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A History of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Draft, Part 9: Defensive Backs

Should the Steelers draft a DB? How has it gone in the past?

2011 AFC Championship: New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
Fact: Ike Taylor’s favorite game is peek-a-boo. This was why he was always waving his hand in front of his face after making a play.
Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

And we’re back for the final part 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
Part 8: Positions by coach — linebackers

In this closedown edition, defensive backs. Just like rest of the defense, the secondary is hard to discern in the early years because two-way players are often listed only for their offensive roll. Moreover, the passing game is so much more developed in today’s NFL, which makes the defensive backfield more complicated. Old-time corners and safeties got more interceptions because they could play more physically, and because quarterbacks were less precise. But then again, teams passed 15-20 times per game, instead of 35-40, so coverage players didn’t DO as much.

Good news: what we’re most interested in here are decisions made by Chuck Noll (1969-91), Bill Cowher (1992-2006), and Mike Tomlin (2007-present). Let’s get to them.


Defensive Backs

I think I see the problem, Gary: when you get an interception, DON’T just pass the ball back. Run with it!

The stone-age Steelers drafted a total of 24 players who were listed as defensive backs, though two-way play means that a lot of excellent DBs were probably drafted as receivers or backs. Legendary Steeler (and a favorite of this author) “Bullet” Bill Dudley is a great example. Dudley was NFL MVP in 1946, after leading the NFL in rushing AND interceptions AND punt return average (also he was the team’s primary punter and passer). How do we want to categorize “the greatest 60 minute man”? I have no idea, but he’s listed as an offensive back. That happened plenty.

So how about those who were DBs first. Before Chuck Noll’s tenure began, the Steelers’ best defensive back was undrafted, Hall of Famer Jack Butler. So we can’t count him. Overall, the team drafted four first round DBs in the early years — though there were seven DBs who would be first rounders today (i.e. they were picked at #32 overall or earlier). The highest choice was #1 overall in 1956, Gary Glick, a “left defensive halfback” from Colorado State. Glick has to be the team’s all time worst defensive backfield draft choice, as he only lasted three seasons in town, snagging four interceptions, while also doing part-time work as kicker. It’s worth noting that Hall of Famers Lenny Moore, Forrest Gregg, and Sam Huff would be picked up later in this draft.

And just to put a little extra salt in the wound, the Steelers also had the #5 choice that year, by which time all three HOFers were still there. Instead Pittsburgh grabbed another DB, the team’s second highest all time choice, Art Davis from Mississippi State, who lasted one season, and recorded no defensive stats. Good lord.

In fairness, Bob Gage also came with a top-10 pick, #6 overall in 1949. While Gage also only played two seasons of football, he made the most of it, recording nine interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, as well as a remarkable 14.9 punt return average on 30 returns. He also managed to bust off a 97 yard run on the offense, still the Steelers team record. So it wasn’t all bad news. Too bad they couldn’t hang onto him.


Chuck Noll and the Secondary

Pittsburgh Steelers
I know Joe Green and Jack Lambert are the “scary” Steelers from the 70s, but man, I wouldn’t mess with Mel Blount either.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In his 23 years at the helm, Chuck Noll drafted 57 defensive backs, but only four in the first round (10 in the top three). That means most of the picks came in lower spots, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t diamonds in those drafts.

Noll’s highest choice was 10th overall, spent in 1987 on a safety from Purdue who Noll converted to cornerback because of his Olympic quality speed: a certain Rod Woodson. Woodson admittedly took a couple years to really get the CB position, but then went onto to be one of the greatest corners of all time — the only active player chosen for the NFL’s 75th anniversary team in 1994 (when he was less than 10 years into his 17 year career). Woodson retired, after six All Pro selections and one Defensive Player of the Year award, as the third all time interceptor in NFL history with the most interception return touchdowns of all time. So, you know, that’s got to be in the running for Noll’s best pick.

