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Steelers “What if....?”: Draft Edition, Part 6

The best draft rooms still make mistakes: 2007-10

Football - NFL Preseason - Steelers vs. Packers
Look at that fresh-faced young buck.
Photo by Jason Cohn /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

The draft is almost on us, so let’s head down the home-stretch 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)
Part 4: Bill Cowher/Kevin Colbert (2000-02)
Part 5: Bill Cowher/Kevin Colbert (2003-06)

In this edition, there’s a new sheriff in town to team up with Marshall Kevin Colbert. The Steelers were capable of being legendary champions (2005) or historic duds (2006). They needed new blood. 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.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
When Carson Palmer wakes up with night terrors, he sees Mike Tomlin’s first two draft picks.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images


Round 1: #15 ILB Lawrence Timmons
Round 2: #46 OLB Lamarr Woodley
Round 3: #77 TE Matt Spaeth
Round 4: #112 P Daniel Sepulveda
Round 4: #132 DT Ryan McBean

Other notable picks:
#170 CB William Gay

2007 was a killer draft at the top, and the opening duo of Timmons and Woodley were a great one-two punch. But I’m going to shoot some fireworks anyway. Lawrence Timmons was understandably beloved —- reliable, versatile, underrated, and he teamed with James Farrior and Larry Foote for possibly the best three-man ILB rotation of the era. How can you not take him at #15? Well, one reason might be that you’ve looked at the linebacker corps (looks good!) then at the offensive line (yikes!) and decided to grab six time Pro Bowl OT Joe Staley (#28 San Francisco) or two time All Pro C Ryan Kalil (#59 Carolina), to save us from the coming mess up front. Either of them would have been huge.

You might wonder why I’ve bumped Kalil into the round 1 discussion (all the way from #59). It’s because I’m not reconsidering Lamarr Woodley (#46). Woodley apprenticed behind Clark Haggans, but was ready to burst by the playoffs, recording two sacks in each of his first FOUR postseason games (including the strip-sack of Kurt Warner that sealed Lombardi #6). He also freed up James Harrison from double-teams, forming one of the best one-two punches on the edge that the NFL has seen (certainly the best in Pittsburgh since Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd). (Man, this linebacking corps.) I don’t care who’s available here; we’re drafting Woodley.

Round 3 is more circumspect. Matt Spaeth at #77? Not until we’re done fixing that OL. Alan Faneca played out the thread in 2007, but everyone knew he’d be gone soon, and Jeff Hartings had already retired. Say we took Staley (or Kalil?) in the 1st; OL is still an issue. So who’s out there? Faneca’s replacement, that’s who: two time All Pro (and eight time Pro Bowl) OG Marshal Yanda (#86 Baltimore). Yanda and Staley both wound up on the Team of the Decade for the 2010s. Sean Mahan, Trai Essex, and Darnell Stapleton did not.

Dan Sepulveda was controversial at #112. If he’d stayed healthy, I’m okay with this. He was a boomer (45.7 ypp in 2010-11), and the Steelers struggled with punters all century. But if #112 is too high, maybe the Steelers could have taken a late-round flyer on P Brandon Fields (#225 Miami), a second team All Pro in 2013. That frees up round 4 for All Pro FS Dashon Goldson (#126 San Francisco) as Chris Hope’s replacement. I know they’d just drafted Anthony Smith and also signed Ryan Clark, but Smith was unhinged (and Tomlin didn’t draft him), and Clark was initially just a bridge guy. It wouldn’t have been weird to blow a 4th rounder on Goldson. Ryan McBean, meanwhile, only suited up for Pittsburgh once, so how about DB Corey Graham (#168 Chicago)? Graham played both corner and safety for the Bears and Bills, and made a Pro Bowl in 2011. That’s not bad. Or maybe Baltimore FB, Le’ron McClain (#137), who rushed for 902 yards in an All Pro campaign in 2008. McClain played at 260 — Bill Cowher would have loved him. I don’t know how he fits into Bruce Ariens’ “no FB” offense (short yardage bruiser to spell Willie Parker?) but I think you could do worse in the 4th.

Minnesota Vikings v Pittsburgh Steelers
Tuck it in, Rashard! (Man, won’t that guy ever learn?)
Set Number: X83135 TK1 R6 F53


Round 1: #23 RB Rashard Mendenhall
Round 2: #53 WR Limas Sweed
Round 3: #88 ILB Bruce Davis
Round 4: #130 OT Tony Hills

Other notable picks:
#156 QB Dennis Dixon
#194 S Ryan Mundy

And another tricky year. These recent ones are tough, because we still have fresh opinions on a lot of the players. Rashard Mendenhall is just such a guy. Mendenhall’s reputation in town is pretty bad. Fumbling away an epic Super Bowl comeback will do that. However, he averaged 1100 yards and 10 touchdowns over a three year period, and powered the Steelers offense during Big Ben’s suspension in 2010. He’s not a candidate for Ring of Honor, but it’s not a bad resume. Especially since Willie Parker just broke his leg and will never really be the same back again. This team needs something on the ground.

