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Steelers “What if....?”: Draft Edition, Part 1

The best draft rooms still make mistakes.

Houston Texans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The NFL draft is an inexact science. Look no further than new Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker coach, Aaron Curry, as an example. 14 years ago, Curry was viewed as perhaps the most can’t-miss prospect in the 2009 draft. The Seattle Seahawks were about to assemble one of the top defenses of the era, drafting Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Bobby Wagner over the next three years. They spent the #4 overall choice on Curry, and he should have been the nucleus of that rising unit. But he wasn’t. He busted, flaming out in only four seasons.

Curry seems to be a better coach than player (fingers crossed), but the next dozen picks that year featured edge rusher Brian Orakpo, DB Malcolm Jenkins, and (at the same position as Curry) ILB Brian Chushing, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year that season. What kind of team could the Seahawks have fielded if they’d have grabbed one of those players instead of Curry?

That’s the kind of question I’m interested in exploring this spring. Except, of course, through the Steelers history.


A couple years ago, I wrote up a “What if” series, flipping a series of moments in Steelers history, and surmising what could have happened. In this series, I’m not going to project the future. Instead, I’ll take the last 30 years of drafts, and consider the team’s needs at the time, then look at the Steelers’ first few picks, and square that against who else would have been available.

This will be a little interesting, sometimes a little fun, and probably a lot frustrating. But since we’re in roster-building season, thinking about past drafts and free agency periods, I think it’s useful to remember that nobody’s perfect (and that you don’t have to be perfect to be historically great).

Over the next few installments, we’ll look at the Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe years (1993-1999), the Cowher/Kevin Colbert partnership (2000-2006), and the Mike Tomlin/Colbert teams (2007-2021).

But before we get to the modern era, I want to drive home the point:

1980 Super Bowl - Los Angeles Rams v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Let’s talk about Chuck Noll and the 1970s

The early 1970s Steelers boasted perhaps best draft room in the history of the game. You don’t draft nine Hall of Famers in a five year span (with a tenth signed off the UDFA pile) unless you know what you’re doing. That’s an average of two HOFers per draft, maintained over half a decade. Good god. And it doesn’t even take into account the should-be HOFers, like L.C. Greenwood, or the guys who were “only” All Pros and Pro Bowlers, like Mike Wagner or Dwight White.

When we think of the 70s Steelers draft room, it’s hard not to go straight to 1974, the greatest draft in the history of professional sports. Six Hall of Famers entered the NFL that season; five of them were Steelers. No NFL club has ever picked more than two HOFers in one draft (and one of those teams to snag two was the 1970 Steelers). Even those who hate Pittsburgh to their bones have to admit we’ll never see that level of greatness again.

But that same War Room whiffed plenty over those years as well. Let’s take a quick survey:

Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images



High Picks:
1st: #4 DT Joe Greene
2nd: #30 QB Terry Hanratty
2nd: #42 RB Warren Bankston
3rd: #56 OT Jon Kolb
4th: #82 WR Bob Campbell

Other notable pick:
10th #238 DE L.C. Greenwood

Chuck Noll’s first draft choice was the most important in team history. Other good players were drafted in the first round of 1969, but none would have been worth skipping Joe Greene. So I’m not even tracking those picks.

Round two is a different story. Terry Hanratty had been a star at Notre Dame, and the Steelers probably believed they’d locked up the QB position for a decade. Instead, Hanratty’s career completion percentage was 38.3%, and he posted a negative-11 TD/INT ratio. There isn’t a great quarterback Noll could have snagged instead, but if he wanted to keep building his defense, Miami (FL) linebacker Ted Hendricks was taken by the Colts three picks after Hanratty. Hendricks was a four-time All Pro who landed in the Hall of Fame. He could have apprenticed with Andy Russell, and eventually teamed with Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Hard to imagine the best linebacking corps in history getting better, but this one might have.

Pittsburgh had a second pick in round two that year, #42, and went for Tulane running back Warren Bankston. Bankston eked out an eight year career despite compiling only 684 yards on the ground, eventually winning a Super Bowl as a tight end for the Raiders (though he got to watch the Immaculate Reception from the Steelers sideline). Interesting career, but not a 2nd round bell cow. Who else could have run the ball in Pittsburgh? Well, just six picks after Bankston, Kansas City drafted Ed Podolak, who amassed nearly 4500 yards in his six year career. Fifteen picks later, the Dolphins chose Mercury Morris, who would team with Larry Csonka to become the first teammates in NFL history to both top 1000 yards in a season. But if the Steelers really squinted their eyes right, they might have seen Kansas State’s Larry Brown (#191 Washington) – a two-time All Pro, who retired with over 8000 yards from scrimmage. Not a terrible consolation prize.

How about round three? The Steelers tapped Jon Kolb, who lasted nine years, and started four Super Bowls. That’s a keeper, but not the only option. Kolb came at pick #56. Still on the board were defensive backs Bill Thompson and Bill Bradley, both of whom were All Pros who retired with over 34 INTs. But if you still wanted an O-Lineman, six time Pro Bowl Guard Bob Kuechenberg (#80 Miami) would be named 2nd team All Decade for the 1970s.

