23.0 yards per reception (#3 in NFL)
Shanklin is a forgotten player today, as he and his WR teammates were ultimately replaced by John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, but he was pretty impressive as a rookie. Shanklin led the Steelers in receptions, yards, and touchdown catches, while also finishing #3 in the NFL in YPC. And he did that while catching passes from the two Terrys — rookie Terry Bradshaw (who was dreadful), and second year man Terry Hanratty (who was no better). Shanklin led the NFL in YPC and made the Pro Bowl in 1973, and the Steelers rewarded him by drafting Swann and Stallworth that spring. At least he got a ring in 1974.
Juju Smith-Schuster (2017)
58 catches, 917 yards, 7 touchdowns
Steelers rookie receiving yards record
97 yard catch (longest in NFL that year)
26.7 yards per kickoff return, plus another touchdown
Zero fumbles as rookie
69 yard catch and run in final minute against NE in Jesse James game
Laid out Vontaze Burfict
I thought about JuJu a lot — whether he deserved a starting shot. He broke Jimmy Orr’s rookie receiving yardage record, and caught 7 touchdowns as a rookie, while also recording the longest catch in the NFL (side note: he’s still the only player in league history with two 97 yard scores in a career). He nearly won the Jesse James game (against the Patriots) late in the season — a victory which would have given the Steelers the #1 seed and a cleaner shot at the Super Bowl than they got. And he demolished the worst person in the NFL.
Ultimately, I put him on the bench because he benefitted big from having Antonio Brown on the other side to swallow up coverage. But JuJu’s rookie year was outstanding.
Martavis Bryant (2014)
26 receptions, 549 yards with only three starts
21.1 yards per reception (would have led league if he qualified)
8 receiving touchdowns (1 every 3.25 catches)
94 yard catch (longest in NFL that year)
Sat for first 6 games (3-3); dressed for final 10 (8-2)
Martavis was one of my favorite players from the Steelers 2010s resurgence. His big-play capacity, which we all saw in 2014 and 2015, was terrifying. And his inability to contain his off-field issues were nothing short of tragic. I really think that if the Steelers could have kept him playing, alongside Antonio Brown, they’d have won the Super Bowlin 2016 and possibly 2017. That 2016 team really sputtered with Brown left by himself, and Bryant was a shell of himself the following year.
Mike Wallace (2009)
39 catches, 796 yards, 6 touchdowns
19.4 yards per catch (#1 in NFL)
Game winning walk-off touchdown against Green Bay
The original “One-Trick Pony” (terrible nickname) was a hell of a player in 2009. With Santonio Holmes as the WR1 and Hines Ward as the wily veteran possession man, Wallace could run free all over the place for the defending champs. If the Steelers defense could have stayed healthy that year, they had a real opportunity to repeat. I know what you’re thinking — didn’t the Steelers go 9-7 and miss the playoffs? Yup. And not one of those losses came by more than 7 points. In other words, they were one play away from winning every single week. And Wallace was the likeliest player in the NFL to score from anywhere on the field. In fact, his finest moment as a Steeler was a walk-off score against the 12-4 Packers (who would meet these guy in the Super Bowl the very next season). This was a good team. And Wallace made them better.
Santonio Holmes (2006)
49 catches, 824 yards, 2 touchdowns
16.8 yards per reception (#10 in NFL)
10.2 yards per punt return (#10 in NFL)
1537 all-purpose yards (#14 in NFL)
67 yard overtime touchdown catch knocks Bengals from playoffs in wk 17
Santonio Holmes was an enigmatic player. He never really realized his potential, but still walked away with a Super Bowl MVP award. He was a rising star who the Steelers traded for a song — and then (amazingly) didn’t really miss him. And his rookie year wasn’t any different. He began with two arrests before even reporting for camp, then finished the season with a walk-off overtime touchdown that knocked the rival Bengals out of the playoffs. He was exciting to watch, and played one of the most underrated playoff cycles of all time, in 2008. And he deserves a shot at our ROY team too.
Buddy Dial (1959)
16 receptions, 428 yards (yards: #2 on team / #22 in NFL)
26.8 yards per catch (would have led NFL with seven more catches)
6 touchdowns (#5 in NFL)
If you were a Steelers fan before Chuck Noll arrived, you probably know Buddy Dial’s name. Buddy was a two-time Pro Bowler in Pittsburgh, who currently sits as the #2 player in NFL history for his 20.3 career yards per reception (fun fact: Jimmy Orr is #8). Originally drafted by the NY Giants, Dial was plucked off waivers by the Steelers two days before their opener, and teamed with Jimmy Orr and Bobby Layne to power the Steelers to their second straigth winning season. In his second season, with a full offseason in Pittsburgh, Dial finished #2 in the NFL in receiving yards, #1 in yards per catch, and #5 in touchdown receptions. If he’d have gotten a whole rookie offseason, one can only imagine how good that team could have been.
Diontae Johnson (2019)
59 catches, 5 touchdown receptions (both #1 on Steelers)
680 receiving yards (#2 on Steelers)
12.4 yards per punt return (#1 in NFL), and 1 return TD
2nd team All Pro Kick/Punt Returner
Diontae Johnson had the drops as a second year man (fingers crossed for season #3). But his rookie year was pretty impressive. The numbers look okay, but don’t forget who his quarterbacks were in 2019 (Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges).