But let’s say you don’t want Mendenhall’s fumbling issues (which predated the Super Bowl). Who else was available? Well, you might have grabbed future 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson (#24 Titans). That guy was a diva though; crazy athlete, but I don’t want him in my locker room. How about Matt Forte (#44 Chicago), who retired with just under 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving (including one year with 102 catches)? Not bad. But my favorite option is a guy you could get in the 2nd round instead: two time All Pro Jamal Charles (#73 Kansas City), who also posted a 104 catch season once, and retired with a ridiculous 5.4 yards per carry on the ground. Not as durable as Forte maybe, but wow.

So grab Charles at #53. Now you’re open at #23, and you’ve got no WR (now that there’s no Limas Sweed to break our hearts). Well, on one hand, you could go for Aaron Rodgers favorite Jordy Nelson (#36 Packers), who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2016 and made a Pro Bowl in 2014. Nelson could go deep, but he’s not the highlight reel Sweed was supposed to be. For that you’ll have to wait a few picks, where the Eagles will draft three time Pro Bowler Desean Jackson (#49), who’ll led the NFL in yards per catch a whopping four times. Jackson also solves your kick return problem, as he’ll lead the league in punt return average in 2009 with 15.2, which would be the most by a primary returner in Pittsburgh since 1952.

Bruce Davis is a name few of us ever watched — he suited up for five games before leaving town. But you know what ILB might have gotten on the field a little, and was available at #88? Future Seahawk Pro Bowler Cliff Avril (#92 Detroit). Later, a similar “not this, that!” moment will happen on the OL, when the Steelers take OT Tony Hills at #130. Five picks later, the Packers would select OG Josh Sitton (#135) who would go on to four Pro Bowls in Green Bay and Chicago. A guard isn’t a tackle, you say? Okay, how about All Pro OT Carl Nicks (#164 Saints), who won a ring in Super Bowl 46?

I maintain that Mendenhall was not a bad pick, and Ryan Mundy had a respectable career (2011 playoffs aside). But this is not a draft to remember. These were some powerhouse Steelers teams, but the front office could miss the dart board sometimes too.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers
When you’re in a bumblebee jersey, you can sack quarterbacks with just two fingers.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images


Round 1: #32 DT Ziggy Hood
Round 2: no pick
Round 3: #79 OT Keith Urbick
Round 3: #84 WR Mike Wallace
Round 4: #96 CB Keenan Lewis

Other notable picks:
UDFA OG Ramon Foster

2009 is one of the strangest drafts of the set. It starts with Ziggy Hood, a 4-3 DT who never really learned how to transition to 3-4 DE. Ziggy was better than we remember (just like Mendenhall), and I have fond memories of him living in the Ravens backfield during the 2010 playoffs, but this is not a first round draft pick, even at the end of round 1. (Especially with no 2nd round choice.)

Instead? Well, I can’t help with the D-line, unfortunately. But there were some intriguing prospects elsewhere. Starting with three time Pro Bowl FS Jairus Byrd (#42 Buffalo), who led the league with nine interceptions as a rookie. Ryan Clark is 30, but he’s at the top of his game, so maybe not Byrd. How about center? All Pro Max Unger (#49 Seattle) paved the way for Marshawn Lynch for six years and a Super Bowl win. He’s probably the guy. The only other player that interests me at this point is low urgency — two time All Pro RB LeSean McCoy (#53 Eagles). We don’t need him.

OG Keith Urbik makes some Steelers fans angry still, not for drafting him, but for cutting him before his rookie season. So maybe you still draft him and just keep him this time? Then again, Urbik was hardly a star. He started for three years or so in Buffalo, but wasn’t exactly an Pro Bowler. But you know who was? Two time Pro Bowl OG T.J. Lang (#109 Packers), who won a Super Bowl over Pittsburgh as a second year OT. (And position flexibility too!?) Maybe All Star is too strong for Lang, but he’d have been an upgrade over Urbik.

Mike Wallace is a home run, even if he priced himself out of town. A Pro Bowl starter in 2011, Wallace averaged nearly 20 yards per catch over three years. He’s a keeper. 4th rounder, and Wallace’s childhood buddy, CB Keenan Lewis, is a tougher call. The buzz all summer in 2009 (then 2010, then 2011) was that Lewis would be good. Then he kept disappointing when the lights came up. It wasn’t until 2012, the final year of his rookie deal, that Lewis turned the corner, starting all 16 games opposite Ike Taylor and placing 2nd in the NFL with 23 passes defensed. Of course, that meant the Steelers couldn’t afford him, so off he went. Could anyone else (perhaps someone less maddening) have come at that spot? Well. how about one of the NFL’s more famous brothers, CB Jason McCourty (#203 Titans)? Say you didn’t take Byrd in the 1st; you could save McCourty for later, and grab Pro Bowl FS Glover Quin (#112 Texans), who led the NFL in interceptions in 2014.

