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)
Part 6: Mike Tomlin/Kevin Colbert (2007-11)
In this edition, some new problems: after a seven-year run of success, the core of the team is aging out. But more importantly, some of the blue-chip players (who are supposed to carry the roster into the next generation) aren’t panning out — Lamarr Woodley will sign the biggest contract in Steelers defensive history, then fail to stay healthy, Mike Wallace will demand “Larry Fitzgerald money” until he gets shown the door, and the management will replace Bruce Ariens with Todd Haley in an effort to keep Big Ben from an early grave. Big changes are afoot. How will the Steelers reload in the draft? 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.
Round 1: #31 DE Cam Heyward
Round 2: #63 OT Marcus Gilbert
Round 3: #95 CB Curtis Brown
Round 4: #128 CB Cortez Allen
Other notable picks:
#162 LB Chris Carter
2011 is another of those very top-heavy drafts. Despite picking at the end of each round, first two picks were winners, but the rest of the haul was pretty meager. At #31, Cam Heyward is a three time All Pro (and six-time Pro Bowler) with an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to remember now, but people thought he was a bust at first, since it took him three years to earn a starting role, and seven years before his first Pro Bowl (keep that in mind when you’re assessing the last couple years of draft picks). I’m not second-guessing Cam. He’s our guy at #31.
Marcus Gilbert is tougher to call. He lasted eight seasons at right tackle, starting every game of his career but one, on one of the best OL units we’ve seen. Unfortunately he was often injured, averaging only about 11 games per season. Given the state of the Steelers line in the previous few years, though, I’m skittish to turn my back on at starting OT.
For argument’s sake, who else was there at #63? No OL of note (which seals the deal for me). The best bet was probably OLB Justin Houston, who recorded 22.0 sacks in his All Pro 2014 season (the very year the Steelers edge rushers were so depleted they had to beg James Harrison out of retirement). But we don’t know in 2011 that Lamarr Woodley will miss so much time with soft-tissue injures, or that Jason Worilds will take so long to develop (and then leave football so young), so it’s hard to imagine making this pick. It sure would have been nice, though.
Other options were all at positions the Steelers were addressing otherwise: WR Randall Cobb (#64 Packers) was luxury with the “young money crew” (gag) on the way up. 2014 Offensive Player of the Year Demarco Murray (#71 Cowboys) was a running back, and the Steelers just drafted Rashard Mendenhall. They could have grabbed four time Pro Bowl DT Jurrell Casey (#77 Titans) as heir to Casey Hampton (Casey to Casey!), but DL in the first two rounds seems excessive. Gilbert makes the most sense here, with what the team could have possibly known. Hindsight is a tough mistress...
Drafting CBs in both round 3 and 4 should’ve yielded something good, and it seemed like it had for a moment. Curtis Brown (#95) never really flashed; we can safely call him a bust. But Cortez Allen (#128) looked like the real thing at exactly the wrong time — recording two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in the final two weeks of 2012, when pressed into starting for the injured Ike Taylor. With Keenan Lewis about to sign a big contract in New Orleans, and Ike on his way out, Allen looked he was arriving at exactly the right time. Then... I don’t know... He lost his wings. The Steelers paid him that off-season (snake-bit after waiting too long to extend Lewis) but Allen started only 15 contests over the next three seasons, and never looked ready for prime time again.
Lots of fans point to this as the beginning of the Steelers’ CB issues, but it’s probably useful to remember that Allen was a late 4th rounder; he was never supposed to be a star. And he probably would have been a fine rotational backup. Both he and the team were victims of circumstance and timing, it seems to me.
In any case, who else is here? Since we’re definitely dropping Brown, we’ve got #95 to play with. I don’t have a CB in this area, but four picks after Brown, the Seahawks grabbed an ILB who could’ve started alongside Lawrence Timmons: Pro Bowler K.J. Wright. As for Allen’s pick, there IS a corner one round later — another Seahawk you might have heard of: three-time All Pro Richard Sherman (#154). Big, aggressive, hard-hitting — I think Sherman would have thrived in Pittsburgh. His attitude might have rubbed some fans wrong, but I think most, if you gave them sodium-pentothal, would admit they have a lot more patience when the guy is in black-and-gold. (See also: Porter, Joey.) Dick Lebeau would have been REALLY good for Sherman; I think this is a home run.
