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A History of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Draft, Part 7: Defensive Line

Let’s talk defense!

Steelers Steel Curtain Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

And we’re back for part 6 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
Part 5: Positions by coach — pass catchers
Part 6: Positions by coach — offensive line

In this edition, we’re turning to defense. The early years of Steelers drafts are hard to gauge because players routinely went both ways in the 30s and 40s, so their listed “position” was often the one that accumulated stats — and that meant offense. So a running back who also played linebacker would be listed as “back.” And unless he registered takeaways, he sometimes wouldn’t even appear in the box score on defense.

That’s going to affect the discussion of the stone ages a bit, but it obviously won’t change the rules for the real focus of these articles — the decisions made by Chuck Noll (1969-91), Bill Cowher (1992-2006), and Mike Tomlin (2007-present).


Defensive Linemen

American Football Player Ernie Stautner
Look at how much fun Ernie Stautner is having, charging at the camera man with murderous intent
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

The Steelers have drafted 125 designated D-Linemen since one-way players became the norm. Only eight of these were first round choices, and none before the hiring of Chuck Noll. While some defensive linemen were legit players in the old days, the king of the era was 1950 second round DT Ernie Stautner, the first Steelers (and still one of only two) to have his number retired. In many ways, it’s hard to know what to make of these players, since the schemes were so different. For example, one talented defensive lineman from the 50s was Dale Dodrill, who was a four time Pro Bowler and one time All Pro at a position called “Middle Guard,” which appears to be the nose tackle on a five-man line (so there are still interior linemen beside you). That kind of formation affects everyone’s position (see next article: linebackers).

In any case, the D-Line became a different focal point immediately after Noll arrived.

Chuck Noll and Defensive Linemen

Joe Greene - Pittsburgh Steelers - File Photos
This is who, punk.

Chuck Noll’s first ever draft choice was also the highest pick ever spent by the Steelers on a defensive lineman: #4 overall in 1969, on North Texas DT Joe Greene. Appropriately, the Pittsburgh Press famously headlined an article the next day with: “Who’s Joe Greene?” No one asks that anymore, as Greene, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is generally regarded as the greatest draft choice in Steelers history, often thought of as the greatest player in Steelers history, and in many minds, has a claim as the greatest defensive lineman (or simply defensive player) in NFL history.

So let’s say he’s Noll’s best DL draft pick.

Noll drafted 52 other defensive linemen over the years, but most of his success came in later rounds, including the entire Steel Curtain front: Dwight White (4th round/1971), Ernie Holmes (8th/1971), and L.C. Greenwood (10th/1969).

Amazingly, most of Noll’s DL draft picks didn’t work out. Of his 13 draft picks on the line among rounds 1-3, only Greene and NT Gerald Williams (2nd/1986) became regular starters. It would be easy to name Gabe Rivera (1st/1983) as the worst pick, coming as he did with such fanfare (and in lieu of Dan Marino), but he looked good a month into his rookie year, and I can’t penalize a guy whose career ended on a car accident (though maybe I should; he was supposedly drunk driving). Instead, I’ll name Darryl Sims, (1st/1985), who was picked one spot earlier than Rivera overal (20th to 21st), and started zero games in a two year Steelers career.

Two other notable draftees: 1979 fifth rounder Dwaine Board, who (just like Brent Jones in the last edition) never played in Pittsburgh, but had a decade-long career in San Francisco, where he logged 61 sacks and gathered two rings. Also 1990 eighth rounder Karl Dunbar, who didn’t make the team but came back in 2018 to coach the defensive line, and has been here ever since.

Bill Cowher and Defensive Linemen

Hampton runs away from O’Dwyer
Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Bill Cowher chose 23 defensive linemen over his 15 drafts, but only five of those came in the opening three rounds, whereas 13 came in rounds 5-12 (rounds that would be “day 3” picks now, or in rounds that no longer exist).

Cowher’s highest choice was his only first round choice, Casey Hampton, 2001’s first round choice (#19 overall), who was named to five Pro Bowls and started three Super Bowls. (Now that I’ve typed that, why does no one ever talk about Big Snack for the HOF?) Surprisingly few of Cowher’s other linemen were more than rotational backups. For every Aaon Smith (4th/1999), there are a half-dozen Kendrick Clancys (3rd/2000), with his four starts in five years.

The best choice of the Chin’s career is either Hampton (the best overall lineman Cowher drafted) or 2002 seventh rounder Brett Keisel, who far exceeded expectations for the 242nd overall choice. For Bill’s worst choice, I’ll say 1998 second round DE Jeremy Staat (41st overall), who recorded 30 tackles and two starts in three years before the Steelers let him go.

Mike Tomlin and Defensive Linemen

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers
Please come back, Stephon.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

As many of us have noted in recent years, Mike Tomlin’s defenses seem to lean on their D-Linemen than the space-eaters of the Cowher years, who created double-teams and then let linebackers collect stats. That said, Tomlin’s front office have only drafted along the D-Line 16 times in 14 years, with just four picks in the drafts’ first three rounds. However, all four of them had respectable (or great) careers.

Continuing the trend of “highest pick = best pick,” Tomlin’s earliest choice along the line has been Cameron Heyward (1st/2011, 31st overall), a three time All Pro, coming off his fifth straight Pro Bowl at age 32. Three years later, the Steelers spent the only second round DL pick of Coach T’s career, snagging Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt, and two years after that, Tomlin’s only third rounder, Javon Hargrave of South Carolina. For a brief moment, that was the NFL’s best line, bar none (before Hargrave found deeper pockets in Philly). The only other low-round lineman of Tomlin’s career was 2009 first rounder (32nd overall), Evander “Ziggy” Hood. Hood was a bit of a disappointment — he was probably miscast as a 3-4 end — but was a better player than many remember, collecting multiple postseason sacks in the 2010 Super Bowl run and starting 46 games in his last four years in town.

Hard to pick a “worst,” since most of Tomlin’s remaining draftees were lower round guys. But I’ll say Alameda Ta’amu (4th/2012) because the Washington DT came with some real promise, and delivered essentially nothing. Ta’amu spent his rookie season on the practice squad, then failed to make the final cuts in year 2, retiring after only two seasons (three starts) in Arizona.

NFL: DEC 25 Ravens at Steelers
Man, the Steelers TOWER over the Ravens front line.
Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Will the Steelers draft a DL this year? If Jordan Davis slips to #20, I’d be stoked. But with 2021 fifth rounder Isaiahh Loudermilk already on the roster (and starting to get the pro game) the Steelers might not feel the urgency. Just like last year, it all depends on Stephon Tuitt. We’ll see...

Linebackers are next. See you there —