From Ernie Stautner in 1950 to Joe Greene in '69 to Le'Veon Bell in '13, the Steelers have drafted a bevy of talented players that have thrived wearing the Black and Gold. Here's a countdown of the top-five draft picks in Steelers history.
Honorable Mention: Troy Polamalu (16th overall pick, 2003)
The best player on the 2000s Steelers defense, Kevin Colbert moved up in the 2003 Draft to acquire the athletic safety out of Southern California. After a rough rookie campaign, Polamalu blossomed into the Hall-of-Fame player that fans would become accustomed to seeing in 2004, picking off five passes and earning his first of eight Pro Bowl selections. Polamalu earned All-Pro status the following year in helping the Steelers win their first Super Bowl in 26 years. Polamalu anchored the Steelers No.1 overall defense during their second Super Bowl run in 2008, and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 in helping lead Pittsburgh to its third Super Bowl appearances in six seasons. Polamalu, who retired earlier this month, is regarded as one of the greatest safeties in NFL history, and you won't find many opposing coaches or players that would disagree.
5: Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall pick, 2004)
Big Ben's drop in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft was certainly the Steelers gain. After San Diego and New York swapped quarterbacks Eli Manning (the first overall pick) and Phillip Rivers (the fifth overall pick), Pittsburgh snatched up Roethlisberger, the junior out of Miami of Ohio who engineered the Redhawks to an 11-1 season and MAC championship in 2003. It didn't take Big Ben long to make his mark on the Steelers, taking over for an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 3 of the 2004 season and winning his first 15 regular season games as a starting quarterback, an NFL record. With Big Ben at the helm, Pittsburgh's record is 106-52 in the regular season and 10-5 in the post season, with two Super Bowl titles and three AFC championships. Heading into his 12th season, the 33-year-old Roethlisberger is the Steelers all-time leading in single season and career passing yards, touchdown passes, and career completion percentage.
4: The 1974 Draft (Four Hall-of-Fame players selected)
While this could be considered a cheat on this list, the Steelers historic 1974 Draft class has to be recognized on this list. A playoff team in 1972 and '73, the Steelers draft of '74 ignited Pittsburgh's dynasty. An NFL record four Hall-of-Fame players were selected by Pittsburgh in the '74 Draft in the first five rounds.
Sandwiched between the selections of receivers Lynn Swann (the 21st overall pick) and John Stallworth (82nd overall), Pittsburgh selected the menacing Jack Lambert out of Kent State with the 46th pick. In the fifth round, the Steelers drafted Wisconsin center Mike Webster, who would eventually replace Ray Mansfield as the anchor of Pittsburgh's offensive line. This list doesn't even include tight end Randy Grossman and safety Donnie "The Torpedo" Shell, two essential pieces of the Steelers dynasty that were picked up by Pittsburgh as unrestricted free agents after the '74 Draft.
The Class of '74 was the meat and potatoes of the 70's Steelers; they were in the middle of many of the memoriable moments that made the Steelers a team for the ages. While Lambert set the tone with his 14 tackles and throw-down of the Cowboys Cliff Harris in Super Bowl X, Swann was the game's MVP with his four-catch 161 performance highlighted by his acrobatic 53-yard catch in Pittsburgh's 21-17 victory. Swann caught 15 passes for 364 and scored a touchdown in the Steelers final three Super Bowl victories, while Stallworth scored two touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 35-31 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl XIII while providing two of the biggest plays in Pittsburgh's 31-19 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Lambert's crucial interception late in that game helped seal the Steelers fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
3: Terry Bradshaw (1st overall pick, 1970)
The first quarterback to lead his team to two Super Bowl titles, Bradshaw's career started slow but eventually ended up in Canton, Ohio. Benched several times during the 1974 season, Chuck Noll went back to Bradshaw for a pivotal mid season game at New England. Pittsburgh won the game and the AFC Central division title that day, and Bradshaw and the Steelers never looked back. The Blonde Bomber engineered playoff victories over Buffalo and Oakland that postseason and threw the game-clinching touchdown pass late in the Steelers 16-6 victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Bradshaw played big again in the following Super Bowl against Dallas, throwing two touchdown passes as Pittsburgh became the third team to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Bradshaw's career was just getting started. While they won their first two Super Bowls primarily with defense and behind the a powerful running game featuring Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. That changed in 1978, with Bradshaw embarking on one of the best runs in NFL history for a quarterback. After pacing the NFL in touchdown passes and winning the league's MVP award (the last Steelers to win the award) in '78, Bradshaw earend Super Bowl MVP honors after setting a then-Super Bowl record for passing yards (318, Bradshaw's first-ever 300-yard passing game in the NFL) and touchdown passes (four) in the Steelers' victory over the Cowboys.
