Here we are, Round 5 of 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)
Part 4: Bill Cowher/Kevin Colbert (2000-02)
In this edition, we wind down Bill Cowher’s coaching career, and pivot from “good team that can’t get over the hump” to “champion.” Let’s see how the draft played a role:
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.
Round 1: #16 SS Troy Polamalu
Round 2: #59 EDGE Alonzo Jackson
Round 3: no pick
Round 4: #125 CB Ike Taylor
Other Notable Picks:
#163: QB Brian St. Pierre
Troy Polamalu belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of “picks you don’t second guess.” And so I’m not even interested in who else was available at the time. When you can get the Tasmanian Devil, you get the Tasmanian Devil.
2nd rounder Alonzo Jackson, on the other hand, was less impressive. In two and a half years in town, he started zero games, only suited up for nine, and recorded zero sacks. That’s not what you want from a top-60 pick — especially when there’s no third rounder coming. So who else could have come? I’ve got two options for you: first, let’s say you’re starting to see Kendrell Bell’s health slipping, and you want an ILB to pick up the slack. How about Chicago’s 3rd round choice, All Pro and seven time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs (#68). Briggs and James Farrior would have made a formidable ILB pairing. But maybe you’re looking at diversifying your passing game, and you want a legit tight end target — you’re still two years from drafting Heath Miller, so what can you do here? You can jump in front of the Cowboys and grab Jason Witten (#69). All you’ll be getting with him is two All Pro seasons, 11 Pro Bowls, and the #4 all time leading receiver in NFL history. That’s probably worth skipping Alonzo Jackson.
Drafting Ike Taylor in round 4 is probably an underrated coup. Taylor was the closest thing this team had to a shutdown corner since Rod Woodson, and would have been a perennial Pro Bowler if he could just catch the damned football. He also brought a little bit of attitude to the defense (though oddly good-naturedly — no one seemed to dislike Ike). So I’m tempted to just check that box and be done with it. But he’s not the only option there. In fact, he might not have been the best CB option. Just four picks after the Steelers brought in Taylor, the New England Patriots drafted Asante Samuel (#129), who would go on to lead the NFL in interceptions twice, on his way to two titles and four Pro Bowls. Samuel retired with 51 picks (the same number as Donnie Shell); Ike snagged 14. This one hurts a little, and you have to factor in team chemistry and all sorts of other things before making a change, but boy, how good could those 2000s Steelers defenses be if they had a ball hawk like Samuel on the perimeter?
Also available at this spot? Colts All Pro Edge rusher Robert Mathis (#138) — another of those DEs that the Steelers would have made into OLBs (Mathis played at 245; that screams OLB all day). He’s the guy Jackson wasn’t, though he’s probably third in line for me at this spot, behind Samuel and Taylor.
One more quick “oh man, seriously?” moment coming (brace yourselves): in round 5, the Steelers took a flyer on yet another quarterback who’d never produce, Brian St. Pierre (#163). St. Pierre threw one pass in his entire Pittsburgh career, which fell incomplete. (Though somehow he gets credit for a 4th quarter comeback that year. Interesting.) In any case, the very next choice was another Patriot, Pro Bowl center, Dan Koppen (#164). With Jeff Hartings over 30, Koppen could have been a great apprentice and heir, to save us from the Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig years.
Round 1: #11 QB Ben Roethlisberger
Round 2: #38 CB Ricardo Colclough
Round 3: #75 OT Max Starks
Round 4: no pick
Other notable picks:
UDFA RB Willie Parker
UDFA OLB James Harrison (again)
Holy top-heavy draft. Good lord. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most important picks in Steelers history — probably second only to Joe Greene. And like Greene, there’s absolutely zero room to second guess. 3rd round OT Max Starks is also a favorite, but we’ll get to him. However, outside of those guys, it’s a wasteland until you get to the UDFA pile (which rocked).
2nd round CB Ricardo Colclough (#38) is a head-scratcher, especially this early. After playing his college ball at D2 Tusculum (current undergrad population 2446), it probably should have been clear that he’d need to adjust to the NFL. When the smoke cleared, Colclough started zero games in four years in Pittsburgh, and was never even full-time kick returner. Okay for a 6th round pick, not #38 overall.
So who else was there? Well six spots later, the Colts grabbed 2006 Defensive Player of the Year, Bob Sanders (#44). This doesn’t work though, as Sanders played strong safety, and Pittsburgh had one of those already (that Polamalu fellow we just talked about). So probably not him. Instead, I’d have pushed Cowher and Colbert to take three-time Pro Bowl DL Darnell Dockett (#64 Cardinals). If Dockett seems like overkill, with Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Kimo Von Oelhoffen (plus Brett Keisel in the wings), maybe a tight end like two time Pro Bowler Chris Cooley (#81 Washington).
