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Steelers “What if....?”: Draft Edition, Part 3

The best draft rooms still make mistakes: 1995-99

Pittsburgh Steelers
Some people just kinda have a look. I think Bill Cowher is one of them.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Round to of our “What If...?” series on the last 30 years of Steelers draft history. After a quick spin through Chuck Noll’s first five drafts we looked at the first two years of the Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe partnership. In this issue, the following five years, which led to the ugly breakup of that team in 1999.


We’re tracking the team’s first four rounds of picks each draft, and then noting 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 1995 to 1999 in this round. Let’s go.

Unaccustomed to catching the football, Mark Bruener forgets which side of his body goes on top.
Getty Images


Draft Picks
Round 1: #27 TE Mark Bruener
Round 2: #60 QB Kordell Stewart
Round 3: #91 OG Brenden Stai
Round 4: #120 DT Oliver Gibson
Round 4: #122 LB Donta Jones

Other notable picks:
#151 SS Lee Flowers

The Steelers, coming off an upset loss in the AFC Championship game, went with a blocking tight end in 1995’s first round. Mark Bruener is a prototype for this sort of player — an outstanding blocker who only caught more than 20 passes once in his career (his rookie year, when he had 26). Maybe on a team this stacked, a lunch-pail blocker is a good pick (and in fairness, Bruener started for eight years). But this feels underwhelming to me.

The best alternate pick would have been at a position of low urgency, unfortunately. Because the team on the clock immediately after the Steelers took Bruener was Tampa Bay, who drafted HOF LB Derrek Brooks. The Steelers already had Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland at ILB (where Brooks would have played), and Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, and Jason Gilden at OLB. Who do you unload?

This is a problem for this entire draft. The Steelers were generally either already loaded at a position (like linebacker) or there wasn’t much there in the draft at the Steelers selection. Another position of riches that didn’t matter in Pittsburgh was running back, where the Steelers could have taken local Pitt boy Curtis Martin (#74 New England), but didn’t really need him. They had Bam Morris and Eric Pegram on the roster in 1995, and would trade for Jerome Bettis the following offseason. You just didn’t need Martin. (Though they really should have taken a flyer on Georgia runner Terrell Davis (#196 Denver). A Bettis/Davis one-two punch would have been borderline unstoppable in the late 90s.)

Taking Kordell Stewart in the second round is a controversial choice, but I’ve always believed that Stewart’s struggles stemmed from the Steelers not knowing how to use him, rather than Kordell not knowing how to play football. He’d have been a star in today’s game. And when you’ve got a quarterback who can take the team to the AFC title game twice, you probably draft him.

Brendan Stai and Oliver Gibson were both lunch pail players. Stai started for five okay years, and while Gibson never cracked the starting lineup, he was a rotational player for four. Unless you’re taking Martin or Davis, there really isn’t much to work with at these spots. (Green Bay’s #90 chioce, WR Antonio Freeman, would have been a nice addition, but he got plucked just before Stai. So we’re out of luck.)

Donta Jones, on the other hand, seems like a bust to me. Again, it’s slim pickings out here, but I’d probably go with two time Pro Bowl DL Gary Walker (#159 Oilers). Either that, or grab Lee Flowers a few rounds early.

This was not a great draft for the Steelers, but sometimes it’s useful to notice that there weren’t a lot of alternatives either. Keep that in mind in the future too.

Steelers Earl Holmes
Earl Holmes demonstrates that being tackled sucks even when it’s not a devastating hit
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images


High Picks:
Round 1: #29 OT Jamaine Stephens
Round 2: no pick
Round 3: #72 LB Steve Conley
Round 3: #92 FB Jon Whitman
Round 4: #126 ILB Earl Holmes
Round 4: #132 WR Jahine Arnold

Other notable picks:
#200 DT Orpheus Roye
#242 ILB Carlos Emmons

It’s not often that a draft is simply a bust, from nearly top to bottom. But the Steelers 1996 draft qualifies. Jamaine Stephens was one of the least productive first round choices of the modern team history, lasting only two seasons in town, and only even starting 11 games. To make matters worse, the team traded its second round choice to St. Louis for some washed up running back named Bettis or something.

In all seriousness, trading for Bettis makes the 1996 draft a win off the top, but the team did practically nothing with its remaining picks.

Stephens was a bust. But there were some legit gamers picked between the #29 choice the Steelers wasted on him, and their next pick, in the third round. Giants WR Amani Toomer (#34) could have helped the offense go three dimensional alongside Bettis. And Buccs fullback Mike Alstott could have made the throwback backfield a formidable machine. But my preferences were defensive backs, as Rod Woodson would leave town the following year, and Carnell Lake was fast approaching 30. So who was available? Either All Pro CB Lawyer Milloy (#36 New England) or HOF S Brian Dawkins (#61 Philadelphia) would be my choice. Take your pick; they both make the Stephens selection painful to remember.