But I’m going for a 1970 third round pick from Southern University, Mel Blount. Woodson and Blount were both named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary and 100th anniversary teams, both were DPOY, both led the NFL in interceptions (Blount with a team record 11 picks in 1975), and both won titles (Blount, of course, won four in Pittsburgh, while Woodson won his with some purple team from Maryland). The reasons I’m going with Blount are (1) that he played his whole remarkable career in Pittsburgh, and (2) he was so physically, athletically, and intellectually overpowering that the NFL changed the rules to account for him. I know Blount wasn’t the only dominant defensive back of the era, but the modern “live ball” passing rules are generally thought of as “the Mel Blount” rules, and the game simply hasn’t been the same since. I can’t think of another time that the rules had to be changed because of one player’s dominance in any sport, except maybe the three-second rule in basketball, to give teams a fighting chance against Wilt Chamberlain.

That’s how good Mel Blount was. Oh, and after the rules kicked in, Blount made three more Pro Bowls, one first team All Pro, and two second team All Pro squads, and took home two more rings. In other words, he could beat you with an advantage, and he could beat you with a disadvantage. And he was a third rounder. Wow.

P.S. Shout out to another position switch from Noll’s later years, UCLA linebacker Carnell Lake, who Noll drafted in the 2nd round and made into a safety (then started him as a rookie!). Lake was a four time Pro Bowler and one time All Pro (at cornerback, no less) and only missed six games in ten years with the Steelers. And a quick hat-tip a couple of late round guys who ought to be remembered better still: Dwayne Woodruff (6th round, 1979) and Mike Wagner (11th round, 1971). I’d love to see a late pick this week with either of those guys’ careers.


Bill Cowher and the Secondary

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Tennessee Titans
I know this shot is hard to see, but it’s one of my all time favorite plays. Look up Polamalu’s 2009 season opener vs the Titans sometime. Absurd.
Set Number: X82894 TK1 R5 F3

Coach Cowher chose 21 defensive backs over the years, with three first round picks on the back end. Cowher’s highest selection is undoubtedly his best: #16 overall for USC strong safety Troy Polamalu. One of the most unique and game-changing players in the history of the game, Troy was a four time All Pro, two time champion, and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t need to tell most of you about Polamalu’s extraordinary career, but just to dot the I, it’s impossible to imagine the NFL changing rules to reduce his game-wrecking dominance because he did things you simply couldn’t take away. How could you legislate fingernail-off-the-turf interceptions or knowing the snap count better than the center? Troy was a singular player, and we were lucky to watch him here.

Cowher’s best round for drafting DBs wasn’t the first round, though, which included mixed-bag players Deon Figures (1993) and Chad Scott (1997). Instead, the fourth round was the Chin’s sweet spot — the only two fourth round DBs he drafted were Deshea Townsend (1998) and Ike Taylor (2003), the outside coverage men in Super Bowl XL, and part of the rotation in XLIII as well. (Taylor, of course, also started SB XLV.)

What’s Cowher’s worst draft pick in the secondary? Maybe Figures, who only lasted four years in town and was only a one-year starter, after occupying the 23rd overall slot in 1993. Also in the discussion: 2003 second rounder (#38 overall) Ricardo Colclough, who also lasted four seasons in town, logging zero starts and one interception. Yikes.


Mike Tomlin and the Secondary

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
William Gay may still be dancing after this pick 6 in 2015.
Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Coach Tomlin has a much spottier relationship with the defensive backfield. This is odd, since Tomlin has a pedigree as secondary coach for the legendary 2002 Buccaneers. Moreover, Tomlin’s Steelers have been so good at identifying talent at wide receiver (MT’s other position of specialty); it feels like they ought to be better at drafting corners and safeties. But they’re not.

Note: I say “drafting” instead of “developing” because Tomlin has actually been quite good at developing DBs he didn’t draft. Ike Taylor had famously been benched in Bill Cowher’s final year as coach; Tomlin re-inserted him into the lineup, coached him up, and got one of the better cover corners of the era. Ryan Clark was brought in to be a placeholder before 2006 draftee (and psycho) Anthony Smith was ready to take over; Tomlin jettisoned Smith, kept Clark, and got nearly a decade of team leadership out of him. Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick were talented guys who have had Pro Bowls (and in Minkah’s case, All Pro selections) in this defense. Steven Nelson and Ahkello Witherspoon looked good in Pittsburgh too. And then there’s UDFA slot man Mike Hilton, who shined in Pittsburgh, but (obviously) wasn’t drafted here.