The only late-round shots to take are for depth. Let’s skip Chris Carter in the 5th (since we grabbed Wright), and pick up an athletic and mistake-free backup QB, Tyrod Taylor (#180 Ravens). Or, if we want, just for fun, we can take the best interior lineman in the draft, five time All Pro C Jason Kelce (#191 Eagles). Kelce and Maurkice Pouncey can trade between center and guard; either configuration makes a battering ram line for the next decade.
Quick observation: I’m noticing as I go through these drafts that some teams have several mid-round rock stars in the same draft. Here, it’s the Seahawks, but it’s been other teams at other times. Seems like you can predict future success that way. It’s no surprise the Hawks got really good in 2013 — they built a core down here from 2010 to 2012.
Round 1: #24 OG David DeCastro
Round 2: #56 OT Mike Adams
Round 3: #86 ILB Sean Spence
Round 4: #109 NT Alameda Ta’amu
Other notable picks:
#159 RB Chris Rainey
#248 OT Kelvin Beachum
The story of the Steelers 2012 draft was all about luck. Two time All Pro David DeCastro wasn’t supposed to be available at #24, but he fell to them (lucky!). Then he got hurt and missed his whole rookie year (unlucky!). ILB Sean Spence was a sideline-to-sideline torpedo, still there in the 3rd (lucky!), but blew out his knee, with such a devastating injury he missed two whole seasons (unlucky!). 7th round dart-throw OT Kelvin Beachum played so well (lucky!) he priced himself out of town (unlucky!). They say greatness is as much about luck as talent — I believe it.
In any case, we’re taking DeCastro. Period. Bobby Wagner (#47 Seattle again) might have caused some doubt, but the Steelers needed OLinemen more than anything, and DeCastro was special.
Unfortunately, 2nd rounder Mike Adams was not — or rather, he’d seemed special at Ohio State, but had character issues surface late in the draft process. Adams drove out I-70 to prove his mettle to the Steelers (his childhood team), and they took a shot with him in round 2. But Adams was missing something, and never really surfaced as the LT force he’d seemed in college. Unfortunately, in taking him, the Steelers passed on All Pro T/G Kelechi Osemele (#60 Ravens). Osemele was mostly a guard, and the Steelers didn’t really need one of those, so maybe this isn’t a huge loss. But they could have used a stud CB still, and two picks after Osemele, the Packers picked up a good one, two time Pro Bowler Casey Hayward (#62) who led the NFL in interceptions in 2016 as a San Diego Charger.
Spence’s career is one you just can’t account for, so I can’t fault the front office for that pick. And there wasn’t a linebacker at #86 that could have replaced him instead. The two best options in this vicinity were positions of low urgency: a couple of four time Pro Bowlers, WR and childhood friend of Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton (#92 Indianapolis) and QB Kirk Cousins (#102 Washington). Neither would have pushed for playing time in Pittsburgh. Anyone would have provided more production in the first few years than Spence (with his injury) but it’s hard to see a rational replacement.
The same cannot be said about mountainous 4th round bust, DT Alameda Ta’amu, who never suited up for a single Steelers game. I can’t get us another 348lb NT at this point (yikes), but if we’re still looking for corners (and we are!), there’s a pretty good one in the next round: All Pro Josh Norman (#143 Carolina). And if we’re willing to forego the legend of Chris Rainey, we can probably take a late-round stab at three time Pro Bowl CB Justin Bethel (#177 Arizona). Lots of DBs in this draft. What a shame that Cortez Allen tricked the Steelers into thinking they had that problem solved...
Round 1: #17 Edge Jarvis Jones
Round 2: #48 RB LeVeon Bell
Round 3: #79 WR Markus Wheaton
Round 4: #111 S Shamarko Thomas
Round 4: #115 QB Landry Jones
Other notable picks:
#206 ILB Vince Williams
2013 is the Rorschach Test of drafts. If you’re a pessimist, you think the story of the draft is Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. If you’re an optimist, it’s Le’Veon Bell and Vince Williams. If you just hope everyone has fun, you’re pleased with the modest careers of Markus Wheaton and Landry Jones. There’s something for everyone.
Let’s start with Jarvis. No. We’re not keeping him. That was easy.
