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Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time, All-Rookie Team: Part 5, the Offensive Line

We continue to look at the best of the best of rookies throughout Steelers history. Today we focus on the offensive line.

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

And we’re back with part 5 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team, in which we talk about the offensive line. Here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.

The apologia for the sequence appears in the first article (here), but here are the ground rules:

The Ground Rules:

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:

Part 1: Quarterbacks
Part 2: Running Backs
Part 3: Wide Receivers
Part 4: Tight Ends


Part 5: Offensive Line

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to take the O-Line as a whole (breaking it into three categories: tackle, guard, center). One thing you’ll immediately notice: it’s much harder to quantify offensive linemen than it was to pick runners or wide receivers. Especially in the old days.

Ultimately, I wound up looking at four elements:
— number of games started as a rookie
— success of the rushing offense
— number of sacks the quarterback took
— awards or attestations (like Pro Bowl or NFL All-Rookie team)
It’s an inexact science. My own memory is playing a role in the guys since about 1988 too, and that may not be perfect. So if you’ve got thoughts about anyone (before that era or after), this is the article where those comments probably matter the most. Hopefully the list still holds together, one way or another.


Offensive Tackle:

This was a surprise to me, but for all the great Steelers linemen over the years, there aren’t a lot of tackles worth noting. Especially not as rookies. Max Starks started no games and only dressed for 10 in 2004. Jon Kolb didn’t start a single game in 1969; nor did Tunch Ilkin in 1980. Larry Brown was a tight end still in ‘71. Gordon Gravelle and Chuks Okorafor were both close to the list, but ultimately didn’t do enough to get my attention. (They each started three games on the year, in 1972 and 2018 respectively, and didn’t otherwise stand out.) Then there was Alejandro Villanueva. Al was listed as being on the team in 2014, but played in zero games, and was not listed as being a rookie in 2015. So I’m making an executive decision and not including AV below.


Starters:

Frank Varrichione (1955)

Every photo of Frank Varrichione looks like he’s probably going to hurt you.

Started all 12 games as rookie
Team gave up 20 sacks (#4 in NFL)
#3 passing offense in NFL (though worst rushing team)
1 fumble recovery
Pro Bowler as rookie

Frank Varrichione was the #6 overall draft choice in the 1955 draft, and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, despite starting on the NFL’s worst rushing team. He also had one of the most “Mafia thug” faces in NFL history (I can only imagine that when he and Ernie Stautner lined up across from each other in practice, the whole rest of the team would take a step back).

In any case, Varrichione was a star from day 1, landing a significant contract for a lineman ($8,000/yr), and then exceeding expectations. He was eventually traded (surprisingly) to the L.A. Rams for defensive tackle/kicker Lou Michaels (who, in fairness, made two Pro Bowls for the Steelers). But he certainly earned his stripes in Pittsburgh before going.

A three-time Pro Bowler, who started every game for six years, Varrichione is probably the most decorated OT in Steelers history, and certainly the number one rookie tackle.


Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers
Being Rookie of the Year is exhausting work
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Marcus Gilbert (2011)

Steelers Rookie of the Year
Played in 14 games; started 13, on a 12-4 team
Helped stabalize O-Line for next decade

Marcus Gilbert is fresh in memory for most of us, as a steady presence at right tackle for eight years. A second round pick in 2011, Gilbert teamed with other youngsters like Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Ramon Foster to turn the Steelers O-Line from the team’s weakest link into its biggest strength in the mid-2010s. Though injuries ultimately derailed his career, costing him 20 games over his last two seasons, Gilbert was the Steelers rookie of the year in 2011.


Backups:

Bob Gaona (1953)

The artist who drew this clearly didn’t have an actual photo of Gaona, and just used John Wayne as his model.

Started all 12 games as rookie
#8 passing offense and #8 rushing offense in NFL
#7 overall offense in NFL
Team gave up 21 sacks on season (#4 in NFL)

Bob Gaona started all 12 games as a rookie, on a pretty middling Steelers team. Their offense finished in the middle of the pack pretty much everywhere (#7 or #8 in most categories, out of 12 teams), and the team finished 6-6. Still, walking into a starting job as a 22 year old rookie is never that easy. And the 1953 Steelers were hardly a powerhouse offense. When OL coach Walt Keisling was promoted to head coach in 1954, he kept Gaona in the starting lineup for the next four years. That’s a good sign, I think.


