Ranking Steelers' Draft Classes in the Kevin Colbert Era
Even this year, when the team is coming off a disappointing season and is in need of immediate help at several positions, the organization has largely resisted the temptation to dip into the free-agent market. It let several of its own high-profile players walk to other teams and passed on signing any but the most bargain-basement replacements.
This philosophy toward roster management may make for relatively unexciting offseasons, but it has paid off over time.
Since the 2000 season, Pittsburgh has won 64.9 percent of its regular-season games, made the playoffs eight times, captured three AFC titles and been crowned NFL champion twice.
Rebuilding through the draft has worked for the Steelers, thanks obviously, to their front office’s ability to consistently scout and acquire talent capable of playing at the professional level.
Just as obviously, Pittsburgh’s future success will hinge on how well Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers’ front office can scout and acquire talent in coming years.
After all, not every draft has been a home run for the Steelers. The team has had its fair share of duds over the past decade.
Players selected in every round of the draft have failed to live up to expectations, and many never once put on a black and gold jersey before disappearing into oblivion.
With the oldest snap-adjusted defense in the NFL, the pressure is on Colbert and company to nail this year’s draft. With a little less than a month to go before the big day, now is a good time to review Pittsburgh’s draft history under the current general manager.
The following list analyzes and ranks the Steelers’ draft classes since 2000. It runs from worst to best and excludes the three most recent crops of rookies.
Most players take a few years to mature into productive NFL players, so evaluating players based only on their first few seasons of work would not necessarily give a clear indication of the real strength of a draft class.
For example, former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis toiled in relative obscurity in nickel packages for the first three years of his career. However, Lewis won a starting spot opposite Ike Taylor last year and proceeded to have one of the best seasons of any player at his position in 2012.
The rankings are based on numerous factors, including the amount of time each draftee has spent on the field for the Steelers and each player’s approximate value (AV) while playing in Pittsburgh.
AV is an attempt by analysts at Pro-Football-Reference.com to assign a numerical value to every player at every position for every year in NFL history. For more information about the methodology, click here.
Last season marked the last time that any member of the Steelers’ ill-fated 2008 draft class appeared on the field for the team that originally drafted him.
With the departure of first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall to the Cardinals and sixth-round choice Ryan Mundy to the Giants, the final representative of that group bid adieu to Pittsburgh. Given that none of those players has been in the league more than five years, that is a sad testament to how badly the front office whiffed on its picks that year.
The highlights of the 2008 draft class were clearly Mendenhall and Mundy. The former had a very good three-season stretch from 2009-11, averaging 1,103 yards and almost 10 touchdowns during that period.
Injuries and controversy, however, dogged the running back last year. By season’s end, Mendenhall’s ticket out of town was booked, and very few were surprised when the Steelers passed on re-signing the free agent.
The best that can be said about Mundy is that he appeared in a lot of games for a sixth-round pick. The perennial backup’s AV/game, however, was a dismal .125, the third-lowest rate of any Steelers' draft choice since 2000.
The rest of the class is a lackluster bunch that went mostly unnoticed over the past five years.
Fifth-round selection Dennis Dixon arguably had the most memorable Steelers career, going 2-0 as a starter in 2010 while Ben Roethlisberger served a suspension and Byron Leftwich recovered from a knee injury.
Unfortunately, Dixon never appeared in another game for Pittsburgh and signed with the Ravens before last season.
At least Steelers' fans will remember him kindly. Second-round pick Limas Sweed’s lasting contribution was dropping two certain touchdowns in the 2008 playoffs. Before blowing out his knee after the 2009 season and disappearing from the NFL, the big receiver barely factored in the Steelers’ offense, seeing just 15 passes and catching only seven of them.
Third-rounder Bruce Davis and fourth-round selection Tony Hills combined to appear in just eight games in the black and gold. That is still eight more than sixth-round pick Mike Humpal, who never played a down for the Steelers.
As a result of this accumulation of busts, Pittsburgh's 2008 draft class had the lowest games played per year, per draft pick, of any crop of rookies selected since 2000. The group also had the lowest AV per pick and the third-lowest percentage of picks who played at least 10 games per year for at least four seasons.
One of the biggest reasons why Colbert and company face so much pressure to hit a home run in the 2013 draft is the Steelers’ bad luck in recent drafts.
The team followed its terrible 2008 draft with a performance the following year that was almost as bad. Though not completely gone like their peers who preceded them in entering the NFL, very few of the members of the class of 2009 are still in Pittsburgh.