I know why the Steelers drafted Jones: this is the year James Harrison took a bus to Cincinnati, and Lamarr Woodley’s health hit a tipping point. The top three sackers combined for 18 in 2013 (otherwise known as 4.5 fewer than T.J. Watt got by himself in 2021). This team needed edge rushers. So they reached on Jarvis. Understandably desperate, but desperate nonetheless. Well, bad news, friends. There isn’t a better option on the edge. There were some players at other spots, though. Two good ones (since there are now Antwaan Blake sightings at corner) might have been All Pro CBs Xavier Rhodes (#25 Vikings) or Darius Slay (#36 Lions). Either would have been a massive upgrade over everything in the bullpen. We also could have started thinking about life after Heath Miller, and grabbed K.C.’s 2nd round TE Travis Kelce (#63), though that’s probably a stretch at #17. The rest of the reasonable options weren’t at positions of need — mostly WRs like Deandre Hopkins (#27 Texans) or Cordarrelle Patterson (#29 Vikings). Antonio Brown is starting to become a superstar; we might want a WR2, but we aren’t getting that this high.
Round 2 isn’t moving. Le’Veon Bell is a punch line now for his career suicide in 2018, but he might have been the best runner in football (and was on historic pace) for five years. He was also the first Steeler to lead the conference in rushing since Barry Foster, and still holds the team record for scrimmage yards. And he was a terrific bargain at #48. (Pro tip: when the Steelers pick the “wrong” guy this year, remember all the fans who wanted them to take Eddie Lacey instead of Bell.)
In round 3, Wheaton was a letdown. Fine as a WR3, but not really worth #79. Unfortunately, we just missed out on three bangers, starting with three time All Pro S Tyrann Mathieu (#69 Arizona). The Honey Badger is on the Team of the Decade and could have been Troy Polamalu’s heir, but was gone. Then there’s four time Pro Bowl OT Terron Armstead (#75 New Orleans), the anchor LT this team has never had. And finally, five time Pro Bowl WR Keenan Allen (#76 Chargers), who really could have been special across from AB. That must have been hard to watch, from the Steelers War Room. All isn’t lost, though. We could have snuck in front of Baltimore and drafted Pro Bowl NT Brandon Williams (#94). Or, if you’re seething about losing out on Armstead, there was always Packers All Pro LT David Bakhtiari (#109). Either of those two would look good in Pittsburgh.
Then there’s Shamarko Thomas (#111). Oof. I don’t want to talk about him, but I’ll suggest his alternate: future Pro Bowler Micah Hyde (#159 Packers), who can play ether FS or SS. And just for fun, let’s grab another safety, Jordan Poyer (#218 Eagles) who slogged through several dreadful Cleveland seasons before hitting Buffalo and making All Pro at age 30.
(P.S. Pat on the back for finding and developing Vince Williams (#206). Good work, guys! I always liked Vince; I was sorry when he retired.)
Round 1: #15 ILB Ryan Shazier
Round 2: #46 DE Stephon Tuitt
Round 3: #97 WR Dri Archer
Round 4: #118 WR Martavis Bryant
Other notable picks:
2014 is another of those banger drafts. We get one of those every three or four seasons. In this case, three of the top four picks aren’t getting a second thought from me, even though ALL THREE(!) had their careers cut short. (They could all be playing today...)
Ryan Shazier was one of my favorite players to watch, maybe ever. He was the best walking highlight reel since Troy Polamalu, and probably the most impressive athlete this team has had since world-class hurdler Rod Woodson. And he’ll always have a special place in my heart for the forced fumble on Jeremy Hill that led to the amazing (and maddening) playoff win over the Bengals in 2015.
Stephon Tuitt, meanwhile, would have been a regular All Pro by this point in his career if he could have stayed healthy, and if he hadn’t endured the tragic and life-altering death of his brother. Tuitt was every bit as dominant as Cam Heyward on the line. Those guys deserved a decade together.
And I’m of the opinion that Martavis Bryant was the straw that stirred the drink for the Killer B offenses. He split the difference between George Pickens’ athleticism and hands, and Chase Claypool’s physical production (running jet sweeps and deep bombs). If only he had the discipline to keep himself in line.
Whatever the case, I’m taking all of them.
Dri Archer? Maybe not.
Unfortunately, this is not a stacked draft. (All the more impressive how the Steelers made out like bandits, given the options.) Instead of Archer, our best bet is a familiar face: CB Ross Cockrell (#109 Buffalo), whom the Steelers liked anyway, and who would have been a nice rotational guy in a secondary that needed them.
In a mediocre draft, the Steelers killed it in 2014. It’s criminal how these careers all went under.
Uh oh, the team is getting good again. Stay tuned for the last installment, the look at 2015 to 2018. (I’m assuming that 2019 to 2022 are just too close to assess who “could’ve been taken” so I’m leaving that for some future BTSC writer.) For now, Killer B’s are swarming, and a certain three-time Defensive Player of the Year has a kid brother who’s about to make some noise at Wisconsin. See you in the last round —