It’s baffling. But it’s definitely real. Tomlin has drafted 23 defensive backs over the years, with 13 of those in the first four rounds. The best of that bunch, by a HUGE margin, is Terrell Edmunds (1st round, #28, 2018), who most believed was over-drafted. Edmunds wasn’t the highest selection, though; that distinction belongs to Artie Burns (1st round, #25, 2016), who wasn’t terrible as a rookie, but lost his wings by year three, lost his job by year four, and is now a rotational backup in some other city.

Some of this, I suppose is bad luck. You’d have been forgiven for optimism about Burns after one year, for example; no one could have predicted he’d regress. Same with Cortez Allen (4th/2011). Senquez Golson (2nd/2015) was a big-play stud in college, who was never healthy, so that’s not exactly a scouting issue either. And Keenan Lewis (3rd/2009) did eventually turn the corner, but took aggravatingly long to get there — making his big leap when it was too late for the Steelers to afford an extension.

But then there’s also Doran Grant (4th/2015) who got exactly three helmets in one season before his football career was over, Shamarko Thomas (4th/2013), who started two games in four years after the Steelers traded up to draft him, and Curtis Brown (3rd/2011), who lasted three years, recording zero starts, zero picks, and one pass defensed. Who was the worst DB draft choice of the era? Yes. These.

Tomlin’s best secondary pick is almost certainly 2007 fifth rounder William Gay, who started 86 games (plus seven more in the postseason) in a 10 year Steelers career. Gay only actually snagged 11 interceptions as a Steeler, but returned a staggering FIVE of them for touchdowns, including a league leading three in 2015 — the second highest total for single-season pick-6 returns in NFL history. Edmunds has been a stabilizing force at strong safety, and 2021 rookie Tre Norwood (7th/2021) looks promising, but Gay is my pick for the best of this time.

Thanks goodness free agency and trades can happen too. This secondary has been very good for the last couple years, but it certainly wasn’t draft-grown.


Pittsburgh Steelers
You may not realize this, but XFL head coach Rod Woodson once played for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

What did this all add up to? Well, if a no-lose prospect falls to the Steelers this year at #20 — someone like Kyle Hamilton or Sauce Gardner — I hope the Steelers take him. Mike Tomlin and company can certainly put talented DBs in position to succeed But if the team reaches for a defensive back in the first couple rounds, look out.

Then again, both Noll and Cowher traded into the 10s for their highest DB, and got Hall of Famers in the process (Woodson and Polamalu). If Kevin Colbert trades into the teens for a rock star, maybe lightning will strike a third time. Time will tell.


Summation

In the end, if you’re betting on the Steelers draft, the past can tell us some things, but certainly not everything.

The average first round pick under Chuck Noll was either a running back, a defensive lineman, or a DB (he took four of each in round 1); his average second rounder was another DL (five picks); and in the third round, a WR (five). What would that look like? Maybe Trent McDuffie in the first, Travis Jones in round two, and Romeo Doubs in the third? You could do worse, for sure.

The average first round pick under Bill Cowher was a WR (four picks); a linebacker in round 2 (four); an offensive tackle in round three (five). Treylon Burks or Chris Olave in round one, Chad Muma in round two, and maybe Bernard Raimann in round three? I suppose I’d take that too.

And the average first round pick under Mike Tomlin was a linebacker (six first rounders); and the average second and third rounders being WRs (four in the second, six in the third). Does that mean we can expect Devin Lloyd or Nakobe Dean in round one? Skyy Moore and John Metchie in rounds two and three? That doesn’t sound so bad either.

Whatever the case, the Steelers front office is FAR from perfect, but they hit more than they miss. We’ll see. The free agency period this year has been outstanding. Maybe the draft will be too. Go Steelers.