And we’re back for part 6 of this tour through the Pittsburgh Steelers draft history. Previous parts can be found here:
In this edition, let’s look at offensive linemen, the players who never get the accolades, but who ultimately decide most ballgames. We’ll take these by three positions — first centers, then guards, and finally tackles. That might be a little superfluous with the early years, where players moved around a little more, but it’ll make more sense with the recent few decades.
The Steelers have drafted 67 centers over the 86 years of NFL drafts. That seems reasonable, but it’s actually a bigger number than it appears: remember, they only chose 48 quarterbacks in that same time. Crazy. That said, only TWO centers have ever been picked in the first round, 1937’s Mike Basrak from the football powerhouse of Duquesne (taken 5th overall, the second first round pick in Steelers history, and the highest selection Pittsburgh ever used on a center), and 2010’s first rounder, a gentleman from Florida that you may remember: Maurkice Pouncey. Of course, when the draft was shorter, higher picks were in lower rounds. Pouncey was the 18th overall pick in 2010; Chet Gladchuk (center from Boston College) was the Steelers’ second round choice in 1941, but was only the 12th overall selection.
Center is also the position that features my favorite Steelers draft choice of all time: Roger Adams. If you read my earlier installments of this series, you may recognize that name. Adams was the team’s 4th round choice in 1945 out of Florida (somehow only selection #29 overall, which would make him a first rounder today). Why is he my favorite? Because he didn’t actually leave school that year, but returned to Florida for the next season. So the Steelers just picked him again the next year, spending a 24th round choice in the 1946 draft (#224). Same guy. And to top it all off, he never actually played a single snap of NFL football — not for the Steelers or for anyone else. I don’t care how many times I return to that sequence, it still blows my mind.
Chuck Noll and Centers
Of the 67 centers this team has drafted, only 19 have come since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969. The Emperor was responsible for 12 of those, including probably the two best centers in team history — Dermontti Dawson (2nd round, 1988) and Mike Webster (4th round, 1974). Hmm. Team history? These two both have legitimate cases for the best centers in NFL history.
Dawson, it turns out, was Noll’s highest selection on a center, coming as he did in the 44th slot. If I were gauging a “worst” draft choice Noll spent on a center, it’s probably the only other second rounder, 1976’s James Files, who came in at the 56th overall choice, and then never played a down of NFL football.
Bill Cowher and Centers
Bill Cowher inherited Dawson at age 27, on the cusp of seven consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, so he didn’t have to do much with this position for a while. When he moved on, free agent Jeff Hartings was the replacement. As such, Cowher only drafted four centers in 15 years, with the highest choice being 2001 fifth rounder Chukky Okobi. It’s hard to call any of his choices “good” or “bad”; most of them never really saw the field.
Mike Tomlin and Centers
Mike Tomlin had a rough couple of seasons of O-Line play early in his tenure as coach. In 2010, he invested in Pouncey with the aforementioned first round pick, and got a decade of All Pro play in the middle. That makes him, pretty obviously, the best center selection of Tomlin’s career.
Outside of Maurkice, Tomlin has only drafted two other centers at all. One was 2009 seventh rounder A.Q. Shipley, who never suited up for the Steelers, and has been a journeyman and spot starter (mostly on whatever team Bruce Arians is coaching). The other is 2021 third rounder Kendrick Green, who had a mixed rookie year last year, and may resurface as a guard when it’s all said and done.
The Steelers have drafted 118 guards over the years, but never committed a single first rounder on an OG until 1986. That’s amazing. 54 of those choices (nearly half) came in rounds 13 through 31 — draft rounds that haven’t existed since 1977. All but one of those choices came before Chuck Noll as well. In other words, the Steelers took a lot of late-round fliers on guards in the early years. If the game starts in the trenches, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that these guys were NOT great in their early iterations.
Chuck Noll and Guards
Of the 34 guards selected since 1969, Chuck Noll was responsible for 22 of them, including two first rounders. The earliest choice spent on a guard was the first first-rounder of team history, John Rienstra from Temple, taken at 9th overall. Rienstra also holds the title (for me) of worst draft choice spent on a guard. He lasted five years in Pittsburgh, and was only a primary starter one season. Noll’s other first rounder is probably the only other player in the discussion — Tom Ricketts, 1989’s 24th overall choice from Pitt. Ricketts only lasted three seasons with the Steelers and was never a primary starter. Ugh.
That said, Noll did find some gems in later rounds. 1971 fourth rounder Gerry Mullins (from USC) started four Super Bowls. Steve Courson (5th round, 1977) collected two rings as well. Craig Wolfley (5th round, 1980) might be the most famous of the bunch, as he has been one of the voices of Steelers radio for years.
But I’ll say that Noll’s best selection of a guard is 1989 12th rounder Carlton Haselrig, the only player in NFL history ever drafted from Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Haselrig, as we mentioned earlier in this series, didn’t even play college football, though he was a six-time NCAA champion wrestler. You can imagine the connection between grappling and playing on the offensive line, but this is a bold selection, even in the 12th round. Haselrig stuck around for four years, even making a Pro Bowl in 1992. If you’re going to whiff on Ricketts in round one of that draft, you might as well hit a deep shot with Haselrig in the 12th. That’s some kind of value.
Cowher and Guards
The Chin went for guards significantly less often than his predecessor, with only eight drafted over the years, including two first rounders. Cowher’s highest choice spent on a guard was also undoubtedly his best, 1998 first rounder (#26 overall), Alan Faneca from LSU. How good was Faneca? From 2001 to 2007, he was first team All Pro six out of seven years. The one year he wasn’t an All Pro at guard was 2003, when he had to take a position change to tackle, and still made the Pro Bowl. It took him a couple of years to make the Hall of Fame, but Faneca has a legitimate case for the best person to ever play the position.
