Welcome to round 2 of this “What If...?” series on Steelers draft history. Our preliminary edition took a quick spin through the Steelers famous drafts of 1969-74, drawing out how spectacularly the Steelers nailed the draft, but also noting how many misfires that legendary front office endured.
In this issue, where we’ll look at the first part of Bill Cowher’s drafting career, when he was teamed up with Tom Donahoe.
We’re looking at the drafts of the last 30 years, first noting Steelers needs at the time, then tracking the team’s first four rounds of picks, before noticing who they passed up on. This isn’t simply an exercise in “look at how bad the Steelers draft! They missed THIS GUY!” Rather I’m starting from the premise that the Steelers are a terrific front office. (They’ve been successful for essentially the entire last thirty years.) Instead, I’m interested in (a) what could have been, and (b) how an outstanding draft room is capable of decisions that look insane in retrospect.
That last part is a useful perspective as we all have immediate hot takes across the NFL draft.
We’re in 1993 and 1994 in this round — the first two drafts Bill Cowher conducted with Tom Donahoe when the pair were no longer rookies themselves. Okay, let’s go.
The Set Up:
When Bill Cowher took over in 1992, the Steelers had been a middling team for a number of years, but they were far from an empty cupboard. In his final few drafts, Chuck Noll had selected Hall of Famers like Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson, All Pros like Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Carnell Lake, and Gary Anderson, and short-term all stars like Eric Greene, Barry Foster, and Neil O’Donnell. They also had some aging cornerstones who’d held down the fort since the Super Bowl years, but who were on the way out — players like ILB David Little, OT Tunch Ilkin, and OLB Bryan Hinkle. Cowher lit a match in that powder keg, with his youthful energy and modern defensive schemes (his first defensive staff included Dom Capers, Dick Lebeau, and Marvin Lewis). But this was a team ready to burst.
There was one more element to remember when we talk about team needs, which hadn’t been true when Noll took over in 1969: free agency, which reached a quasi-contemporary form by Cowher’s second year (which happens to be the season we’re starting with below). I’m only interested in the draft (doing this same “what if” through free agency is just a little too much four-dimensional chess for this writer). But keep in mind, a good draft might not be an 8-10 year guarantee.
D-Line, CB2, WR, depth
Round 1: #23 CB Deion Figures
Round 2: #44 LB Chad Brown
Round 3: #76 WR Andre Hastings
Round 4: #108 DE Kevin Henry
Other notable picks:
#162 CB Willie Williams
#185 DT Jeff Zgonina
#216 QB Alex Van Pelt
Deion Figures was picked as heir apparent to D.J. Johnson, who started opposite Rod Woodson for four years, but would leave the following offseason. Johnson amassed ten takeaways in his two years with Cowher; Figures started only one season (1994) and recorded zero interceptions that year. This could have been a better pick.
There isn’t a superstar corner available at this spot, but perhaps the Steelers could afford to ignore CB until Willie Williams came around 139 picks later. Do that, and you’re in position to fill another need: defensive line. Pittsburgh picked two D-Linemen before the day was over, lunch-pail players Kevin Henry and Jeff Zgonina. But the Steelers could have rendered them unnecessary by skipping Figures and grabbing DL Dana Stubblefield (#26 San Francisco), who would be named Defensive Rookie of the Year this season, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year four years later. And amazingly, he might not have been the best DL available; early in round 2, the Giants grabbed an HBCU standout from Texas Southern named Michael Strahan. Cowher and Donahoe had pulled a coup in the 1993 offseason already, signing free agent OLB Kevin Greene to pair with All Pro Greg Lloyd as pass rush pincers. Imagine bringing Strahan or Stubblefield up in that Blitzburgh defense as well. Yikes.
Second round LB Chad Brown would eventually be named All Pro twice, starting for the Steelers at both inside and outside linebacker (before leaving for Seattle). He worked his way into the lineup as a rookie, filling out one of the strongest LB corps in NFL history (with Lloyd, Greene, and Levon Kirkland). I’m going to stick with this pick.
Round three, though, brought underachieving WR Andre Hastings at #76, most famous in Steelers lore for being one of two receivers who cut inside when Neil O’Donnell threw outside in Super Bowl XXX. If we drop Hastings back on the board, we narrowly miss a legend that Cowher would have loved (#74 OG Will Shields), but we are now in position to go defense again, grabbing a young safety named John Lynch (#82 Tampa). Lynch, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson in one secondary is a breathtaking proposition.
Then again, if the Steelers didn’t consider Lynch an urgent need, they could still get a rock star safety a few rounds later, with Dallas FS Brock Marion (#196, three Pro Bowls, two rings) or Oilers SS Blaine Bishop (#214, four Pro Bowls). So let’s say that the Steelers probably should have grabbed one of them. But we’re still missing that WR Cowher coveted. What do we do about that? Well, our best bet by this point is a swiss-army wideout from Marshall named Troy Brown (#198 New England), whom you might remember from that time he single-handedly blocked the Steelers from the Super Bowl in 2001.