Finally in round 4, Pittsburgh took Penn State wideout Bob Campbell, who made one catch in his entire NFL career. Nine picks later, Houston would select Charlie Joiner of Grambling State. Joiner would retire as the all-time leading receiver in NFL history, and land in the Hall of Fame.

Any draft that brings you both Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood is a home run. But it’s useful to notice that that same front office chose Campbell over Joiner. Nobody’s perfect.

Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images


Everything still, though DL is now less urgent.

Top Picks:
1st: #1 QB Terry Bradshaw
2nd: #28 WR Ron Shanklin
3rd: #53 CB Mel Blount
4th: #80 OT Ed George
4th: #90 RB Jim Evenson

With the #1 overall choice, Pittsburgh chose the best deep-ball thrower in the history of the game, Louisiana Tech bomber Terry Bradshaw. Like with Mean Joe, I’m not going to entertain the notion of the team picking someone else. There’s simply not a better choice they could have made.

The second selection, however, was a little dicier. Ron Shanklin was a decent wide receiver, who made a Pro Bowl in 1973 after leading the league in yards per catch (with a banging 23.7). But the team clearly wasn’t getting what they wanted from their WR corps, as they followed Shanklin’s all star season by drafting Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Shanklin started Super Bowl IX and never played another down in Pittsburgh.

There aren’t a lot of WR options if the Steelers decided not to go with Shanklin. However, nineteen picks after him was a decent alternative: DT Jerry Sherk, who went to Cleveland and could have teamed with Greene for a legendary interior line. Sherk was a four-time Pro Bowler who was named 1st team All Pro in 1976, ahead of none other than Greene and Alan Page (both 2nd teamers) who may have been the two best DT’s in NFL history. That could have been a good pick.

Choice #3 is untouchable. Mel Blount has a case for the greatest cornerback in league history. It’s insanity that he lasted until the third round.

The rest of the Steelers draft, however, is less auspicious. Almost none of the remaining 16 players the Steelers selected ever even suited up in the NFL. The most impressive career among them was 8th round WR Dave Smith, who is most famous for spiking the ball at the five yard line, not realizing he hadn’t scored a touchdown yet.

So who could the team have picked? Well, round seven of the 1970 draft yielded a couple of defensive backs who could have paired with Blount to give the Steelers a monster no-fly-zone. Pick #159 was two time All Pro safety Jake Scott, MVP of Super Bowl VII for the the 17-0 Dolphins. Four picks later, Cincinnati chose cornerback Lemar Parrish, who would go on to eight Pro Bowls in a dozen years. He and Scott both retired with over 45 career interceptions. Between Blount and these choices, the Steelers made six selections, four of whom never logged a single NFL snap. Imagine that rookie secondary…

Pittsburgh Steelers Jack Ham Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images


Everything except QB

High picks:
1st: #8 WR Frank Lewis
2nd: #34 LB Jack Ham
3rd: #60 RB Steve Davis
4th: #86 OG Gerry Mullins
4th: #104 DE Dwight White

Other Notable Picks:
5th: #106 OT/TE Larry Brown
8th: #203 DT Ernie Holmes
11th: #268 S Mike Wagner

1971 is another really strong draft, but it started strangely. Just like Ron Shanklin in 1970, Frank Lewis was a decent player. He played thirteen seasons, made a Pro Bowl (as a Buffalo Bill), and retired with more catches or yards than Lynn Swann. But he was hardly worth the 8th overall choice.

Players who were still on the board at the #8 overall pick included running back John Brockington (three Pro Bowls in Green Bay), linebacker Isiah Robertson (two time All Pro with the Rams), or cornerback Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ Assassin who made the Immaculate Reception happen. Any of these players could have filled a hole for the Steelers. But my choice was the Rams’ second 1st rounder: DE Jack Youngblood (#20), a five time All Pro who retired with (by PFR’s count) 151.5 sacks, and landed in the Hall of Fame. Youngblood is also one of the toughest players in NFL history, who famously played two playoff games and Super Bowl XIV (against the Steelers) with a broken leg. I defy you to tell me he wouldn’t have made a great Steeler.

That said, if Pittsburgh wanted to wait for Dwight White in round four, they could have used that first round choice on the man St. Louis chose at #43, HOF guard Dan Dierdorf. Picking Dierdorf probably makes Gerry Mullins superfluous. So who else would be available at #86? Picks #79 and #99 were stars, but played positions of low urgency – DE Lyle Alzado and QB Joe Theismann. Maybe the better pick would be a replacement for Lewis. The middle rounds of this draft saw All Pro kick returner and WR Mel Grey (#147 St. Louis) and HOF WR Harold Carmichael (#161 Philly). Instead, the Steelers picked players named Mel Holmes (#112), Fred Brister (#128), and Craig Hanneman (#138). That’s a total of five starts between them.

1971 was a superb draft class for the Steelers, but it’s stunning how many misses there were even then.

