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A History of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Draft, Part 5: Receivers

What wide receivers have the Steelers picked through the years?

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Houston Oilers, 1979 AFC Championship
Oh man, that’s a cool looking photonegative Terrible Towel. I wonder where to get one of those.
Set Number: X23041 TK1 R18 F31

And we’re back for part 4 of this tour through the Pittsburgh Steelers draft history. Previous parts can be found here:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: What colleges do the Steelers prefer?
Part 3: What colleges did Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin prefer?
Part 4: Positions by coach — backfield

In this edition, let’s look at pass receivers — what they used to just simply call “ends” in the official rolls. I’ve grouped all pass catchers for this essay — “ends,” wide receivers, tight ends, and any other older position designation (like “flanker”) that lined up on the outside and caught the ball.

Pass Catchers

Elbie Nickel wonders how much easier this position would be if he could wear modern gloves. Also facemasks.

The Steelers have drafted 255 ends, wide receivers and tight ends over the years. Only two first rounders were spent on pass catchers before the Chuck Noll years — forgettable 1940s men Hub Bechtol (#5 overall, 1947) and Dan Edwards (#9, 1948). Bechtol is the highest selection the Steelers ever made on the outside. Neither of these guys ever played a single snap for the Steelers.

Honestly, there’s precious little to say about the ends before Noll was hired. There were a handful of impressive WRs that played in black-and-gold from 1936-69, but a number of them can’t count. For example, Jimmy Orr was drafted by the LA Rams in 1957’s 25th round, didn’t make the team, and then signed with the Steelers the next year before embarking on one of the more underappreciated careers of his era. So he’s out (not drafted here). Orr was ultimately surpassed by Buddy Dial, who was drafted by the NY Giants in the 2nd round in 1959, but somehow didn’t catch on there either, before a Pro Bowl career in Pittsburgh. Again, not a Steeler draftee.

That leaves Elbie Nickel (17th round, 1947) as the top pre-Chuck Noll pass catcher who was actually drafted by the Rooneys. Nickel was a three-time Pro Bowler who still ranks seventh in team history in catches and yards, despite retiring 65 years ago. Challenging Nickel for that title is Roy Jefferson (2nd round, 18th overall, 1965 draft), who deserves some affection for choosing Pittsburgh over the Denver Broncos, where he was also drafted in the AFL’s second round. Jefferson was a two time Pro Bowler in Pittsburgh, leading the NFL in receiving yards in 1968 and being named All Pro in 1969. He and Noll had some fundamental disagreements and Noll traded him to the Colts in 1970 in a win/win trade — Jefferson got a ring in Super Bowl V; the Steelers got the draft choice that became Dwight White.

I’ll give an additional hat tip to flanker Gary Ballman (8th round, 1962), who also spurned Denver for the Steelers, and went to two 1960s Pro Bowls in five years, and to Ray Matthews (7th round, 1951), who went to two Pro Bowls himself in the 50s, playing four different positions — “right end,” “flanker,” “left halfback,” and “wingback.” (Why don’t we use some of these terms anymore? “Wingback” is an awesome position.)

In any case, that’s not a terrible haul. But then again, this is the bulk of the pass catchers drafted over 33 years. So it’s not terrific either. Things would change in the modern era though.

Chuck Noll and WRs

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers
All Star Louis Lipps demonstrates “unnecessary jumping” for the Denver Broncos. Good teacher, that guy.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Of those 255 drafted wideouts/tight ends, 79 were chosen by Chuck Noll, including five first round picks (and a remarkable 17 from the first three rounds of the draft).

If Noll had a mixed hand at drafting throwers with high picks, he was a little better with the catchers, as his six highest choices all had respectable (or great) careers. His highest choice spent on a receiver was 8th overall in 1971, when Noll and company chose Grambling WR Frank Lewis. Other first round standouts from these years include NFL Rookie of the Year and later Comeback Player of the Year Louis Lipps (1984), Pro Bowler Eric Green (1990), the best tight end in team history not named Heath Miller, and my choice for Noll’s best WR draft choice of all 1974’s first rounder, Lynn Swann. (Though a case can be made for 1974 fourth rounder John Stallworth too. I’m not looking to take sides. They were both awesome.)

Not every pick was a home run, though. Noll’s worst WR draft choice is probably 1983 second rounder Wayne Capers (who?), though a case can be made for 1984 second round tight end Chris Kolodziejski (who?). Keep in mind that Lipps was chosen between those two picks. Scouting is strange.