Marvel Smith (2000)

Steelers Marvel Smith
George Gojkovich took a surprisingly large number of these photos. I almost never notice that stuff, but his name has come up over and over in these articles.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played in 12 games; started 9
#4 rushing offense in NFL

Marvel Smith’s rookie year was rocky at first. He started the season’s first three games, during which the Steelers went 0-3. He was then inactive for four of the following six contests (during which, the team went 5-1). Smith finally worked his way back into the starting lineup over the final six weeks, which saw the Steelers go 4-2 and make a serious run at the 2000 playoffs, coming up just short. The following season, of course, he started 16 games on the 13-3 Steelers, who took the AFC’s #1 seed, and led the NFL in rushing. He was a Pro Bowler in 2004 and eventually collected two Super Bowl rings (starting in SBXL), before back injuries cut short his career. But one could see that Marvel was a legit player by the end of that first season.


Also Considered:

Lou Allen (1950)

Literally the only photo I could find of Lou Allen

Started all 12 games as a rookie
Steelers only took 10 sacks all year (#1 in NFL)
Steelers #10 in rushing and #10 passing

Lou Allen was one of three rookies starting on the O-Line in 1950, blocking for Joe Geri’s record setting season. This was not a good team, unfortunately, as they finished 10th in the NFL in both rushing and passing, out of 13 teams. Oof. Allen only lasted two season in Pittsburgh, leaving football after the 1951 season, after starting every game for two years.


Poll

All-Rookie Offensive Tackle

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Frank Varricchione (1958)
    (54 votes)
  • 44%
    Marcus Gilbert (2011)
    (110 votes)
  • 0%
    Bob Gaona (1952)
    (2 votes)
  • 31%
    Marvel Smith (2000)
    (79 votes)
  • 0%
    Lou Allen (1950)
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Other
    (4 votes)
250 votes total Vote Now

Offensive Guard:

Guard is a tricky position to gauge. As we’ll see, some players shuffled between positions — more than one Steelers center started his career as guard, for example. Of the great interior linemen who have come through this town, the biggest omission here is going to be David DeCastro. Injuries cost DeCastro most of his rookie year, as he only dressed for four games, starting three. You might also be looking for Oliver Ross (starter in Super Bowl XL), but he started his career in Dallas. Meanwhile Chris Kemoeatu, Carlton Haselrig, Tom Ricketts, Craig Wolfley, Brian Blankenship, and John Reinstra combined to start only 10 games as rookies. Finally, Jim Clack and Sam Davis may have started four Super Bowls between them, but they only started one game, combined, as rookies.


Starters:

Kendell Simmons (2002)

Kendall Simmons on the bench
Kendell Simmons’ spirit animal is the Allegheny Mountain range
Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Started 14 games
Zero holding penalties as rookie
#9 NFL rushing offense (despite losing Jerome Bettis for much of year to injury)
Team allowed 34 sacks (#13 in NFL)
NFL All-Rookie Team

Simmons had an up-and-down career, thanks in large part to an ongoing battle with diabetes, but when he was good, he was very good. And his rookie year, starting 14 games at RG, he was pretty good. Injuries dogged Jerome Bettis that year, and the offense vacillated between Kordell Stewart’s hybrid game and Tommy Maddox’s downfield passing, but Simmons didn’t miss a beat as a rookie. He ultimately started both Steelers playoff contests in 2002, and was eventually named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team.


Brenden Stai (1995)

Steelers Brenden Stai
I was better than you remember, folks!
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played 16 games; started 9
Zero penalties of any kind as rookie
Team ranked #12 in rushing (NFL)
Line yeilded 24 sacks (#4 in NFL)
Started Super Bowl XXX
NFL All-Rookie team

During this series, I’ve been musing a little about how these articles introduce me to players I otherwise didn’t know. But there are also players who I remember, but didn’t realize where as good as they were. Brenden Stai is one of those guys. I initially included him because I noticed that he started nine games as a rookie. Then I kept reading: “he committed no holds, false starts, or any other penalties all year... he started the Super Bowl as a rookie... he was on the NFL’s All-Rookie squad... Wait, who?”

