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History of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Draft, Part 1

Let’s talk about the Steelers draft history...

NFL: NFL Draft Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a football fan who’s paying attention to the off-season, you’re probably thinking (at least a little) about the upcoming NFL Draft. Me too.

Mock drafts come out hourly this time of year and are reported with headlines like, “Seahawks find franchise passer; Pack nabs pass-rusher,” as though they are actual news items. (Fun fact: they are not.) Here is a mock draft with four QBs going off the board in round 1; and here’s one with zero QBs getting picked. I encourage you NOT to put money on either. (And if these aren’t enough for you, here are three simulators that will let you participate: one, two, three.)

I generally glance at mocks when I see them, just to skim ahead and see who people think the Steelers might take. This season, though, it’s been frustrating, as the whole world has already decided that Pittsburgh is dead set on drafting a quarterback in round 1 — even going so far as to project that the team will trade up from #20 to grab maybe/maybe-not prospects like Sam Howell. I’ll believe that when I see it. (Fun fact #2: no I won’t, because that one’s not going to happen.)

It’s still entirely possible that the Steelers will take Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, or Matt Corral in the first round of this year’s draft, but I wouldn’t bet on it just yet. History says that unless the team is absolutely starry-eyed about a quarterback, they tend not to get him in round one.

Do I sound too confident about that? I’m actually not. It’s just that the Steelers have only selected five QBs in the first round in their 89 year history, and only three since Chuck Noll was hired, seven days after Lyndon Johnson vacated the White House. Those three are Terry Bradshaw (1970), Mark Malone (1980), and Ben Roethlisberger (2004). Two of those guys were generational talents — raw, but athletic and spectacularly talented. The other was Mark Malone, who in three years at Arizona State completed 49% of his passes, with 23 touchdowns and 28 picks. They must have liked something about him, but I look at those numbers and think there’s a lesson in there about overdrafting if you don’t have a sure thing...

In any case, thinking about these QBs got me wondering about where the Steelers have drafted in the past — what positions they’ve favored, what schools they prefer, and how that operated before Noll, under Noll, and then under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

So this will be part one of a multi-round write-up. I don’t know that most of it will be particularly illuminating in terms of projecting the 2022 draft (except perhaps the Mike Tomlin years), but I suspect you’ll learn some stuff you didn’t know. I certainly did in researching it. Let’s start with an overview:

NFL Draft
Hey look — it’s the best draft choice in Steelers history!
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

One thousand three hundred forty-six

The Steelers have drafted 1,346 total players since the initiation of the NFL draft in 1936. 34 of these were top 10 picks, including three overall #1s. Two of those three #1 overall picks wound up in the Hall of Fame — Bill Dudley (1942) and Terry Bradshaw (1970). So did three of the remaining top 10s — Joe Green (#4/1969), Len Dawson (#5/1955), and Rod Woodson (#10/1987), though, of course, Dawson had to go elsewhere to find his path to Canton.

For the curious, of the 34 top 10s, six came under the stewardship of Chuck Noll, with only one each for Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Cowher’s lone top 10 pick was used on Plaxico Burress (#8/2000), while Tomlin’s brought Devin Bush (#10/2019) to town. Bush, of course, came via a trade-up; the highest pick the Steelers have earned themselves under Mike Tomlin has been #15 in 2014, when they chose Ryan Shazier. (Lawrence Timmons was also a #15 pick, but came in Tomlin’s first year, so it was technically a pick bequeathed to him by Cowher.) The remaining 26 top 10s came pre-Noll. And while those teams were generally bad, it’s worth noticing that for many years there were only ten or twelve teams in the NFL, so a #15 draft choice would technically be a second rounder in a lot of those years.

This year, the Steelers will choose at #20. Pittsburgh has chosen at #20 only four times in team history, none of which ended up being remarkable picks (1948, 1951, 1958, and 1985, the latter of which yielding DE Darryl Sims, who lasted two years in town, logging zero starts).

Among current first round slots (in other words, the top 32 picks), the Steelers have chosen most often at #30, hitting that spot six times, with noteworthy 30th choices including long time starting guard Kendall Simmons (2002), as well as modern greats Heath Miller (2005) and T.J. Watt (2017).

NFL: APR 27 2017 NFL Draft
The Steelers three all time leading rushers post for a photo. (Side note: Willie Parker should probably avoid whatever lighting they’re using in this room...)
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fifty-six, One hundred two, One hundred sixty-three

The most frequent selections the team has made in any round have been at #56, #102, and #163, which the Steelers have held ten times each.

#56 has not been a powerful spot for Pittsburgh. John Kolb was chosen there in 1969 (and would start at OT for four Super Bowls) but that’s about it. More recently, #56 has given us Mike Adams (2012) and Senquez Golson (2015).

#102 has been spotty too, but for different reasons. Most of these picks happened in the pre-Chuck Noll stone age (including the fabulously named Rocco Pirro, chosen in 1940). The head of the class at this position has to be 1955’s 9th round pick, a local quarterback named Johnny Unitas. Of course, according to Walt Keisling, Unitas wasn’t smart enough to play QB, so maybe he was a bust after all. In the current era, #102 has given us Alex Highsmith (in 2020), and while the jury’s still out on Highsmith’s career, we can probably agree he looks better than that Unitas character.

