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The Steelers have become the NFL's wide receiver factory

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Once upon a time, it seemed the Steelers could hardly do any wrong when drafting a linebacker -- with all their successes, we'll forgive the Huey Richardson and Alonzo Jackson picks. Now, they seem to be the best in the league at drafting and developing talent at a much different position.

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If the Steelers of the late 1980s and 1990s were the NFL's Linebacker Factory, perhaps the Steelers from 2009 onward have become the league's Wide Receiver Factory.

In 1987, Pittsburgh drafted Hardy Nickerson and Greg Lloyd.  Lloyd would go on the become one of the most revered linebackers in Pittsburgh lore, while Nickerson, in inside linebacker, would go on to have a very long and productive career for the Steelers, Buccaneers, Jaguars and Packers.

Levon Kirkland's started 10 of his 11 years, and he shattered the stereotype for what an inside linebacker in the NFL should look like -- he played his career at 275 pounds or more, yet moved nimbly and quickly in coverage.

Chad Brown became a full-time starter in his second of four Pittsburgh seasons before taking over a starting role for the next eight years in a Seahawks uniform.

Jason Gildon is the all-time sacks leader in Pittsburgh.  Carlos Emmons was a starter, and solid contributor, for three teams across his eleven-year career. Joey Porter? Besides starting for three teams over 13 years, the team thought enough of him to name him their Outside Linebackers Coach this off-season.

In between were other solid contributors, too, like Carlos Emmons and Earl Holmes.  And they all have one thing in common.

They were all drafted by the Steelers.

Sure, it has continued to some degree: Kendrell Bell, Larry Foote, LawrenceTimmons, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Sean Spence, Vince Williams. And James Harrison was brought along from undrafted free agent to 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.

But a shift seems to be occurring. Recently drafted linebackers aren't showing the same level of promise, but old habits die hard, and the trend is re-emerging now at wide receiver.

It actually begins to take root in 2000 when the team drafted Plaxico Burress. Two years later it was Antwaan Randle-El, and in 2006 there was Santonio Holmes.  All would become starters and major contributors during their rookie contracts, and all would go elsewhere to varying degrees of success.

Then, in 2009, the talent explosion began in earnest.

Mike Wallace would lead the league in yards per reception as a rookie, and wound up second in his sophomore season. Sure, he only knew one trick.  But he was a master of it.

In 2010, the team drafted Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.  Sanders never realized his potential as a Steeler, but judging by how his first year with the Denver Broncos transpired, it appears Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert were right in seeing talent when they drafted him.

That Brown kid? He's managed to catch 239 passes in the last two seasons. He led the league in catches and yards in 2014.

In 2013, it was Markus Wheaton, who lost his first season to injuries but had a pretty decent year in 2014. It might have been as solid a year as a second-year, number-two receiver could have, except for one thing.

The Steelers drafted Martavis Bryant in 2014. After not seeing a helmet, let alone playing time, for the first six weeks, Bryant exploded out of the gates. His first career catch was a touchdown.  He had five touchdowns on his first ten career catches including the longest catch in the league at 94 yards, and finished the year with 26 catches, 549 yards and eight touchdowns -- in just ten games. He is the odds-on favorite to start opposite Brown in 2014.

This year, the team drafted Sammie Coates. He's raw but, like Bryant before him, has all the physical tools to be as good as he chooses to be.

That's four starting receivers in five drafts, one who almost certainly will be a full-time starter in 2015, and another with a ton of potential. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another team that has had that kind of success drafting wideouts in recent years.  Maybe the Packers are close, with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but they aren't quite there.

Hopefully, the team can hang on to some of these guys for second contracts. But, if not, it seems like they have little trouble drafting new ones.