Stai only stuck around in Pittsburgh for five seasons, and he never wound up in the Pro Bowl, but he did help the team keep winning through a big offensive churn — as the team went from Neil O’Donnell and Bam Morris, to Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis. Not bad.


Backups:

Alan Faneca (1998)

Steelers v Bengals X
Alan Faneca, keeping one eye on his Lucky Charms from the sidelines.

Started 12 games as rookie
Zero holding penalties all year
#7 rushing team (NFL)
Team gave up 35 sacks (#10 in NFL)

Not every great Steelers player started that way. DeCastro’s rookie season was largely on IR, for example; and Mike Webster barely saw the field in 1974. But Alan Faneca stepped right into a starring role, starting 12 games for the Steelers in Jerome Bettis’s 1341 yard 1998 season. Faneca, as we all know now, wound up being one of the best to ever play the position — with six All Pro seasons and a Hall of Fame bust. But even as a rookie, he was the real thing.


George Hughes (1950)

I’m pretty sure George Hughes stepped right out of an Archie comic for this photo.

Started all 12 games as rookie
#10 rushing offense in NFL (out of 13... yikes)
Steelers only took 10 sacks all year (#1 in NFL)
Two fumble recoveries

George Hughes was a 6’1” 225 pounder who made Pro Bowls at tackle and guard for the Steelers over his five year career. As a rookie, he lined up next to 2nd year Pro Bowler Bill Walsh (see below) and started every game on a mediocre team, as All Pro quarterback Joe Geri set a team record in rushing with 705 yards. (This was the same year Lou Allen started at tackle, see above.) Though he never played on a winning team, he was a sharp-eyed player, recovering seven fumbles in five years, including two as a rookie.


Also considered:

Dermontti Dawson (1990)

Steelers Dermontti Dawson
Come on, man. I played center!
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Started five games
#6 rushing team (NFL)
#4 rushing yards per carry (NFL)

Dirt Dawson played guard as a rookie, before moving to center, to replace the inimitable Mike Webster. Known for his quick feet and ability to pivot and pull, while still being a road-grader, Dawson’s experience at guard was probably really useful down the line. He started 9 games as a rookie, then bounced to center, where he was a six-time All Pro and eventually made the Hall of Fame (called by Bill Belichick, “one of the best players we ever played against”).


Kevin Dotson (2020)

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans
Kevin Dotson, sporting the game’s jauntiest neck beard.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Played in 13 games; started 4
Only one holding penalty all year
Team was dead last in rushing yards
Team only allowed 14 sacks all year (#1 in NFL)

The jury may be out on Kevin Dotson’s career, but his rookie season was more impressive (I think) than most have given it credit for. Known as a run blocker in college, and thought of as a depth guy on draft day, he was pressed into service this past year for All Pro David DeCastro, and was probably the steadiest player on the Steelers O-Line — oddly playing remarkably well in pass protection. Legend has it that Dotson used to tell opposing D-Linemen what play his Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns were about to run, just so that it would be more demoralizing when he pancaked them anyway. I don’t think he did that in Pittsburgh this year, but he did something right.


Ramon Foster (2009)

Minnesota Vikings v Pittsburgh Steelers
If his football career hadn’t worked out, Ramon Foster had a backup plan as a doo-wop singer.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played in 14 games; started 4
Zero penalties of any kind as rookie

Ramon Foster straddled two powerful eras of Steelers football, coming in at the tail end of the mid-2000s Super Bowl run (he started Super Bowl XLV at LG), and holding down the RG position on the explosive offenses of 2014-18. As a rookie, Foster started the season’s final three games, during which the Steelers went 3-0 and fell just short of the playoffs.


Terry Long (1984)

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers
I know it’s an extra neck bracing, but it looks like Terry Long is just cold and put on an extra scarf
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played in 12 games; started 7
#6 rushing offense in NFL
Line gave up 35 sacks (#6 in NFL)

Terry Long’s rookie season has the oddest stat line I think I’ve ever seen. He started seven games on a decent team, which is great. He also had one punt return for zero yards. And he fumbled once (which I imagine was on the punt return, because why else would he have the ball? Then again, what possible context could put a punt in the hands of a rookie OG?).

