And we’re back. Round 4 in our “What If...?” series on the last 30 years of Steelers draft history. Earlier editions can be found here:
Part 1: Chuck Noll (1969-74)
Part 2: Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe (1993-94)
Part 3: Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe (1995-99)
In this edition, we hit the new millennium. 1998 and 1999 were losing seasons for the Steelers, and 1999 ended with a 1-7 run, low-lighted by a power struggle between Cowher and Donahoe that led to the latter’s unceremonious departure. The team needed to get better fast, and 2000 meant there was a new personnel man in town — a fella you may have heard of, by the name of Kevin Colbert. How did his seven drafts alongside the Chin go? Let’s see:
We’re tracking the team’s first four rounds of picks each draft, and then noting who they passed up on. This is not as some exercise in insulting the front office (which has maintained consistent winners for most of the last half-century). Rather, I’m interested in how a terrific front office sometimes misses what looks obvious in hindsight, and in noticing how a “bad” draft pick is sometimes still the best option on the board. Hot takes are everywhere, so maybe this will be an antidote. Stay tuned. On to 2000...
Round 1: #8 WR Plaxico Burress
Round 2: #38 OT Marvell Smith
Round 3: #72 DT Kendrick Clancy
Round 4: #77 CB Hank Poteat
Round 4: #103 WR Danny Farmer
Other Notable Picks:
#137: OLB Clark Haggens
#163: QB Tee Martin
With Kevin Colbert’s first two choices, the Steelers attacked their two worst-scouted positions from the 90s — wide receiver and offensive tackle. WR Plaxico Burress was the highest choice of the Cowher (or Tomlin) era. He’s also a player most of us remember clearly (that’s going to happen more and more from now on). He had a pair of 1000 yard seasons as a Steeler, and ultimately caught the touchdown that sunk the Patriots perfect season (which gives him a special place in my heart, even if he wasn’t a Steeler at the time). But he wasn’t the Randy Moss type that many expected. In his defense, he never had an all star passer to deliver the ball, but that just tells you how important it is to nail a position like #8. Put the cart before the horse at your own risk.
I loved Plex, and I don’t mind seeing him in Pittsburgh, but I’d have gone elsewhere at #8. Because there was a better pick on the other side of the ball at the very next choice, where the Chicago Bears took ILB Brian Urlacher (#9). You might be thinking, “the Steelers had great linebackers in this era — they didn’t need him.” But this is 2000. Levon Kirkland was in his final season in town. James Farrior was a New York Jet. Chad Brown was a Seattle Seahawk. Kendrell Bell was a Georgia Bulldog. As I wrote in the last edition, Earl Holmes was a respectable player, but Brian Urlacher is in the Hall of Fame. He should’ve been a Steeler, either ahead of Holmes or replacing Kirkland.
Pick two was probably the best OT the Steelers drafted for decades. A Pro Bowler in 2004, Marvell Smith started 108 games in nine years. He’s my guy.
Rounds 3 and 4, however were less impressive. Kendrick Clancy was a decent rotational player for five years, which isn’t bad, but is a little unsatisfying for a third rounder. So who else was available at #72? Well, if you wanted to go D-Line still, you could’ve plucked the Packers 5th rounder, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (#149), who retired with 74.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 2003. KGB was more of an Edge or tweener than an interior DL, like Clancy (who outweighed him by 50lbs) so this isn’t apples-to-apples. But maybe you take KGB here and free up the 5th round choice you spent on Clark Haggens.
In any case, for the second 3rd round pick, I’m not sticking with Hank Poteat, who was a mediocre return man in Pittsburgh, and a backup DB in other stops. Hardly an early round gem. Instead? Well, if we took Urlacher over Plex, we probably want a WR. And look who was there at #78: Pro Bowler Laveranues Coles, who caught 674 passes for three different teams. Whatever you do with Clancy, I’m in with Coles at #77.
Pick #103, WR Danny Farmer, never played a down in Pittsburgh, and we have young Hines Ward and now young Laveranues Coles. I’m done grabbing WRs. Unfortunately there’s not much magic in this part of the draft. A little later on, though, gold coins start showing up. I know everyone hates wasting a high pick on a special teamer, but at #142 (which is to say, still available at #103) was punter Shane Lechler, a six-time All Pro who retired with the highest punting average in league history. I’d blow a 4th round pick for that.
