And we’re back for part 7 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
Part 7: Positions by coach — defensive line
In this edition, the linebackers. Just like defensive linemen, linebackers are hard to discern in the early years because two-way players are often listed only for their offensive roll. Moreover, the Steelers sometimes played with five man fronts in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Linebackers truly backed the line — the linemen were the stars. 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).
The earliest Steelers draftee listed at “linebacker” came in 1949, and the team drafted all of 17 before Chuck Noll; 98 since then. This is a reflection of the game changing, I think, more than anything else.
There are a few notable names among that early 17. The highest selection of those years was #19 overall, a second round pick in 1961 named Myron “Mo” Pottios. Pottios was a Pro Bowler in three of his first four years, but the one year he missed was instructive: he missed the whole 1962 season for injury, along with half of 1964 and 1965. The Steelers sent him to Washington by 1966, when they’d replaced him with probably their best pre-Noll linebacker choice: Andy Russell (16th round/1963). Russell also missed a whole season (1964) for military service, but came back to make a Pro Bowl on a horrible 1968 Steelers team. Then Noll was hired, and all the sudden the old man was one of he league’s best, making six straight Pro Bowls, from 1970 to 1975. He collected two rings in town and started 12 games on the greatest defense ever assembled, the 1976 Steelers.
Chuck Noll and the Linebackers
The Emperor drafted 54 linebackers in his 23 years at the helm. Most of these players came in the middle rounds of the draft, as 32 picks from rounds 5 through 10 were ‘backers, and only seven in rounds 1 through 3.
Noll’s highest draft choice on a linebacker is undoubtedly his worst, 1991 first round selection (15th overall) Huey Richardson — who dressed for five games as a rookie, recording zero stats, and then found himself out of Pittsburgh altogether. Yikes. Four of the remaining high picks were success stories, including 1977 first rounder Robin Cole, who started Super Bowls XIII and XIV, and Mike Merriweather, a three-time Pro Bowler who held the team sack record for 23 years (before pulling a LeVeon Bell, sitting out a whole season to find his way out of town, and never playing well again).
Of course, we know the real highlight of the highly picked linebackers were two second Jacks, 1971’s Jack Ham and 1974’s Jack Lambert, who combined with Russell to form arguably the greatest linebacking corps in NFL history. Collectively, the trio accounted for 24 Pro Bowls, 12 All Pro selections, three team of the decade selections (Ham and Lambert 1970s, Lambert also in the 1980s), one AP Defensive Rookie of the year award (Lambert 1974), three Defensive Player of the Year awards (Lambert AP 1976, UPI 1976, 1979), one Alan Page Community Award (Russell 1972), four NFL 75th Anniversary and 100th Anniversary selections (Ham and Lambert were on both teams), two Hall of Fame busts (Ham and Lambert), and ten — seriously TEN — Super Bowl rings. Imagine lining those guys up year in and year out, especially with Ham and Lambert getting nine seasons together. Goodness.
Coach Noll deserves a shout-out for his numerous mid-round gems before we move on, including: Loren Toews (8th/1973), Bryan Hinkle (6th/1981), David Little (7th/1981), Hardy Nickerson (5th round/1987), Greg Lloyd (6th/1987). Man, I didn’t realize Hinkle and Little both came in 1981, or that Nickerson and Lloyd both came in 1987 (same draft as Rod Woodson, Delton Hall, Thomas Everett, and Merrill Hoge). If the Steelers could have hung on to Nickerson and Everett, and if Lloyd could have stayed a little healthier, this would be one of the great drafts of all time. When Noll and company hit it in the draft, they really hit it.
Bill Cowher and the Linebackers
Coach Chin may have played linebacker once upon a time, but he didn’t draft that many on his watch. The Steelers picked up 20 ‘backers in Cowher’s 15 years at the helm, including a big ZERO in the first round. That’s a shock to me.
The highest three choices of Cowher’s career were all home runs. The highest was Levon Kirkland (2nd round, 1992 — pick #38), where the next two would have been Kendrell Bell (2nd/2001 — #39) and Chad Brown (2nd/1993 — #44). All three picked up Pro Bowl nods in black and gold, with Kirkland and Brown also being named All Pro on the outstanding mid-90s Steelers Blitzburg defenses. (Add in Lloyd and free agent Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and you have another of the best linebacking corps in league history.) Meanwhile, Bell might have been the best of the bunch if he could have stayed healthy. His transcendent Defensive Rookie of the Year season in 2001 featured a ridiculous 23 tackles for loss.