With no 4th round pick, there’s only one more high choice left — which means we have to talk about Max Starks. Normally you hang onto a guy who started one Super Bowl at LT and another at RT. But let’s see what happens if you put Max back on the table. One option is that you could draft Pro Bowl edge Shaun Philips (#98 San Diego), who retired with only three fewer sacks than James Harrison. Then there’s Pro Bowl CB Nathan Vasher (#110 Chicago), who picked off 16 passes in his first three seasons, bringing them back for an insane 333 return yards. But the real gem, if you could have seen it, would have been four time All Pro DE/Edge Jared Allen (#126 Kansas City), who retired with 136 sacks (otherwise known as 55.5 more than the Steelers team record). The only, and I mean only, question mark around Allen is whether he could be slimmed down to play OLB (he played at 270 for the Chiefs and Vikings). Dick Lebeau liked his DEs to be space-eaters rather than pass rushers, so Allen’s gotta be kicked outside. Could the Steelers have made it work? It might have been worth trying, even if it meant finding a different OT.
Pittsburgh’s remaining five picks are rough, starting a combined zero NFL games (three of them never made a roster). It’s as though the team grabbed Ben Roethlisberger, and then went to happy hour to celebrate, and forgot to come back. Anyone else would have been better. But I’ll focus on one: 5th round DE Nathan Abidi (#145) — one of the guys who never cracked a roster. Instead of him, the 2004 Steelers could have stolen the Chargers #154 selection, RB Michael Turner, who would go on to an All Pro career in Atlanta. Turner played at 244lbs, and could have picked up the mantel from Bettis and newly acquired vet Duce Staley without missing a beat. A backfield tandem of Turner the Burner and Fast Willie Parker, with Big Ben under center — all rookies at the start of long careers... Yikes.
Round 1: #30 TE Heath Miller
Round 2: #62 CB Bryant McFadden
Round 3: #93 OT Trai Essex
Round 4: #131 WR Fred Gibson
Other notable picks:
#204: OG Chris Kemoeatu
UDFA WR Nate Washington
Heath Miller is a fan favorite for a reason — stable, low-ego, productive, a good teammate. When you’re picking 30th, this is a dream selection. We’re going with Heath again.
2nd rounder Bryant McFadden (#62) is dicier to me. I really liked McFadden as a rookie. In particular, I have fond memories of the Steelers/Colts playoff tilt, where Payton Manning attacked McFadden twice in that final drive (after Jerome’s fumble and Big Ben’s famous Tackle). B-Mac played perfect on both plays, and almost certainly saved the season for the Steelers. But then he never really got better than that. A McFadden/Taylor secondary was supposed to be a no-fly zone, especially with Troy Polamalu roaming like an attack drone. But instead, he struggled to surpass Deshea Townsend, and was more adequate than awesome. So I’m open to other choices here. Who’s available?
Well, we’re still trying to replace Jerome Bettis, who’s come back for one more shot, but is clearly not a bell-cow anymore. Staley held down the fort for half of 2004, but he’s not long for the game either. And we don’t know what we’ve got with 2nd year man, Parker. We could use a bruiser. And look at that: three spots after McFadden, the 49ers chose thick-bodied attrition master Frank Gore, who retired third in NFL history in both rushing attempts and yards. He’d have made a hell of a Steeler.
But let’s say you like Parker, and you’re already on the modern “don’t draft RBs” kick. Well, a few picks after Gore, the Giants grabbed future All Pro edge Justin Tuck, who could have been another “DE to OLB” project. I’m of the opinion that Tuck should have been MVP of Super Bowl 42; I think he’d have looked pretty good in black-and-gold.
After round 2, we’re back to those pesky OTs and WRs. Trai Essex stuck around a few years, but wasn’t worth the cost. And Fred Gibson? Who?
So they’re out. Instead, here’s a tempting alternative: three time Pro Bowler, Darren Sproles (#130 Chargers). San Diego snapped up Sproles one pick before Gibson, but we’ve got the Essex pick too, at #93. With Parker already on the team, I’m not sure you take a speed back, but Sproles’ kick return and third-down capabilities make him worth the risk. Who do you get at #131, then? Well, the Eagles grabbed two time Pro Bowl edge rusher Trent Cole at #146. Cole played both DE and OLB in his career (no conversion necessary), and he retired with 90.5 sacks, which is (again) ten more than any Steeler as of this writing. He can rotate in with Peezy, Clark Haggens, and that young special teams nightmare, James Harrison.
My only late-round flyer is at backup QB, since Tommy Maddox isn’t pleased with his recent demotion. With Charlie Batch as a mentor, maybe we could risk a 7th rounder on Harvard’s own Ryan Fitzpatrick (#250 Rams). A smart gunslinger with a Brett Keisel beard might have been fun to have in the bullpen for a decade or so.