I’m not quite done with this draft though. I took KGB so, like I said, I might not bother with Clark Haggens at #137. And that means that I’m able to look at the rest of the roster. Turns out there’s a big question mark at quarterback. Kordell Stewart had occupied the position for a few seasons, but he’d been benched more than once by Cowher, and this particular off-season, he’d lost his job. The Steelers brought in Giants backup Kent Graham (who would begin the season 0-3 with zero passing TDs before yielding back to Stewart). So it’s realistic to think QB here — in fact, Cowher and Colbert did take a QB at #163, Payton Manning’s replacement at Tennessee, Tee Martin. Martin suited up for three NFL games in his career, never seeing game action in Pittsburgh — which is lame, but no big deal for a 6th rounder. The problem with that pick is the other guys they left on the board. Five picks after Martin’s selection, the Saints chose future Rams Pro Bowler Marc Bulger, who the Steelers should’ve known from his days at nearby West Virginia (#168). Let’s take him at #137. And then, since C&C were willing to double-dip on other positions, let’s take a flyer on a second QB at #163 — a guy who will surely be a career backup to Bulger: Michigan’s Tom Brady (famously taken at #199 by New England).
Remember that draft from last edition, where the Steelers had Elvis Grbac and Trent Greene available, and picked Alex Van Pelt? That looks almost quaint compared to this one...
Round 1: #19 NT Casey Hampton
Round 2: #39 ILB Kendrell Bell
Round 3: no pick
Round 4: #111 OT Mathias Nkwenti
Other Notable Picks:
2001 is an uneven draft, all the way around. It starts with two stars, and then goes nowhere. And the second star comes with a giant asterisk too. But let’s start with the first: 19th overall pick, Casey Hampton, probably the best pure nose in team history. Big Snack was a five-time Pro Bowler, two-time champion, and the anchor of arguably the best defense of the era. So he’s probably the right guy to snag at #19. But I’m going to throw the tiniest bit of doubt into the room. Because 13 picks later, at the top of round 2, the San Diego Chargers drafted a Purdue quarterback who’d have looked pretty good in black-and-gold: Drew Brees. Brees struggled early on in San Diego, mostly running Marty Schottenheimer’s ground-and-pound offense with LaDanian Tomlinson, then got his mojo running in his third year starting... just after the Chargers ran out of patience and got his replacement. (He would, of course, retire as the NFL’s most prolific passer in just about every category, and lead the Saints to their only title in team history.)
Hey, you know who ran a ground-and-pound offense with a smothering defense, and could have afforded to slowly develop a young quarterback? Why, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Do you take Brees or Hampton? They’re both great picks, and it’s a real coin flip of a choice. But let’s admit: we’d be talking about a very different history if that silver dollar fell on the side of the Boiler Maker instead of the Texas Longhorn.
Round two is also full of stress-inducing questions. Kendrell Bell was one of the best specimens the Steelers have ever drafted — stepping into the league as a rock star from day one. Bell was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2001 (just the third Steeler to win the award, in the esteemed company of Jack Lambert and Joe Greene). He was also a Pro Bowler and second team All Pro. And it wasn’t just rookie surprise that got him in the door: Bell recorded an absurd 23 tackles for loss that year, which is still 10th best in league history. Then injuries hit — a high ankle sprain, and then other things. He muscled through a couple decent but underwhelming seasons until essentially missing the entire 2004 campaign, and then left for Kansas City. So what do you do with him — absolute shooting star, but for only one really good year? Especially when you don’t have a third round pick at all?
Well, there were some options on the table. If the Steelers didn’t take Bell at #39, their two best alternatives would have been at other positions of relative need. One option might have been to double-down on offensive tackles — to pair last year’s #2 pick, Marvell Smith, with the Patriots’ second rounder and future All Pro, Matt Light (#48), But Bill Cowher liked defense. And his secondary was pretty suspect in these years. Lee Flowers was a good run-stopping safety (though beatable in coverage), and the other three starters were average at best. Maybe he could have gone for the Cardinals’ 3rd round choice, future All Pro Adrian Wilson (#64), who was also a box safety and a notoriously hard hitter, but also picked off 27 passes and went to five Pro Bowls in his career. That’s probably my choice. One more option: since we know wide receivers are always on the table, what about future Panther and two time All Pro Steve Smith Sr. (#74)? Put him on one side and Hines Ward on the other and you’ve got the nastiest WR corps in league history.