That said, Cowher’s best draft choice spent on a linebacker is (in my opinion) a 1999 third rounder from Colorado State named Joseph Eugene Porter. Peezy was the emotional leader of the Steelers defense for a decade, leading the team to the Super Bowl in 2005. Along the way, he collected three Pro Bowls and a first team All Pro nod in 2002, ultimately being named to the NFL’s team of the decade for the 2000s. Nod bad for the 73rd overall choice.
Cowher’s worst linebacker choice is undoubtedly his fourth 2nd round choice (alongside Kirkland, Brown, and Bell): 2003’s #59 overall choice, Alonzo Jackson from Florida State. Jackson stuck around for two and a half years, logging nine games (zero starts) and no sacks. Uf.
Other noteworthy Cowher linebackers: Jason Gilden (3rd/1994), Earl Holmes (4th/1996), Mike Vrabel (3rd/1997), Clark Haggans (5th/2000), and Larry Foote (4th/2002). And of course, the best of the bunch was the guy Cowher didn’t draft: a 2002 UDFA from Jack Lambert’s alma mater, Kent State, named James Harrison. But this isn’t about UDFAs, so wipe that one off the list.
Mike Tomlin and the Linebackers
Inasmuch as Cowher didn’t choose linebackers, Mike Tomlin loves them. In 14 drafts, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have chosen ‘backers six times, nearly half of the time, and we can add two more second rounders. Tomlin has drafted 24 linebackers overall.
Tomlin’s highest selection is the highest linebacker selection in team history: #10 overall in 2019, current work-in-progress Devin Bush. A lot of fans are down on Bush after his middling 2021 season, but he looked like the real thing as an All Rookie selection two years ago. Torn ACL is a rough injury for an athletic, sideline-to-sideline sprinter; we’ll know a lot more about Bush after this upcoming season.
Coach T’s best linebacker selection will come as no surprise: 2017 first rounder (#30 overall) three time All Pro and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, already one of the most dominant players ever to play in this town. If it’s possible for so highly decorated a player to be underrated, T.J. is it — after being passed over twice on DPOY in 2019 and 2020, and with a legitimate case for NFL MVP in 2021. But 29 other NFL teams know they should have dialed up his number five years ago.
Tomlin’s worst linebacker selection is his only first or second round choice who never delivered at all: 2013’s #17 overall pick Jarvis Jones from Georgia. (With all these superstars coming out of Georgia this year, it looks weird to me to even associate Jarvis with that school...) The Steelers reached on Jones after 2010 pick Jason Worilds hadn’t risen to the job, and Harrison had been released in a contract dispute. In four years, Jones started 35 games but picked up all of 6.0 sacks. As a Steelers OLB, that’s rough. Meanwhile, Worilds caught lightning in Jones’ first two years, picking up 15.5 sacks over 2013 and 2014, before shockingly retiring to focus on his faith, shoving Jones right back onto the field. What a mess.
That said the rest of the high picked Steelers linebackers of the Tomlin years have been rock stars: Lawrence Timmons (1st round/2007, #15 overall), Lamarr Woodley (2nd/2007, #46), Ryan Shazier (1st/2014, #15), and Bud Dupree (1st/2015, #22). Timmons and Woodley, Tomlin’s first two overall draft choices as coach, combined with Harrison and veteran FA James Farrior to create (yet AGAIN!) one of the all time great linebacking corps in the game. Frankly, if Shazier hadn’t been tragically (and terrifyingly) injured in 2017, we might be talking about yet another all time squad — imagine Shazier lining up beside Myles Jack on the inside, with Watt and Dupree (or Alex Highsmith) outside. Man.
In any case, Tomlin has chosen linebackers in the sixth round eight times, including one of the best value choices around, 2013’s Vince Williams. If you were betting, you’d be on firm ground imagining a Tomlin led Steelers office taking ‘backers in both the first and sixth rounds — a double-down they’ve pulled four times: 2013 (Jones/Williams), 2014 (Shazier/Jordan Zumwalt), 2015 (Dupree/Anthony Chickillo), and 2019 (Bush/Ulysses Gilbert and Sutton Smith).
What does this add up to? Well, the Steelers are masterful at picking linebackers. All four of the Steelers eras have featured all stars, and while linebacker isn’t necessarily a high urgency need in 2022, if the Steelers grab a ‘backer, the odds favor it being a good one.
Next up: Secondary (and a note about special teams). Then, I don’t know, maybe it’ll be time to actually draft some players. Onward...