Super Bowl XIII - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Dallas Cowboys - January 21, 1979 Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images


Running back, cornerback, depth all over

High picks:
1st: #13 RB Franco Harris
2nd: #38 OT Gordon Gravelle
3rd: #63 TE John McMakin
4th: #80 DB Lorenzo Brinkley
4th: #88 LB Ed Bradley

Other Notable Picks:
5th: #113 DT Steve Furness
11th: #273 QB Joe Gilliam

Franco is another of those “you don’t think twice” picks. The next four choices were mixed, though. Gravelle started two Super Bowls, for example, but the team moved on before Lombardi number three. What could they have done instead? Well, if the team wanted to grab an offensive lineman, there were two Pro Bowlers taken in the fifth: center Tom DeLeone (Bengals #106) and SOB guard Conrad Dobler (Cardinals #110). But my choice would have been a WR, the Raiders’ fourth round pick, HOFer Cliff Branch. That’s right, the Steelers used first and second round draft choices on receivers in the previous two seasons, but then ignored Cliff Branch.

In the later rounds, the team didn’t hit a ton of home runs. In fact, after Furness, the Steelers made 14 choices. Jefferson Street Joe had a meaningful (if short) career. The remaining thirteen men suited up for 22 NFL games. There weren’t a lot of gems late in the draft, but among them were Bears DT Jim Osborne (81 career sacks), Bengals OT Stan Waters (two Pro Bowls), Browns QB Brian Sipe (1980 NFL MVP), and Rams DT Larry Brooks (five time Pro Bowler). None of those were positions of great need, but Waters probably would have been a starter, and the rest would have been great rotational players.

Pittsburgh Steelers Jack Ham, L.C. Greenwood, and J.T. Thomas SetNumber: X21019


Secondary, linebacker, trench depth, wide receiver

High picks:
1st: #24 CB J.T. Thomas
2nd: #50 DB Ken Phares
3rd: #76 OG Roger Bernhardt
4th: #102 LB Gail Clark

Other Notable Picks:
8th: #192 LB Loren Toews

As far as I’m concerned, this entire draft is up for grabs. Thomas was the best player selected, starting three Super Bowls and making the Pro Bowl in 1976, but was underwhelming compared to his teammates. In the second round, they went secondary again, grabbing a player, Ken Phares, who never saw game action at all. In fact, Phares, Bernhardt, and Clark combined for three NFL seasons with zero starts. All duds. Loren Toews was a contributor, and started Super Bowl XIII, but was never a legit heir to Andy Russell. This is a mediocre draft.

So who could have joined the black-and-gold? Well, two picks after Thomas, the Buffalo Bills chose HOF guard Joe DeLamielleure. If the Steelers were looking for O-linemen (and the Berhnardt selection suggests they were), DeLamielleure would have been a great pickup in round 1. If the team was sold on Thomas, they still could have upgraded the interior OL by grabbing four time Pro Bowler Ed Newman, who Miami picked in the sixth.

Instead of Phares, there weren’t a lot of obvious prospects. At the 53rd spot, Dallas chose DE Harvey Martin, who would go on to be co-MVP of Super Bowl XII, but the Steelers had two young DE studs in L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White. Ten picks later, two other greats appeared at spots the Steelers didn’t need: RB Terry Metcalf and QB Dan Fouts. If Noll still wasn’t sold on Bradshaw, selecting Fouts at the 50th pick could have been a really fascinating choice. But I’m going to suggest that instead of Phares and Bernhardt, the Steelers could have grabbed three-time All Pro OT Leon Gray (#78 Miami) and three time Pro Bowl LB Tom Jackson (#88 Denver), who you probably know from his years alongside Chris Berman on ESPN. He’d have been a fine apprentice to Andy Russell.

Pittsburgh Steelers Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert, Super Bowl X SetNumber: X20184 TK2 R17


Wide receiver, linebacker, center (to eventually replace Ray Mansfield), depth

High picks:
1st: #21 WR Lynn Swann
2nd: #46 MLB Jack Lambert
4th: #82 WR John Stallworth
4th: #100 S Jimmy Allen

Other Notable Picks:
5th: #125 C Mike Webster
UDFA: SS Donny Shell

No notes. Perfect. The only possible question mark is Jimmy Allen, who struggled to get on the field in Pittsburgh (his career took off when he left for Detroit in 1978). But this was a team with few needs. I suppose they could have taken TE Henry Childs (#109 Atlanta), who made a Pro Bowl with New Orleans in 1979. But that’s nitpicking. The best late round option would have been legendary kick returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (#365 Houston), but that wasn’t a need either. Swann recorded the second highest punt return yardage in NFL history as a rookie. The Steelers played the 1974 draft like a video game.

When it’s all said and done, the 1970s Steelers were probably the most dominant team in the history of the game. They’re the only team to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice, and they probably would have three-peated in 1976 without a perfect storm of injuries. Moreover, they did it all in-house, drafting and developing their own players. And yet, as we can see above, even that front office was capable of misfires and flubs. Keep that in mind as the draft noise picks up this spring.

Stay tuned for a sweep through the Cowher and Tomlin drafts as well. Onward.