Round 1: #25 WR Santonio Holmes
Round 2: no pick
Round 3: #83 FS Anthony Smith
Round 3: #95 WR Willie Reid
Round 4: #131 OG Willie Colon
Round 4: #133 DT Orien Harris
Other notable picks:
No picks after Harris recorded a single NFL stat.
The final draft of Bill Cowher’s career was a rough one, starting with controversy at the top, when the team traded up to get Ohio State WR, and future Super Bowl MVP, Santonio Holmes. For those who don’t remember, Holmes was arrested twice (TWICE!) between draft day and reporting to Pittsburgh. That’s not a great start. He mostly kept himself clean after that, but was suspended by the team partway through the 2008 season after another legal infraction. The suspension seemed to focus him, and he dominated the ‘08 playoffs, culminating in said MVP, then followed up with a terrific 2009. The following summer, he got in trouble with the law yet again, and the Steelers finally gave up, dealing him to the Jets for a song.
In other words, Holmes delivered one of the all time great playoff runs we’ve seen around here, and was named MVP of what I’d argue was the greatest Super Bowl of all time. But he also was a giant pain off the field, and never fully lived up to his massive talent. Was he worth the pick (and the trade-up it took to get him)?
I don’t know how to answer this, especially given how inexplicably bad the Cowher years were for finding WRs. So let’s see who else was there at #25 instead:
Two time All Pro (seven time Pro Bowl) center Nick Mangold (#29 Jets). With Jeff Hartings about to retire, and knowing what the Steelers OL was about to descend to, it seems criminal to have let Mangold go.
Pro Bowl ILB Demeco Ryans (#33 Texans). Ryans was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, after leading the league in tackles. With Lawrence Timmons still at Florida State, Ryans looks like a great pick. A leader and student of the game (ahem, head coach), he’d have been a coordinator on the field. This might be my favorite option.
Two time Pro Bowl WR Greg Jennings (#52 Green Bay), who caught two touchdowns against the Steelers in Super Bowl 45. He didn’t have Holmes’ flair, but didn’t have his rap sheet either.
Two time All Pro OT Andrew Whitworth (#55 Cincinnati), who was both a Super Bowl champ and one of the most respected players in the game (on and off the field). There’s that LT anchor we’ve been looking for.
Oh yeah, and then there’s Devin Hester (#57 Chicago), the greatest kick returner in NFL history.
Who do you take? Holmes and the immortal moment against the Cardinals? Or one of these guys? (Hell, the Steelers traded all over the board this day — hence the weird group of selections — easy to imagine them in position to take two.) If we’re staying with these slots though, I think it comes down to Mangold and Ryans. Probably Ryans for me, but man — tough call.
Rounds 3 and 4 are less tough. Anthony Smith (#83) was a lunatic and picking him was a mistake. Thanks goodness the team also signed Ryan Clark as a bridge, and could just keep him instead. Meanwhile, Willie Reid (#95) was a giant letdown. After breaking Deion Sanders’ return records as FSU, Reid logged exactly seven NFL returns and four catches. Ugh. I liked Willie Colon (#131), so I might keep him. But Orien Harris (#133) never made the Steelers squad, and washed out in both Cleveland and Cincinnati. We can do better.
So who’s there at these spots? Well, if we kick Smith to the curb, that frees us up to take four time All Pro OG Jahari Evans (#108 Green Bay), who would land on the 2010s Team of the Decade. If I’m not taking Holmes or Reid, I’m going to need a WR soon; how about All Pro and six-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall (#119 Denver)? Marshall had his own demons, and that might make him a risk too, but it’s possible he’d have been helped by Hines Ward’s presence in the wide receiver room. Marshall retired just 30 catches behind Ward all time, so this is a good, long-term selection (maybe). Still nervous? Then maybe we grab a different Bronco: two time All Pro edge rusher Elvis Dumervil (#126), who led the NFL in sacks in 2009. As for the Harris whiff, the very next pick saw the Buffalo Bills hit gold at the same position, with six-time Pro Bowl DT Kyle Williams. (I hate when that happens.) Let’s fix that. And just for good measure, we’ll take a late round swing at safety, and snag three time Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea (#207 Colts), the guy Anthony Smith should’ve been.
If there’s one thing you learn by deep-diving the draft, it’s that apparently you don’t need to nail it every year to be a damned good team. The Steelers had a legitimate claim to the Team of the Decade label for the 2000s (beating the Packers in SB45 probably secures it, given the Pats’ cheating scandals). But they were fantastically inconsistent on draft day, all the way through. I’ve got a feeling we haven’t seen the end of that either.
Next up: Bill Cowher rides off into the sunset, and Kevin Colbert teams up with a fresh-faced kid from Virginia, by way of Tampa and Minneapolis. Let’s see what the old fella can do with Mike T. in the building. Onward...