Third round choice Steve Conley never started a single game in the NFL. But two ILBs who did were still on the board at the time: Pro Bowler and three time champion Teddy Bruschi (#86 New England), or better, Hall of Famer and five time All Pro Zach Thomas (#154 Miami). Let’s say you wanted to go with Thomas instead of Bruschi, but you were willing to wait a round or two. Who else would have been available in round three? Well, Cowher loved drafting WRs, and he had a soft spot for problem-children. And there was a guy at #89 that could have checked both boxes: Terrell Owens. Would TO have sand-blasted the Steelers locker room? Or would Bettis, Woodson, and Greg Lloyd have kept him in check? Great question.

Maybe you want a less toxic personality for your WR room in round three, instead of Jon Whitman. Well, the Saints took a pretty good one at #135: Joe Horn. He could have been a pretty good baller for the Steelers.

Earl Holmes was a very good player we don’t remember around here as much as we should. I’m keeping him (even if we pick up Zach Thomas). But Jahine Arnold (career catches: 6) can go. If we didn’t take Horn already, this is his spot, since he was picked up three selections after this guy. Another round of “they chose A over B!?” It’s almost like the draft is a little bit of a craps shoot.

Brandon Lloyd and Chad Scott went as a super hero and his cape for Halloween that year.
Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/Contra Costa Times via Getty Images


High Picks:
Round 1: #24 CB Chad Scott
Round 2: #53 WR Will Blackwell
Round 3: #82 OT Paul Wiggins
Round 3: #91 OLB Mike Vrabel
Round 4: no pick

Other notable picks:
No one significant

First round pick Chad Scott has a terrible reputation in Pittsburgh, but wasn’t a terrible player. He averaged three INTs per year (bringing four of them back to the house) in his seven years in town, but he wasn’t Rod Woodson. And if you’re a first round man, the bar is high. Frankly, all four of the high Steelers picks in 1997 were duds — only Mike Vrabel had a respectable career, but it came mostly in New England, as he was odd man out in a crowded linebacker room. So instead of taking them one at a time, I’m just going to look at who could have (should have?) been the selections instead.

Round 1 featured a couple of players of low-urgency — in particular, running backs Tiki Barber (#36 Giants) and Corey Dillon (#43 Bengals). They weren’t going to beat out the Bus, so they’re off the table. Four time Pro Bowler (and three time champ) D-Lineman Trevor Pryce (#28 Broncos) was picked four spots after Scott. And the Steelers could have used some youth on the line. And then there was QB Jake Plummer (#42 Cardinals), who would have been fun as hell to watch, but probably would have driven Cowher crazy with his risk-taking. Instead, I think the winner here is two time All Pro CB Sam Madison (#44 Dolphins). Madison picked off 20 passes in a three year period for Miami, then later started on the Giants defense that shut down the 18-0 Patriots in the 2007 Super Bowl. He was the guy the Steelers thought they were getting with Chad Scott.

In round 2, there are two other defenders it breaks my heart to have missed out on. First, if the Steelers went with Pryce or Plummer in round 1, we’ll get them a defensive back here. Take your pick: either two time All Pro Darren Sharper (#60 Saints), who retired with almost as many INTs as Will Blackwell had catches (63 to 67). Or Hall of Fame CB Ronde Barber (#66 Tampa Bay) who was still going to Pro Bowls at age 33. But maybe you don’t want a DB in this round. Maybe you’re concerned that Greg Lloyd is getting older and Chad Brown just left in free agency. Who’s your new edge man opposite ascending Jason Gilden? Well, Miami’s pick at #73 was a pretty decent player, Jason Taylor, who rang up 139.5 sacks on is way to the Hall of Fame. That would have been okay.

I can’t resolve this Paul Wiggins whiff (two career games for a third round pick? Yikes). But if we’re looking for a WR, there’s a fellow the newly minted Tennessee Oilers took at the top of round 4: Derrick Mason, who’d retire as the #1 receiver in Baltimore Ravens history and #5 in Oilers/Titans history. And for good measure, I’d like to slide a note over to Cowher and Donahoe advising them to take a late-round flyer on a guy the Buccs took in round 6, CB Al Harris (#169), who’d eventually make a couple Pro Bowls in Green Bay chasing Randy Moss all over creation.

Find a Hines Ward shot where he’s not smiling. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images


High Picks:
Round 1: #26 OG Alan Faneca
Round 2: #41 DE Jeremy Staat
Round 3: #66 OT Chris Conrad
Round 3: #92 WR Hines Ward
Round 4: #117 CB Deshea Townsend
Round 4: #123 RB Carlos King

Other notable picks:
#178 RB Chris Fuamatu-Maafala

Finally a banger of a draft. Alan Faneca in round 1 is a guy you don’t think twice about. Same with Hines Ward (a ridiculous bargain at #92). And I’d argue that Deshea Townsend is a killer selection all the way down in round 4. Bravo.