In round four, we’re back to OT busts (thought we were done with that...). Mathias Nkwenti suited up for two NFL games in three years. That’s not a pick you make twice. Unfortunately, there’s not much else in this draft. The best man still on the board is probably another WR, future Bengal and Raven (and 2007 NFL receptions leader) T.J. Houshmandzadeh (#204 Bengals). I never really liked that guy, and I don’t really want him on my team. But maybe a couple years with Ward, Bettis, and Joey Porter would have been good for him.
Round 1: #30 OG Kendall Simmons
Round 2: #62 WR Antwaan Randle El
Round 3: #94 FS Chris Hope
Round 4: #128 ILB Larry Foote
Other Notable Picks:
#166: RB Verron Haynes
#242: DE Brett Keisel
UDFA OLB James Harrison (first attempt)
This is one of the hardest drafts for me to evaluate, if I’m trying to bring any sort of objectivity. First round OG Kendall Simmons was, by any measure, a good pick for the end of the first. He was a mountain of a man and he’d been a stud at Auburn. And he started for five seasons in Pittsburgh, winning two rings in the process. But it’s the one season he didn’t that hurts — he sat out the entire 2004 season to deal with diabetes, which probably held him back (the illness, not missing a year) from reaching his high potential. Simmons always felt a little disappointing, but it’s hard to fault the front office for picking a stud with an unknown condition. That said, in picking Simmons, they passed on two other interior linemen, five-time Pro Bowl OG Andre Gurode (#37 Dallas), and two-time Pro Bowl center, LeCharles Bentley (#44 New Orleans). Tough to call, even in retrospect. I guess you take Gurode if you can.
That said, they also passed on a running back that could have apprenticed under Jerome Bettis, who had just turned 30 and was coming off of a significant injury in 2001. At #51, the Broncos picked up Clinton Portis, who retired with just shy of 10,000 yards in his career, and scored 75 touchdowns. The next four years would see Bettis average slightly less than 700 yards per season, while Portis would average slightly less than 1500. Timing is everything, as they say, and this would have been a great time for a pony backfield and the beginning of a torch-passing.
Antwaan Randle El is another of those players who were both great and also not unimpeachable. Randle El is, by all accounts, a first class man and teammate, and his likeability among the fans is well earned. And he was an exciting return-man for his career in Pittsburgh, bringing back six kicks to the house (counting playoffs). He also was the best gadget quarterback of all time (just ask the Seattle Seahawks). But a 2nd round WR probably ought to average more than 37 catches per year (which is what ARE averaged in his Pittsburgh career). Is round 2 too early for a return specialist (who only averages 9.1 yards per punt return and 22.3 per kickoff)? I hate to say it, but it might be. So who else was there? Well, not a lot. Randle El’s gadget contributions might just get him through the door after all. The only real challenge, it seems to me, comes from future Eagles All Pro running back, and LeVeon Bell before LeVeon Bell, Brian Westbrook (#91). Again, with Bettis on the downside of his career, a pass-catching change-of-pace back, who could grow into the position, might have been ideal. Especially considering that they drafted Verron Haynes as third-down back in this very draft. If we didn’t get Portis earlier, I might grab Westbrook here.
The next bunch of picks look good to me, frankly. Chris Hope started Super Bowl XL and kept Troy Polamalu’s back covered before Ryan Clark. He was a good Steeler. And Larry Foote is one of those success stories, who only started because Kendrell Bell couldn’t stay healthy, then kept the job. I might consider grabbing ILB Scott Fujita at some point (#143 K.C.) but I’m happy with Foote. Throw in massive bargain Brett Keisel at #242, and this is a pretty strong draft.
Next round: the Hall of Famers start showing up, first with Troy Polamalu, then Ben Roethlisberger. Who else came in those drafts, though? And who else could have? Let’s close out Bill Cowher’s career in style...