Ultimately Noll spent 36 draft picks on WRs in rounds that no longer exist (8 through 17), so perhaps it’s fair to expect little from those players. However, there is one highlight that stings from the middle rounds: 1986 fifth round tight end Brent Jones, who you might remember from his 11 year career with the San Francisco 49ers, which included four Pro Bowls and three Super Bowl rings. Seems like he might have been useful to hang onto.

Bill Cowher and WRs

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowh
Fun Fact: Only eight WRs have ever been Super Bowl MVP. Three of them are Steelers.
Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

If we discovered in the previous essay that Coach Chin didn’t draft running backs (his highest draft choice spent on a runner being a late 3rd rounder), he certainly didn’t have that hang-up about pass catchers. In his 15 year career, Cowher drafted 26 “ends,” including a whopping SIX first rounders (four WRs, two TEs). These add up to the most frequent first round position group of Cowher’s tenure.

His highest draft choice at wideout is #8 overall, 2000 first rounder Plaxico Burress — tied with Frank Lewis for the 2nd highest WR pick in Steelers history. Burress wasn’t Randy Moss, like some expected, but he was very good; if he’d had stayed in town, he may very well qualify as Cowher’s best WR choice, but unfortunately Plex’s Super Bowl winning catch came as a New York Giant in 2007. That said, two of his other first round picks scored Steelers touchdowns in the big game, 2005 top pick, Heath Miller, and 2006 first rounder Santonio Holmes (who took home the MVP in SB43, after catching a slightly higher degree of difficulty game winner one year after Burress).

And yet, none of them are the best WR draftee of Cowher’s career. That distinction belongs to Hines Ward (3rd round, 1998), who set every career receiving record in town, earned two rings and a Super Bowl MVP, and joined Mel Blount among Steelers with rules named after them. But more importantly, Ward did it when he certainly wasn’t expected to. Not only was Hines a third round possession receiver (hardly tagged as a future star), but after drafting him in 1998, the Steelers spent their next two first round draft choices on wide receivers. (Talk about showing no faith in the young talent...)

One of those #1 picks was Burress, who wasn’t half bad. The other was undoubtedly Cowher’s worst draft choice among pass catchers, 1999’s 13th overall selection, Troy Edwards. Edwards led the team in receiving in his rookie season, then just kind of faded, starting only seven games in three seasons, and leaving Pittsburgh by 2002.

Mike Tomlin and WRs

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Remember how much fun it was to root for Antonio Brown, before he became a mush-headed lunatic?

And here we are again, with a surprise: the Mike Tomlin-era Steelers have a well-earned reputation for being perhaps the best team in football for finding and developing wide receivers. Well, that’s a good thing, because they have never chosen a WR or TE in the first round since Tomlin took the job in 2007. Not one. They’ve taken 24 pass catchers over the years, but zero at the top.

The highest selection the Steelers have spent on a wideout came in 2020, when they chose Chase Claypool at #49 overall. That makes Claypool one of 12 pass catchers taken in rounds two and three over the last 14 years, with an impressive nine of those 12 going on to respectable careers (10 out of 13 if you stretch the list out to include the only 4th rounder of the era, 2014’s Martavis Bryant). That’s a crazy run.

And yet, the top pass catcher drafted in the Tomlin years was not taken in those top four rounds. The best, as we all know, was a sixth round pick from Central Michigan named Antonio Brown, who spent several years on such an unprecedented pace he was in discussion for NFL MVP more than once, and was beginning to be discussed alongside receivers like Jerry Rice (who personally called AB his favorite active player). Then, um, something changed. Whether Brown’s subsequent self-immolation was caused by Vontaze Burfict’s dirty play in the 2015 postseason or Brown’s own latent psychosis (kept under control by Tomlin and company for the better part of a decade) Tony Toe-Tap eventually hissy-fitted his way out of town in 2019 (and three other squads over the ensuing two years), and has essentially flailed his way out of the league as of this writing.

With all these stars, it might be tempting to assume that there’s never been a dud in these years. But that would be a mistake. Almost as big a mistake as many of us made when we believed that 2008 second round choice Limas Sweed would be an all-time great back in the day. Can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Confession: I’ll take literally any opportunity to re-post this photo. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Will this be the year that the Steelers go wide receiver in round 1, for the first time since Cowher was in charge? With the departures of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud, it seems like it might. (Is there anyone in the draft who’s name just repeats itself twice? The Steelers suddenly appear to have a shortage of those guys...) I like some of the high end guys in this year’s draft class, but if Mike Tomlin’s history is any guide, we should be looking pass catchers in the second and third rounds. And we should probably be expecting big things from them.

Let’s talk about the big uglies in the trenches. See you in the next installment...