Welcome to part 4 of this tour through the Pittsburgh Steelers draft history. Previously in this series, we looked at the general history of Steelers drafts, as well as a breakdown of what schools the team has tended to pull from over the years.
From here, I thought it might be interesting (or, dare I say, useful) to look at what positions the Steelers have favored through the years, with particular interest in the strategies employed by Chuck Noll (from 1969 to 1991), Bill Cowher (1992 to 2006), and Mike Tomlin (2007 to the present). This is interesting trivia, but it also might help separate our sense of “how the Steelers work” from the actual history of how they work. And at the very least, it’s a walk down memory lane, even if some of these are memories none of us actually have...
Let’s start with the offensive backfield:
The Steelers have drafted 48 quarterbacks over the 86 years of NFL drafts, with 24 of them coming since Chuck Noll was hired. Only five of those 48 have been first round picks, with the highest investment being a #1 overall choice from Louisiana Tech that you may have heard of, Terry Bradshaw (1970). Two other top-10 picks were QBs, both at #5 overall, and both before Noll was hired (Ted Marchibroda 1953 and Len Dawson 1957). In fact, in the the 33 stone age drafts (i.e. pre-Noll), the Steelers only drafted six quarterbacks in the first 10 rounds.
Fun Fact: the only 9th round quarterback in Steelers history was a man we discussed in previous entries: Johnny Unitas (1955), who, despite being possibly the greatest quarterback in NFL history, wasn’t “smart enough” to play for Walt Keisling. But you may not know that the only 10th round QB this team ever selected was Bill Nelson (1963), who did nothing in Pittsburgh for five years, before quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns to NFL championship games in both 1968 and 1969. You know, as if knowing the team had discarded Len Dawson wasn’t depressing enough.
Chuck Noll and QBs
Of the 24 quarterbacks the Steelers drafted in the last 53 seasons, Noll was responsible for 11 of them, with six of these choices coming in the first three rounds (two first rounders) — though these were a mixed bag. Noll’s highest choice was also his best, Bradshaw — the real TB12, one of only five players to win NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season, and still the only QB to lead his team to back-to-back Super Bowl wins twice. (I know we all know those things, but Bradshaw is rarely given his due; he had a hell of a career.)
Noll’s worst choice was his other first rounder, Mark Malone (1980), who just never turned the corner as a starter. Still, it would be wrong to single out Malone as a dud; quarterbacks were a dart-throw for a long time in these parts. For every Joe Gilliam (11th round/1972), Bubby Brister (3rd/1986) or Neil O’Donnell (3rd/1990), that you might have fond memories of, there was also a Terry Hanratty (2nd/1969), Cliff Stoudt (5th/1977), or Scott Campbell (7th/1984), that you probably don’t.
Bill Cowher and QBs
The Chin drafted nine field generals in his 15 years at the helm. Most of Cowher’s choices came in the later rounds — with seven of his nine landing in rounds 5 through 12. Cowher and Kevin Colbert’s only first round QB was by far their best — 2004’s Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall). Were it not for Big Ben, Cowher’s best QB choice would likely have been his only second round pick (chosen in collaboration with Tom Donahoe), 1995 pick Kordell Stewart.
Many of Cowher’s other choices amounted to little or nothing, but his worst choice undoubtedly has to be Tee Martin (5th round, 2000), not because a 5th round pick has much expectation on him, but because Martin was chosen ahead of future Pro Bowler Mark Bulger, and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
Mike Tomlin and QBs
Tomlin has had a very different relationship to the quarterback position than his predecessors. Inheriting a future HOFer at 25, Tomlin has never had to draft a signal caller high in the cycle. Moreover, he preferred veteran backups early in his coaching career, with Charlie Batch already on the roster, and other vets like Byron Leftwich, Bruce Gradkowski, and Michael Vick coming via free agency.
As such, Tomlin has only drafted four quarterbacks in his 14 years at the helm. The highest choice is probably the best one, 2018 third round choice Mason Rudolph, who carries a 5-4-1 starting record. There isn’t really a “bad” choice among the rest, since neither Landry Jones (4th/2013), nor Josh Dobbs (4th/2017), nor Dennis Dixon (5th/2008) really came with much expectation. All that could change this season. Stay tuned.
The Steelers have drafted running backs at a MUCH higher rate than passers, though at a certain point in history “running back” and “quarterback” start to blur. In any case, the team committed to 299 “backs” in history, including 21 first rounders (48 over the first three rounds). In fact, 16 runners have been chosen in the top 10 — all but one coming before Chuck Noll was hired. All total, of those 299 total running backs, 236 of them were drafted before Noll’s administration. Football was a different game back in the day.
The highest choice Pittsburgh has ever invested in a runner was #1 overall, when they spent 1942’s first overall draft choice on future Hall of Famer Bullet Bill Dudley — one of the great and unsung players in the early years of the sport. Other top 10s worth noting:
1936: first round (#3 overall, and the Steelers first draft choice in team history), Bill Shakespeare. Seriously.
1938: first round (#4 overall), future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White.
1942: first round (#1 overall), future Hall of Famer “Bullet” Bill Dudley, two time NFL rushing leader, NFL MVP in 1946.