For an encore, Bradshaw threw for 3,724 yards, a team single season passing record that wouldn't be broken until Roethlisberger threw for over 4,300 yards in 2009. But one team record Bradshaw still holds that Big Ben is still chasing is Brad's four Super Bowl titles, the final victory earning Bradshaw game MVP honors by throwing for 309 yards and two touchdown passes.
2: Franco Harris (13th overall pick, 1972):
"We didn't win anything before Franco, and we didn't win anything after Franco."
Joe Greene's quote about Franco Harris helps sum up his importance on those 1970s teams.
The Steelers had zero playoff appearances in their first 39 years of existence, but that was all about to change in 1972. While John Henry Johnson was a quality running back for Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the Steelers had never possessed a dominant running back. Before the dawn of the passing attack, a domiant running game was what defined great teams. The Packers had Jim Taylor anchoring their vaunted rushing attack in the 1960s, and the Browns rode Jim Brown to the NFL title in 1964. The Steelers never had that elite runner, until the rookie from Penn State came to the Steel City in the 1972 Draft.
Franco took Pittsburgh and the NFL by storm in 1972, earning Rookie of the Year honors as he rushed for 1,055 starts (in only 10 starts) and 10 touchdowns while earning the first of nine consecutive Pro Bowl selections. Franco won the admiration of seemingly every Pittsburgher that year while also earning a fan in famous singer Frank Sinatra, who was inducted into Franco's fan-created club, "Franco's Italian Army".
The celebrated rookie did it all that season which included being apart of the most iconic play in pro football history. Pittsburgh trailed the Raiders late in their first-ever playoff game, but Harris saved the way by catching a deflected pass on fourth and 10 and racing into the end zone to give the Steelers a shocking victory over Oakland. The play, infamously called the "Immaculate Reception", forever etched Franco Harris' name into Pittsburgh lore. But Harris, and the Steelers, were just getting started.
Behind Harris, his offensive line-anchored by Mike Webster, Gerry Mullins and Sam Davis-and a devastating defense, the Steelers won their first-ever Super Bowl two years later. Franco set a then-Super Bowl record with his 34-carry, 158-yard effort in Super Bowl IX that won him the game's MVP award. Franco continued his assault on opposing defenses for the rest of the decade and helping the Steelers win three more Super Bowls. Harris, who always performed big in big games, is still the Super Bowl career rushing leader with 354 yards that included the game-clinching touchdown in Super Bowl XIV, his final Super Bowl carry.
1: Joe Greene (fourth overall pick, 1969)
Joe Greene is the greatest Steelers draft pick for several reasons, but mainly because he is the player that started it all. Along with first year head coach Chuck Noll, late round pick L.C. Greenwood and a few veterans that included Andy Russell, Greene transformed the culture of the franchise from one that expected to lose to one that would do whatever it took to win.
While the Steelers offense continued to be woeful heading into the 70's, Greene spearheaded a defense that was beginning to make a name for itself after drafting Mel Blount in 1970 and Dwight White in 1971. Greene's leadership, desire to win and sheer greatness at defensive tackle helped the Steelers go from 1-13 in 1969 to 4-10 in 1970 to 6-8 in 1971. With an improving Terry Bradshaw and the addition of Franco Harris in '72, Greene was finally on a team poised for greatness. The Steeelers won their first-ever division title in '72, and were Super Bowl champions for the first time two years later. Greene was the height of his powers at that time, earning the second of his two Defensive Player of the Year awards while recovering a fumble and interception a pass in Super Bowl IX. Greene was the heart of the Steel Curtain Defense, which was completed with the addition of Ernie Holmes in 1972.
In all, Greene earned 11 consecutive Pro Bowl selections, was an All-Pro five times and in 2014 had his No.75 retired by the Steelers. But the number Greene surely is more proud of is four: the number times his Steelers were world champions. Greene's greatness literally can't be measured in stats, as the NFL didn't record individual sack tallies until after Greene's career ended. Greene's greatness is measured by the tradition he helped start in 1969 and that has carried on into Thursday night's NFL Draft, where hopefully another great career will begin.