That said, What on earth is going on with the other three top picks? Jeremy Staat, Chris Conrad, and Carlos King started a grand total of ZERO games in their respective NFL careers. Zero. And what is the story with Cowher/Donahoe and offensive tackles? That’s the third year in a row that the Steelers took an OT in the first 85 picks, and they went 0 for 3. Ugh.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a killer OT available by the Steelers next couple picks. (The best option got plucked three picks earlier, when the Cowboys picked future Steeler and five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams at #38.) So who was there at #41? A couple of cornerbacks who would have looked good in black-and-gold: Patrick Surtain (#44 Miami) and Samari Rolle (#46 Tennessee), both of whom had All Pro seasons. But my choice would have been to stay on the OLine, and take center Olen Kreutz (#64 Chicago) as heir apparent to Dermontti Dawson. Grabbing interior OL in the first two rounds might seem like overkill, but it would have paved the way for Steelers runners for another decade.

At #66, there are a couple of options, but it seems to me that this one comes down to two: All Pro ILB Jeremiah Trotter (#72 Philly) or four time Pro Bowl RB Ahman Greene (#76 Seattle) who is still the Packers all time leading rusher, and could have been a great compliment to Bettis (or at least a better one than Carlos King turned out to be).

After Ward and Townsend, things get murkier. If the Steelers didn’t take Kreutz in round 2, they could go with six-time Pro Bowl C, and Harvard grad, Matt Birk (#173 Vikings). But whatever they did in round 4, they really should have spent a fifth or sixth round pick on Boston College QB Matt Hasselbeck (#187 Green Bay), who very nearly beat them in a Super Bowl with Seattle. (Fun fact: in the pick immediately before Hasselbeck, the Steelers chose a linebacker named Ryan Olson, who never suited up for a single game in his career...)

Browns v Steelers X
At least Troy Edwards got to play in that one game where Tommy Maddox ripped the Browns’ hearts from their chests and showed them to them. That’s good.


High Picks:
Round 1: #13 WR Troy Edwards
Round 2: #59 DB Scott Shields
Round 3: #73 EDGE Joey Porter
Round 3: #74 OT Kris Farris
Round 3: #95 RB Amos Zereoue
Round 4: #109 DE Aaron Smith

Other notable picks:
#136 TE Jerame Tuman
#228 K Kris Brown

Hmm. Another good, but wildly uneven, draft. Joey Porter and Aaron Smith ensure that this one is a W. And Amos Zereoue was a very good change-of-pace runner, who actually led the team in rushing in 2002. Late rounders Jerame Tuman and Kris Brown both qualify as bonus in my book too. But then there’s the other guys. Another of those underwhelming high-pick WRs in Troy Edwards. Another 2nd rounder who couldn’t carve out a career in Scott Shields. And (amazingly, somehow) another OT bust in the top three rounds. (How is this something I’ve never heard of before? This trend is nuts.)

So the top two rounds are the most crucial. Who’s there for the Steelers at #13? Well, a lot of guys, it turns out. Pro Bowlers like C Damian Woody (#17 New England) or CB Antoine Winfield (#23 Buffalo), and All Pros like DE Patrick Kearny (#30 Atlanta) and LB Al Wilson (#31 Denver). Kearny retired with 82.5 sacks and was runner up DPOY in 2007. He’d have looked good opposite Aaron Smith. And Wilson went to five Pro Bowls in his eight year career on the inside. Heir to Levon Kirkland? Sure.

But my choice comes down to two: Rams 2nd round choice, CB Dre’ Bly (#41), who picked off 43 passes and recovered a dozen fumbles (bringing seven back to the house) in his career. Or the Titans’ first rounder, Jevon Kearse (#16), the Freak. Injuries shortened Kearse’s career, but he was first team All Pro as a rookie, and went to Pro Bowls in each of his first three seasons. He played on the line in Tennessee and Philly, but I think he was the prototype for the college DE that the Steelers make into an NFL OLB. And I think he’d have thrived in Pittsburgh. Drafting Kearse and Joey Porter in the same class would have been up there with grabbing Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on the same day. You’re not supposed to be able to pull that off...

After that first pick, the quality falls off big. And I don’t have excellent replacements for Shields or Farris. But I’ve got a couple wideouts to make us forget Troy Edwards. First, you could jump the Ravens and grab their 4th round pick Brandon Stokley (#105), who won titles with three different teams, and seemed like the perfect slot man or WR3. Then, if you squinted your eyes right, you might see the potential in Green Bay’s 7th round pick, Alcorn State WR Donald Driver (#213), who put up seven 1000 yard seasons and three Pro Bowls.

Not a bad haul, if you can see it coming.

Next up: Donahoe’s unceremonious departure leads to the return of a local Pittsburgh kid who’d been in exile in Detroit. A fella by the name of Kevin Colbert.