The final one, #163 is pretty much a dead-end. I appreciate 1959 fourteenth rounder, John Peppercorn, for his cockney name (I feel like he ought to be played by Dick Van Dyke in a musical). But the name that really leaps out to me is yet another quarterback: 2000’s Tee Martin, chosen five spots ahead of future Pro Bowler Mark Bulger and 36 spots ahead of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.

NFL: APR 26 2019 NFL Draft
Brett Keisel takes time out from his latest tour with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Four hundred seventeen

You might be wondering what the “most successful” spot has been for the Steelers. Naturally, that’s a judgment call, but there are a few positions that have been gold more often than not. Here are some options:

#1 overall: three picks (1942 Bill Dudley, 1956 Gary Glick, 1970 Terry Bradshaw)

#4 overall: two picks (1938 Whizzer White, 1969 Joe Greene)

#24 overall: five picks (1973 J.T. Thomas, 1989 Tom Ricketts, 1997 Chad Scott, 2012 David DeCastro, 2021 Najee Harris)

#46 overall: five picks (1945 Gregg Browning, 1974 Jack Lambert, 1991 Jeff Graham, 2007 Lamarr Woodley, 2014 Stephon Tuitt)

#62 overall: four picks (1940 Carl Nery, 2002 Antwaan Randle El, 2005 Bryant McFadden, 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster)

#417 overall: only one pick ever (1968 Rocky Bleier)

Obviously you have to adjust your standards as you get further down the draft — especially near the end (the final pick these days is around 260). But any of these are good value.

Oddball fact on the opposite side: in 86 years of NFL drafts, the Steelers have NEVER picked at #119, #134, or #224. They’ll be close this year (with picks at #138 and #225), but not quite.

2018 NFL Draft
I’m pleased that Ryan Shazier has been able to get on with his life, but man, I wish he was still playing. Imagine him lined up beside Myles Jack in the middle...
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images


Last category for this essay: We mentioned Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson above, as two players famously drafted by the Steelers, who became all-time greats with other teams. But they aren’t alone. A surprising number of people you know from other contexts were drafted by the Steelers. Here are a few:

“Pop” Ivy (#27, 1940) — Traded away before his rookie year began, Ivy’s real claim to fame came as the only man to be a head coach in the NFL, AFL, and WIFU (Western Interprovincial Football Union — the forerunner to the CFL)

“Doc” Blanchard (#3, 1946) — The first junior to ever win the Heisman as his Army squad posted a record of 27-0-1 in his three year college career. Blanchard never played for the Steelers because the Army wouldn’t grant him a furlough.

Ara Parseghian (#109, 1947) — Famous as the highly successful college coach at Miami (OH), Northwestern, and Notre Dame, who posted a .746 winning percentage over 24 years, winning two National Championships with the Fighting Irish. Parseghian never played with the Steelers either because he chose to play for Paul Brown and the rival AAFC’s Cleveland Browns.

Bill McPeak (#142, 1948) — McPeak actually played for the Steelers for nine years, before coaching Washington for several unremarkable years. He was offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in 1973.

Jim Finks (#116, 1949) — Finks played quarterback for seven years in Pittsburgh, even leading the league in touchdown passes in 1952, on his way to a Pro Bowl. He’s a Hall of Famer, though, as a contributor, having built the Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters” defense as GM, then hiring HOF coach Bud Grant. He then took over the Chicago Bears from founder George Halas, and helped build the powerhouse 80s Bears defense (and also drafted Walter Payton). After a dispute over a coaching hire led to his resignation from Chicago, he took over the Saints, and led New Orleans to its first ever winning season and playoff berth.

Ted Marchibroda (#5, 1953) — Played three years in Pittsburgh, before eventually going into coaching. Marchibroda was AP NFL Coach of the Year in 1975 with the Colts, and also the first ever Baltimore Ravens coach.

Abner Haynes (#55, 1960) — Chose to sign with the AFL’s Dallas Texans (future: Kansas City Chiefs) instead of Pittsburgh, Haynes was the AFL’s first rushing leader and the new league’s MVP as a rookie. His #28 was eventually retired by the Chiefs and by his college, North Texas (where a young Joe Green would attend in a few years).

Emerson Boozer (#98, 1966) — Drafted in the 6th round by the AFL’s New York Jets, and 7th by the NFL’s Steelers, Boozer chose New York. He wound up in two Pro Bowls with the Jets as running back and kick returner, including in the 1968 Super Bowl season.

Mike Mayock (#265, 1981) — Famous now as an NFL draft analyst and former Oakland/Vegas Raiders GM, Mayock started as a 10th round roster cut by Chuck Noll in 1981.

  • BONUS #1: Another guy named Mike Mayock (#282, 1955) — I cannot believe that the Steelers have drafted two players by the name of Mike Mayock. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the only name that appears twice in the draft rolls. Not “Dave Smith.” Not “John Jackson.” Not even “Cannonball Butler.” Mike Mayock. Bizarre. This one never played a down in the NFL, but the Steelers turned his name in on a card.
  • BONUS #2: Ed O’Neill (UDFA, 1969) — A free agent cut in Chuck Noll’s first training camp, O’Neill is better known as Al Bundy on Married... with Children. He was undrafted, so this is kind of cheating, but I love that the world’s most famous shoe salesman was legitimately a Steeler for a time. Unfortunately, despite scoring four touchdowns in one game for Polk High School, O’Neill couldn’t beat out other rookie defensive linemen Joe Greene or L.C. Greenwood.

Okay, stay tuned for more. Go Steelers.