Strangely, there aren’t a lot of other meaningful names at the position for Cowher. Kendall Simmons (1st round, 2002) was a good player, but diabetes swallowed a whole season for him, and probably kept him from reaching his potential. Later round choices Willie Colon (4th/2006) and Chris Kemoeatu (6th/2005) were mixed in their careers — good road graders who participated in getting Big Ben nearly killed for a few years in the mid-decade. Still, I don’t think I’ve got a “worst” pick for this position.
Tomlin and Guards
Mike Tomlin also only drafted a few guards in his career — five to be exact (*Ramon Foster was a UDFA, so he doesn’t count). Only once has Coach T gone for a guard in the opening round: 2012, when Stanford’s David DeCastro slipped to #24, and the Steelers snapped him up. DeCastro, of course, became one of the NFL’s best linemen of the era, and undoubtedly the greatest guard choice for Tomlin’s career.
Fun fact: neither Tomlin, Cowher, nor Noll ever used a second round pick on a guard. In fact, Tomlin’s next highest choice after DeCastro is 4th rounder Kevin Dotson from 2020, who looked excellent as a rookie and will hopefully come back up after a down year in 2021. No one else came higher than round 5. So again, there’s not really a “worst” pick.
177 offensive tackles have been drafted by the Steelers over the years, but only four in the first round. For a position so prized in today’s game, this is remarkable. In fact, only two of those picks came in the draft’s top 10, and both were long ago — 1955’s sixth overall pick Frank Varrichione from Notre Dame, a four-time Pro Bowler who never missed a start in six years as a Steeler; and 1968’s tenth overall pick Mike Taylor from USC, who started only 12 games in two years before Chuck Noll traded him away in the middle of his first year as coach. So the team was a touch schizophrenic when it came to offensive tackles...
Just like with the guards, the early Steelers took a lot of late-round fliers on tackles. 84 OTs were chosen between rounds 13 and 31, with only one Noll choice among them.
Chuck Noll and Tackles
In his 23 years at the helm, Chuck Noll drafted 28 offensive tackles, but never went for one in the opening round. His highest overall selection was 1976 second rounder (37th overall), Ray Pinney. Pinney started 81 games for the Steelers over the years, including Super Bowl XIII, but doesn’t qualify as the best tackle the Emperor drafted. In fact, Noll killed it with tackles for a number of years. Here’s a sampling from his first dozen drafts:
1969: John Kolb — 3rd round (56th overall), nine year starter, four rings, four Super Bowl starts
1971: Larry Brown — 5th round (106 overall), started Super Bowls IX and X at tight end, then started Super Bowl XIV at RT
1972: Gordon Gravelle — 2nd round (38th overall), started only two years in town, both of which ended in championships, Super Bowls IX and X
1976: Ray Pinney (see above)
1980: Tunch Ilkin — 6th round (165 overall), 143 games started, two Pro Bowl seasons
Ilkin is my choice as the best tackle of Noll’s career, since his success came with so little help behind him. 1982 2nd rounder John Meyer (who never played a down of NFL football, choosing a career writing pop songs about bodies and wonderlands instead) has got to be the worst. That said, there’s a lesson from Noll about getting value in the middle rounds. Can it still be done in the 2020s? Good question. It was true in the 70s for sure.
Cowher and Tackles
Bill Cowher chose 11 tackles in his 15 years, most of them coming in the top three rounds (eight overall, with five in the third round). Both of Cowher’s first round tackles were kind of underwhelming — 1992 first rounder (11th overall) Leon Searcy, the first draft choice of Cowher’s tenure, wasn’t bad, starting for a few years (including Super Bowl XXX), but then got plucked by the expansion Jaguars in 1996, where he got his only Pro Bowl nod. His replacement was 1996 first rounder Jamain Stephens (29th overall), who lasted two seasons in Pittsburgh and was never the primary starter. That has to be the worst tackle choice of Cowher’s career.
Cowher’s best tackle is a toss-up. 2000 second rounder Marvel Smith battled injuries but played well, collecting two Super Bowl rings and a 2004 Pro Bowl berth. 2004 third rounder Max Starks started two Super Bowls himself, one on each side of the line, and hosts a Steelers podcast with Wolfley. Call it a wash.
Tomlin and Tackles
Mike Tomlin has drafted only 10 tackles in his 14 years, and none in the first round, though he’s gotten several years out of free agents, such as Alejandro Villanueva or Flozell Adams. Tomlin’s highest choice is easily his worst, 2012 second rounder Mike Adams (56th overall), who simply never turned the corner in the pros.
Current starting tackles Chukwuma Okorafor (3rd/2018) and Dan Moore (4th/2021) both came via the draft, but neither are currently my choice for the best drafted tackle of the Tomlin years. That’s another toss-up between 2011 second rounder Marcus Gilbert and 2012 seventh rounder Kelvin Beachum. Gilbert was probably the better player, and lasted longer in town, but Beachum was never supposed to be starter, given his draft status. They both contributed to the much-improved line of the 2010s.
What can we discern from all this? One lesson might be that the Steelers are likely to grab a lineman or two this year, but unless it’s a generational talent (Pouncey, DeCastro) it’s probably not going to happen in the first round. And if it’s an offensive tackle prospect, maybe the Steelers should wait until round two. The last really good first round tackle came when Eisenhower was president.
Let’s talk defense. Coming soon...