What else? If we took Stubblefield or Strahan, we’re not taking Kevin Henry in round four. Marion, Bishop, and Brown are all available at pick #108, but I might take a flyer on a backup quarterback instead. O’Donnell was pegged as the long-term answer (and Cowher never cared for Bubby Brister) but we need a backup who can potentially take over if needed (and while we don’t know it in 1993, it’ll be useful to have a young passer in the fold already when Neil jumps ship in 1996). The pick spent on Henry would have been a good place to elbow in front of Green Bay and steal their 4th round selection, Washington Huskie Mark Brunell (#118). Or, failing at that, down in round eight, just two spots from Mr. Irrelevant status, sat future Dick Vermeil favorite and two time Pro Bowler Trent Green (#222). That the Steelers took Alex Van Pelt six spots earlier than Green is a little disheartening; that Van Pelt never even played for Pittsburgh is vomit-inducing. (Fun fact: 2000 Pro Bowler Elvis Grbac was also picked in this vicinity, at #219. That means the Steelers brain-trust, picking at #216, looked at two Pro Bowl quarterbacks and Alex Van Pelt, and went with Van Pelt, then didn’t even keep him. Ugh.)
Hard to feel bad about Chad Brown and Willie Williams, and I always like blue-collar guys like Henry and Zgonina. But imagine how good the 90s Steelers could have been with a couple different decisions...
WR, DL, Edge, RB, Depth (especially at RB)
Round 1: #17 WR Charles Johnson
Round 2: #50 DL Brentson Buckner
Round 3: #88 EDGE Jason Gilden
Round 3: #91 RB Bam Morris
Round 4: #122 DE Taasi Faumui
Other notable picks:
#140 DB Myron Bell
#178 QB Jim Miller
This is a pretty decent draft, with a number of genuine contributors coming this year. Unfortunately, the top pick was not one of them. Charles Johnson is one of those underwhelming early-90s wide receiver selections we kept seeing (Hastings, Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, etc.). Johnson would have been a fine WR2 or WR3, but his five years starting (and single 1000 yard season) is not what you want from a #17 overall choice. (As a special kind of salt in this wound, Johnson was a backup on that same Patriots team as Troy Brown, which upset these Steelers in the ‘01 AFCC.)
So what could the team have done instead? Well, brace yourselves, because 16 picks after the Steelers turned in a card for Charles Johnson, the Los Angeles Rams turned in their own card for Isaac Bruce. And all that guy did was catch 1068 total passes and 95 touchdowns in his career, including the game-winning 73 yarder with 1:54 left in Super Bowl XXXIV. Oh, and then he went to the Hall of Fame. And yes, Johnson got a ring in New England over Bruce two Lombardis later, but I think Isaac was the better choice.
Alternate route: let’s say Cowher and Donahoe decided to go all three yards and a cloud of dust instead of bothering with that passing nonsense (or more so than they already were). They could have skipped WR altogether, and grabbed OG Larry Allen (#46 Dallas) a six-time Pro Bowler who was named to the team of the 90s and team of the 2000s, on his way to the Hall of Fame himself. (Emmitt Smith didn’t make all those yards happen all by himself, you know.)
The next three choices aren’t bad. Brentson Buckner was another of those blue-collar guys, who started Super Bowl XXX on the defense that held Smith to 2.7 yards per carry. Impressive as that is, he only lasted in town three years; that’s not much to get out of a top 50 pick. The thing is, there’s not much available otherwise. Especially considering that the Steelers clearly wanted defensive linemen (see also: 4th round bust Taasi Faumui). Buckner might have been the best option in round 2, but I’ll say the Steelers should have grabbed a familiar face in round 4 instead of Faumui — Cincinnati’s 6th round choice, Kimo Von Oelhoffen.
The two 3rd round choices were dingers, though. Jason Gilden replaced Kevin Greene by his third year, and retired as the Steelers all time sack leader. Bam Morris, meanwhile, wound up with a slightly underwhelming career, but that’s mostly because of his off-field troubles. He seemed like a real star for a couple of years, and was probably in line for a Super Bowl MVP in 1995 if Larry Brown had Ike Taylor’s hands. If you wanted to build a longer-term backfield, maybe Atlanta’s 6th round choice would have helped here: 1998 All Pro Jamal Anderson, whose 1846 yards that year would be the Steelers record if he’d done it on this team instead of the Falcons.
My one other hitch happens in the middle-rounds (also known as the “dart throw” period of the draft). In round 5, the Steelers selected Michigan State safety Myron Bell, who was a part-time starter in Pittsburgh for six years (and two more in Cincinnati). That qualifies as a pretty good selection for the fifth round. Except that five picks later (seriously, FIVE), the Chargers took another safety, Rodney Harrison, a two time All Pro and two time champ, who retired on an exclusive list of players with over 30 interceptions and over 30 sacks in their careers. Also, Hines Ward once said Harrison delivered the hardest hit he ever took as a pro. That’s pretty high praise, in my book. I know that Myron Bell never allowed David Tyree to pin a season-sinking pass to his helmet, thereby ruining a perfect season, but I’d probably take Rodney at #140 anyway.
Again, 1994 was a very decent draft. But it’s amazing to see the team pick the wrong guy at the same position twice in one draft (Johnson over Bruce, then Bell over Harrison), and still have a pretty good day.
This is getting long, so I’m going to break these into smaller pieces. (I’ll also try to babble less in the future.) Stay tuned for 1995 to 1999.