Whatever, the case, he started both playoff games for the upstart, underdog 9-7 Steelers — their dramatic upset of John Elway’s 13-3 Broncos, and their shootout loss to Dan Marino’s historic Dolphins in the AFCC. He also got the midseason start against the eventual champs, the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers, on Halloween — where the Steelers handed Joe Montana’s best team its only loss all year. That’s not a bad resume for a 4th round rookie from East Carolina.


Gerry Mullins (1971)

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers
Gerry Mullins models this page’s finest set of sideburns
Photo by James Flores /Getty Images

Played in 14 games; started 5
Team averaged 4.2 yards per rush (#10 in NFL)

Gerry Mullins started at both guard positions, as well as tackle, over his career, picking up four Super Bowl rings in the process (he started all four title games as well). As a rookie, he played admirably on a mediocre team. Not really enough here to justify getting him onto the All-Time All-Rookie squad, but he’s worth a shout-out.


Poll

All-Rookie Offensive Guard

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Brendan Stai (1992)
    (25 votes)
  • 12%
    Kendell Simmons (2002)
    (31 votes)
  • 0%
    George Hughes (1961)
    (1 vote)
  • 50%
    Alan Faneca (1998)
    (127 votes)
  • 10%
    Dermontti Dawson (1990)
    (25 votes)
  • 4%
    Kevin Dotson (2020)
    (12 votes)
  • 5%
    Ramon Foster (2010)
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    Terry Long (1984)
    (4 votes)
  • 4%
    Gerry Mullins (1970)
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (2 votes)
250 votes total Vote Now

Center:

The Steelers have a rich history of centers, but a surprising number of them started inconspicuously. We already saw Dermontti Dawson as a guard. Ray Mansfield was still a defensive lineman in Philadelphia when he was a rookie. Jeff Hartings was originally a Detroit Lion. And Mike Webster was an undersized backup as a rookie, who started one game, snapping the ball to Joe Gilliam against the Chiefs in 1974. So who does that leave?


Starter:

Maurkice Pouncey (2010)

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
See, there’s George Gojkovich again. Did you notice that he took Terry Long’s photo too? That’s 26 years apart.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Started all 16 games as rookie
NFL All Rookie team
Pro Bowler
Stabalized Steelers offensive line when it was BAAAAAD...

In the late 2000s, the Steelers offensive line was in shambles, with center as probably the biggest hole. When the Steelers drafted Pouncey, the expectation was that he’d step in right away. But he did much better — starting 18 games as a rookie (counting playoffs) on the AFC champion. He cleared the way for Rashard Mendenhall’s 1215 yard season, stabilized the O-line despite Big Ben missing the first four games on suspension, and qualified for the Pro Bowl. A nasty injury in the AFC title game cost Pouncey the start in Super Bowl XLV, and it’s fair to wonder whether the Steelers would have won that tight contest if their rookie all-star had been available.


Backup:

Bill Walsh (1949)

1949 seems a little late for leather helmets and no shoulder pads. Am I wrong about this?

Played in 12 games; started 9
2nd team All Pro as rookie
#2 rushing offense in NFL
Line yeilded 13 sacks (#2 in NFL)

I know. I want it to be the 49ers coach too, but it’s not. This Bill Walsh was a six-year starter at center, who made two Pro Bowls and three All Pro teams. He played during that transitional time, when some players still played both ways (Walsh did occasionally) and when the single-wing was the Steelers’ primary offense. (He also played at 6’3” 230 pounds, which would make him a running back today...) Walsh did block for a few of the guys we’ve seen on other lists — Joe Geri, Johnny Lattner, Fran Rogel — but he managed to slip into the dead-zone of early Steelers history, between Bill Dudley’s winning years and the Bobby Layne/Buddy Dial/Jimmy Orr winning years. That’s some bad luck, but those losing squads certainly weren’t the fault of the All Pro in the middle.


Poll

All-Rookie Center

This poll is closed

  • 93%
    Maurkice Pouncey (2010)
    (222 votes)
  • 3%
    Bill Walsh (1966)
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Other
    (8 votes)
238 votes total Vote Now

Next up: We’re on to the defense. Let’s start on the line. It’s gonna get ugly.