1950: first round (#8 overall), Lynn Chandnois, still the best kick returner in Steelers history.
1953: second round (#18 overall), Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, who retired as #4 all time NFL rusher.
1954: first round (#7 overall), Johnny Lattner, Robert Spillane’s grandfather.
1961: seventh round (#90 overall), Dick Hoak, who stuck around, coaching running backs for the Steelers until 2006.
Chuck Noll and Running Backs
Emperor Chaz drafted 40 running backs over his 23 years at the top. Interestingly, only seven of those guys were chosen in the top three rounds of the draft. And those guys were surprisingly unremarkable. Noll’s highest choice spent on a runner came in 1989, when he spent the #7 overall choice on “The Jim Brown of the South,” Tim Worley. Worley led the team in rushing as a rookie, as the upstart Steelers made a shocking playoff run, but the former Georgia Bulldog had already been passed on the depth chart by 1987 10th round choice, Merril Hoge. Worley had drug problems over the next few years and retired without ever cracking 1,000 yards in a season.
Noll’s best backfield draft choice has to be his 1972 first round choice (#13), spent on Penn State fullback Franco Harris. The Steelers had never qualified for the playoffs in their team history before drafting Franco (only playing one post-season game — an unscheduled tie-breaker in 1947, which they lost 21-0). After drafting Franco, they went to the dance eight straight years, and took home four titles. That’s a pretty good run, even if he hadn’t scored the first postseason touchdown in team history on the greatest play in the history of the sport. Which, of course, he did.
Noll’s worst runner choice could be Worley, given his lofty expectations. Cases can also be made for second rounder Warren Bankston (1969) or third rounder Steve Davis (1971), who left practically no mark on team history at all. But I’m going to go with Greg Hawthorne, the #1 draft choice in 1979 (#28), who finished his career with fewer than 600 career yards on the ground. Woof.
Cowher and Running Backs
Despite Bill Cowher’s reputation as a run-first coach, he was not a big believer in drafting running backs, with only 13 total choices over 15 drafts, and none in the first two rounds. Inheriting Barry Foster (a Noll 5th rounder from 1990) and then trading for Jerome Bettis in 1996, played a roll in this, but I’m genuinely surprised at the lack of high picks Cowher made on rushers. His highest choice is #91, a third round pick, from his third draft, 1994: Byron “Bam” Morris.
Several of the other runners Cowher picked had respectable careers — such as Amos Zereoue (3rd/1999) or Verron Haynes (5th/2002) — but Morris (who paced the team for a couple of years, and outplayed Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX) was almost certainly the best choice Cowher ever made at the position. His worst pick is tougher to tease out. Five of his 13 choices came in the 7th round, and a sixth came in round 10 (which doesn’t even exist anymore). So you can’t put too much weight on those guys. I’ll say 1998 4th rounder Carlos King, who I don’t remember at all (even though I remember well a 6th rounder from that same draft, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala).
Tomlin and Running Backs
Mike Tomlin has turned in even fewer draft cards for running backs than his predecessor, however, he’s gotten a little more out of them, per capita. Of his 10 RB picks, four have come in the draft’s first three rounds (two in round one), and all four of those had very good stretches in Pittsburgh.
The highest RB choice during the Tomlin years was #23 in 2008, with two-time 1,000+ rusher Rashard Mendenhall coming one spot earlier than last year’s first round choice, Najee Harris, who came at #24. Mendenhall was better than a lot of people remember, and Najee sure has the look of a rising star. But Tomlin’s best pick has to be his lone second rounder, two-time All Pro Le’Veon Bell (2013), who was in the middle of an historic career (averaging a blistering 128.9 scrimmage yards per game when he left the Steelers — the most in NFL history for anyone with 50+ games played) before he lost his mind and ruined his career over money.
The other runner Tomlin chose in the top 3 rounds was James Conner, who gathered a Pro Bowl in 2018 before moving on to greener pastures. So all of these are legit success stories. Who, then qualifies as “worst”? Maybe Anthony McFarland (4th/2020), who’s logged 43 career touches in two seasons. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong on this in 2022, but for now he’s my choice, with a hat-tip to 5th rounders Frank “the Tank” Summers (2009) and Chris Rainey (2012), both of whom were exciting on draft day, but combined for 40 touches in Pittsburgh themselves.
What has this added up to? I’m not sure. Possibly a sense of strategy that we didn’t expect? I was surprised, for example, to see how seldom Cowher invested draft capital in the backfield, especially since Tomlin (who has not coached a run-first team) went to ball-carriers in the lower rounds so much more. Surprised also to see Chuck Noll throwing darts at quarterbacks over and over. And a little dizzy after reliving the ugly years between Bradshaw and Ben. (Also, my goodness, the utter lack of QBs before Noll.)
In any case, I don’t expect another high pick on a rusher. And if the Steelers look at QB in 2022, it will be breaking new ground for Mike Tomlin. We can only hope that he’ll get his diamond too, like Noll and Cowher did (alongside their lumps of coal).
Pass catchers are next — wideouts and tight ends. Stay tuned.