As the 2022 NFL draft is a mere days away, there is a lot of speculation as to what the Pittsburgh Steelers will do throughout the entire process. Of course, nothing is more important than the Steelers first round draft pick. Missing on this selection is more costly than any other pick the Steelers will make in 2022.
When it comes to Steelers first round draft picks, there’s a wide variety of what fans believe should be their career path. While some believe every first-round selection the Steelers make should be on a path to Canton, others are satisfied if they simply end up being an All-Pro player. Of course, the minimum accolade a first-round draft pick should receive in most fans eyes is being a Pro Bowl selection.
So how realistic are these expectations? I decided to dive into the Steelers first-round picks since the NFL merger in 1970. In looking at those 52 selections, as the Steelers had one year with two first round picks (1989) and another year with zero (2020), I noted how many players ever made a Pro Bowl, were selected first-team All-Pro, or are inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here is how the numbers break down:
Steelers Round 1 Picks (1970-present)
Hall of Fame: 6 of 52 (11.5%)
All-Pro: 10 of 52 (19.2%)
Pro Bowl: 23 of 52 (44.2%)
Before getting into the other two categories, it should be noted that realistically the Hall of Fame category should not include the last 20 years. There are a number of players the Steelers selected who have a decent chance of landing in Canton such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward, and T.J. Watt to name a few.
The first number that jumps out is that more than half of the Steelers first-round draft picks since 1970 were never selected to the Pro Bowl. Of those 23 players who were Pro Bowlers, only 10 of them were selected first-team All-Pro. This accolade is much more difficult to do as Ben Roethlisberger ended his NFL career never making first-team All-Pro.
At first glance, Steelers fans might be disappointed with these numbers and think the Steelers have not been overly successful with their first-round draft picks. To help put these numbers in context, I looked at the first overall draft picks for the last 52 years to see how the Steelers compared to those selections.
NFL 1st overall Picks (1970-present)
Hall of Fame: 8 of 52 (15.4%)
All-Pro: 12 of 52 (23.1%)
Pro Bowl: 33 of 52 (63.5%)
Looking at the numbers, the Steelers are not far behind the first overall picks. Remember that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had only one first overall draft pick in this era which happened to come in the first year after the NFL merger with Terry Bradshaw. In these categories, Bradshaw fits into all three. But the Steelers have nearly as many Hall of Fame players from all their first-round draft picks regardless of where they were taken when compared to first overall draft picks. The Steelers also aren’t that far off in the All-Pro category as they are also two behind. When it comes to being selected to the Pro Bowl, the Steelers are a little bit farther behind, but remember these are first overall draft picks.
What if we expand the numbers a little bit further where they are still manageable? What about comparing the Steelers first-round draft picks to the top 10 draft picks since 1970?
NFL Top 10 Picks (1970-present)
Hall of Fame: 48 of 520 (9.2%)
All-Pro: 137 of 520 (26.3%)
Pro Bowl: 256 of 520 (50.8%)
When comparing these numbers to the Steelers first-round draft picks, the first obvious thing is that the Steelers have had a higher percentage of Hall of Fame players drafted in the first round. Keep in mind, only seven of the Steelers 52 first-round draft picks landed in the top 10. Yet looking at the first round as a whole, the Steelers have better numbers in the Hall of Fame than the league average for top 10 picks.
Another interesting number that jumps out is a higher percentage of All-Pro selections in top 10 picks versus the first overall picks. There’s actually a pretty good explanation for this. Of the 52 first overall picks since the NFL merger, exactly half of them, 26 to be precise, were quarterbacks. When it comes to All-Pro, only one quarterback is selected each season and it is extremely difficult to be that one player. Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman and John Elway were never selected first-team All-Pro. It is quite an elusive honor for the position.
To answer the question of why I did not look at all the first-round draft picks since 1970, sifting through the 520 selections of the top 10 was quite extensive and I was not prepared to nearly triple the number in order to do it again.
To bring it all together, the number of accolades by the Steelers first-round draft picks are fairly close to those of players selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft. For those fans who feel anything less than making the Pro Bowl for a first-round draft pick makes them a bust, then basically half of all top 10 draft picks since the NFL merger have been busts.
Whether or not you believe this to be true is completely up to you, but putting some numbers behind the context of expectations is usually helpful. Perhaps being a quality start for a few seasons would be good enough, regardless of making a Pro Bowl.