Antwaan Randle El (2002)
47 catches, 489 yards, 2 touchdowns
22.9 yards per kickoff return, with a 99 yard touchdown
1613 all-purpose yards (#7 in NFL)
7-8 in passing attempts, 90.1 QBR
Antwaan Randle El was really more of a return star than receiving star, but he was one of those all-purpose freaks as a rookie (and every other year, I guess). One quick thing to point out: Randle El threw more passes, and was more successful on them, than Kordell Stewart was as an all-purpose QB/WR combo player.
Antonio Brown (2010)
16 catches, 164 yards, 0 touchdowns (regular season)
5 catches, 90 yards in playoffs — and two HUGE 3rd down conversions
89 yard kickoff return touchdown on first NFL touch
I know. I kind of resent him too now. And Brown’s rookie numbers are nothing (there’s a reason he didn’t make the All Rookie squad). I mention him because his playoff performances in 2010 were instrumental in sending the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV. His 58 yard helmet-catch on 3rd and 19 against Baltimore is one of my all-time favorite plays in Steelers history (the nerve of Ben Roethlisberger to throw that bomb with the season on the line, and the absurdity of Brown getting a two yard step on the Ravens CBs, and catching the thing...). Then his 3rd down conversion that sealed the win the following week against the Jets (again, what was Ben doing, throwing to that kid with the Super Bowl on the line? Un-freaking-believable). Too bad AB lost his damned mind. He was fun to root for as a Steeler.
Troy Edwards (1999)
61 catches (tied for team lead, Steelers rookie record for 20 years)
714 yards (lead Steelers)
5 touchdown catches (2nd on Steelers)
1182 all-purpose yards
Edwards was a disappiontment, but he looked like a legit player as a rookie. His 61 catches set a Steelers rookie record that stood until Chase Claypool broke it last season, and he led the team with 714 receiving yards. With second year man Hines Ward on the opposite side, and Jerome Bettis at his peak, you could be forgiven for assuming that the Steeleres offense was about to explode. Instead, it was all downhill for Edwards, who never caught 20 passes again in a Steelers jersey, and was shipped out of town after only three years.
Dave Smith (1970)
30 catches, 458 yards, 2 touchdowns (tied for team lead in catches)
87 yard catch (3rd longest in NFL)
Remember Ron Shanklin, fellow 1970 rookie? It must have felt like the Steelers were building a strong offense this year. We know about the Steelers drafting their defense one piece at a time (Mel Blount came this same season), but looking at the passing game the Steelers were assembling in 1970, it’s crazy that Terry Bradshaw (the weakest link in the rookie passing game) was the one that wound up a star.
Sam Boyd (1939)
21 catches (#7 in NFL)
423 yards (#4 in NFL)
20.1 yards per catch (#2 in NFL — behind Don Hutson)
Sam Boyd goes back to the Pittsburgh Pirates days, which were not good days. The 1939 Pirates went 1-9-1, and their one win came against the Philadelphia Eagles, who also finished 1-9-1. The teams played their final two games against each other, three days apart, and split them. Both teams came in 0-8-1. Ugh.
Boyd looked pretty strong as a rookie, but then vanished. He was listed on the roster for three games (zero starts) in 1940, but made no appearances. Then he just disappeared.
Paul Moss & Ray Tesser (1933)
Moss - 13 catches, 283 yards (#1 in NFL), 2 touchdowns
Tessier - 14 catches, 282 yards (#2 in NFL), 0 touchdowns
This is the Steelers’ first season — I’m sorry, the Pirates’ first season. And it was a really different game. Eight different Pirates players threw at least three interceptions in 1933, as the team finished with three touchdown passes and 40 INTs. Yes, you read that right.
Tessier’s 14 catches finished fourth in the NFL, while Moss’s 13 finished fifth. And of course they finished 1-2 in receiving yards on the season. Neither had much of a career in Pittsburgh, though. Moss went and played for the St. Louis Gunners the next season, who only existed for three total games (those guys again!), before he retired at 23. Tessier played in a few games for the Pirates in 1934 before retiring at 22, without ever having caught a touchdown. This was the era of playing ball on the weekend, then going back to the factory on Monday. What a different world we live in today...
Moss’s two touchdowns were also the second highest total in football in 1933. There was a six-way tie for #1, with three scoring grabs. Among those six are two players with the best nicknames I’ve seen all day: Shipwreck Kelly (Brooklyn Dodgers) and future Steelers coach Johnny Blood (then playing for Green Bay — whose last name is actually McNally, but the box score just says “Johnny Blood”). In fact, if you look through the game-logs from this season, you’ll also encounter Rabbit Weller, Kink Richards, and Buckets Goldenberg. Seriously, Buckets! These days are amazing.
Importantly, the Pirates only scored eight touchdowns through the entire 1933 season. So maybe don’t hold Tessier too accountable for his zero scores. Yowza.
All Rookie Wide Receiver
This poll is closed
Next up: Tight Ends.