In the end, the best player the Steelers acquired in 2009 was probably OG Ramon Foster, who started at OG for 10 year, but came of the UDFA pile. Weird year.

This is how a rookie tells you he’s going to be a superstar. This is the play that broke John Harbaugh’s heart in 2010. Fantastic.
Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images


Round 1: #18 C Maurkice Pouncey
Round 2: #52 OLB Jason Worilds
Round 3: #82 WR Emanuel Sanders
Round 4: #116 LB Thaddeus Gibson

Other notable picks:
#195 WR Antonio Brown

And finally we arrive at another banger of a draft. 2010 is not without question marks, but there are two Hall of Famers in the ranks. That’s a winner. It starts with two time All Pro (and nine time Pro Bowler) Maurkice Pouncey, generally regarded as the top center of the era (see also “Team of the 2010s”). There are other players available in this area, but who cares. We’re drafting Pouncey. (Note: the only player who gives me the slightest pause is New England’s second rounder, a certain tight end named Rob Gronkowski (#42). I still like Pouncey here in the end.)

Round 2 is another tricky one. Jason Worilds could’ve learned from James Harrison and eventually started opposite Woodley. But Worilds couldn’t get his game going until switching sides in years four and five. He eventually recorded 15.5 sacks and 46 QB hits in those seasons. The trouble? Harrison held out and then left for Cincinnati before retiring (briefly), while Woodley couldn’t stay healthy. Under duress, the Steelers tagged Worilds to keep him in town, but before any long-term deal could play out, he abruptly quit football forever to become a missionary. (What?) Worilds was clearly talented, but this is a mess for a 52nd pick.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of edge guys available by this point. The best bet was four time Pro Bowler Everson Griffen (#100 Vikings), but Griffen was a DE and played at 273. That’s not big enough for 3-4 DE, but is probably too big for OLB. He’s not an option. Maybe we have to pay Silverback after all. Meanwhile, the best options at #52 were odd for the Steelers. Two picks after Worilds, the Bengals picked two time Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap (#54), who retired with 100.0 sacks as an edge DE. He was 285 and almost certainly stays on the line in Pittsburgh, where he could have replaced Aaron Smith. But we just drafted Ziggy Hood. Dunlap is a better player, but the Steelers don’t know that yet. This one might be out. How about ILB? At #91, the 49ers took four time All Pro NaVorro Bowman. And while Bowman was injury prone and only ultimately played in 99 games (about six seasons) he was the best in the game for that time. He and Timmons would have been a pair inside. I’ll take it.

Emmanuel Sanders is another talented player who drove me nuts. Sanders was a two time Pro Bowler in Denver but he was one of those guys who dropped the football just a little too much in Pittsburgh (and at just the wrong time). Pairing him with Antonio Brown (two-dogs/one-bone) brought out the best in Brown, but is that worth a 3rd round pick? Maybe we grab a tight end instead (since we skipped Gronkowski): future All Pro Jimmy Graham (#95 Saints). Heath Miller is still the starter, but the Steelers could do a lot with a 6’7 matchup nightmare. Let’s do this instead of Sanders.

As for the fourth pick, Thaddeus Gibson never played a down in Pittsburgh. But Brett Keisel is 32 and Casey Hampton is 33; I know we just drafted Ziggy, but we could use another 300 pounder. And that’s where we’ll find two time All Pro (and eight time Pro Bowl) DT Geno Atkins (#120 Bengals). Atkins is thick enough to play nose, but might be better suited to the DE. He’ll eventually post five seasons with 9.0 sacks or more from the inside; I have a feeling the Steelers could use him like they used Javon Hargrave, and then move him to DE when Ziggy washes out. Then again, if they were worried about the end of Troy Polamalu’s career, there was also four time Pro Bowl SS Kam Chancellor (#133 Seattle), who wouldn’t have been ready to start right away, but could have learned from the best (ever), and maybe saved the Steelers from the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

After Chancellor, the draft gets really quiet, until #195 and some kid from Central Michigan who would be named All Pro seven times before dying his mustache gold and sandbagging his career. Antonio Brown was one of the most exciting players I’ve ever watched. I hate when he’s in a headline now (it’s never good) but man, we’re lucky we got to watch him for a few years there.

Two more. I’m not taking this series up to the most recent years (the jury’s out on those) but we’ll look at 2011-14 and 2015-18. Then maybe there will be some actual new Steelers to argue about. Stay tuned.