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The Steelers frequency in drafting defensive linemen

There are certain position groups the Steelers draft often, and defensive line is one of them.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise known for building their roster through the NFL draft. While much has been made over the Steelers ability and frequency in drafting wide receivers, there is at least one position group that the Steelers draft more often.

Before getting into it, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 26 wide receivers in the Kevin Colbert era (from 2000 to 2022). Most notably, the Steelers have only gone four drafts in that time where they did not select a wide receiver: 2003, 2004, 2011, and 2021.

On the most recent episode of The Steelers Preview podcast, I was tasked with coming up with a trivia question for Jeff Hartman and Bryan Anthony Davis like I do each week. Trying to stay on topic where we were discussing DeMarvin Leal as a 2022 draft selection as well as the retirement of Stephon Tuitt, I begin looking at the draft history of the Pittsburgh Steelers in regards to defensive lineman. To my surprise, the Steelers have gone less years in the Kevin Colbert era in which they did not select a defensive lineman than when they are compared to drafting wide receivers. The only draft since 2000 where the Pittsburgh Steelers have not taken a defensive lineman was in 2003, 2008, and 2017.

When it comes to determining if the Steelers drafted a defensive lineman, it can be quite tricky. Because the Pittsburgh Steelers run a 3–4 defense, when a player comes out of the draft as a defensive end, it can be confusing if they are a defensive lineman or outside linebacker. For example, players such as Isaiahh Loudermilk, Stephon Tuitt, and Cameron Heyward were listed as being drafted as defensive ends, but so were Anthony Chickillo, Jason Worilds, and Lamarr Woodley. While some of these players are easy to filter out as ultimately being outside linebackers with the Steelers, those drafted late and not having an extensive NFL career make it a little bit more difficult to lock down an exact number of how many defensive lineman have been drafted by the Steelers since 2000.

But when it comes to players selected towards the top of the draft, it’s much easier to distinguish. First, to define what I feel as the “top of the draft,” I look at it as players who, in the current NFL draft set up, would be taken on Day 1 or Day 2. What this means is that I look at any player drafted in the third round or higher as being considered taken towards the top of the draft. I also look at it this way because, unless it is a compensatory draft pick in the third round, these players are taken in the top 100.

When it comes to wide receivers taken in the Kevin Colbert era, 15 have been drafted in the first three rounds. But as for defensive lineman, the Steelers have not invested the capital at the top of the draft nearly as often as DeMarvin Leal made for the seventh defensive lineman taken in rounds one, two, or three since 2000.

The Steelers have selected three defensive lineman in the first round over the last 23 drafts with Casey Hampton in 2001, Ziggy Hood in 2009, and Cam Heyward in 2011. Stephon Tuitt was the only second-round defensive lineman drafted under Kevin Colbert. As for third-round selections, Kendrick Clancy was taken in 2000 with Javon Hargrave in 2016.

Even comparing the way the Steelers draft offensive linemen, they have invested more often in the defensive line through the draft despite being less positions to fill. The Steelers did not draft an offensive lineman in 2003, 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2022. Additionally, the Steelers have selected offensive lineman higher in the draft with 11 selections coming in the first three rounds.

While sometimes they are taken late and fly a little more under the radar, I was surprised to see how often the Steelers are investing in the defensive line through the NFL draft. With only three drafts in the last 23 years where one was not taken, it is definitely the position to Steelers addressed most frequently.