It may seem surprising that the 2009 draft class turned out so bad because, at first blush, it appears decent. That year saw 2012 starters Ziggy Hood, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis join the team.
It also unearthed seventh-rounder David Johnson, a backup tight end and fullback who appeared in 47 of a possible 48 Steelers games from 2009-2011.
More detailed analysis, however, reveals that aside from third-round selection Wallace, the crop of players who joined Pittsburgh that year have not contributed very much on the field during the past four seasons.
Though he has appeared in every Steelers’ game since 2009, Hood has the lowest AV/game of any first-round pick since 2000 and was one of the worst defensive linemen in the NFL in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus’ rankings.
Third-round choice Lewis was obviously one of the revelations of the 2012 campaign, but as mentioned before, he had made only limited contributions in his first three years in the NFL. Lewis appeared in just 13 games in 2009 and 2010.
The only other player from the 2009 draft class to have anything approaching a season in Pittsburgh was Joe Burnett, the fifth-rounder who played in 15 games on special teams during his rookie year.
The other four selections from Pittsburgh's draft class appeared in a combined two games for the Steelers. Kraig Urbik, that year’s second pick, was arguably the biggest bust for Pittsburgh in the past decade. Like sixth-round selection RaShon Harris and seventh-rounder A.Q. Shipley, the tackle from Wisconsin never suited up for the Steelers.
With so little time spent on the field, the 2009 crop of draft picks, unsurprisingly produced very little return on investment. Despite the presence of Wallace, who has the 30th-highest AV/year among the 288 players who have appeared for the Steelers for at least four seasons, the 2009 draft class had the lowest AV per player per game of any group drafted by Kevin Colbert.
For all of the criticism leveled against Mike Tomlin for his inability to identify good young talent (much of it justified if he had anything to do with the 2008 and 2009 debacles), the draft the year before he joined the team left him having to fill plenty of holes.
More than half of the Steelers’ picks that year never played a single down for Pittsburgh. As with the 2008 draft class, not one player who was a rookie in 2006 still plays for the team and most of them are not missed.
On the plus side, 2006 brought wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the Steelers. In his four years in black and gold, the former first-round pick amassed nearly 4,000 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns. He finished his career in Pittsburgh with the 23rd-highest AV per year in team history among players with at least four seasons of service.
Most importantly, however, Holmes was part of one of the most iconic and exciting plays in recent Steelers' history. The wideout’s tiptoe catch as he fell out of the end zone won Pittsburgh its sixth Super Bowl in 2009.
Unfortunately, repeated run-ins with the law led the Steelers to trade Holmes to the Jets after that season.
The only other member of that draft class to play in Pittsburgh for more than three years was fourth-rounder Willie Colon. The big guard out of Hofstra was a solid but unspectacular player from 2009-2011, but struggled with injuries during the second half of his tenure with the Steelers.
Colon missed all of the 2010 season with a torn Achilles tendon and all but one game in 2011 with a triceps injury. Despite appearing in 12 games and playing at an above-average level this past year, Colon was released by the Steelers after the season for salary cap reasons.
Weighed down by the five draft choices who never played a down for Pittsburgh, the 2006 draft class averaged the second-fewest games per player per year since 2000. Not surprisingly, it had the lowest percentage of players who managed to get on the field for at least 10 games a year for four seasons.
The Pittsburgh draft class with the second-lowest percentage of players who averaged at least 10 games per year for four years was the group that came into the league in 2004.
Like the draft that followed two years later, the Steelers’ 2004 selections netted two good picks in the early rounds and almost nothing in the subsequent rounds.
The first three players selected in 2004 have combined to appear in 286 games. The remaining five played in just six during the nine years since they were drafted. In 2006, the team’s first four picks have accounted for all of the games played by the entire draft class.
So what puts the class of 2004 ahead of their peers who came to the team in 2006?
To begin with, the top two picks in 2004 are actually still with the Steelers.
In addition, those two players have been on the field contributing for a lot more time, and not just because they came into the league two years earlier.
Roethlisberger (picked in the first round) and tackle Max Starks (third round) have never missed a season in Pittsburgh, plugging along for nine years while averaging 14.1 and 13.7 games, respectively.
Perhaps more importantly, Roethlisberger and Starks have simply been better than Holmes and Colon. Big Ben has the fifth-highest AV/year among Steelers with at least four years with the team, while Starks ranks 117th on the list and Colon places 193rd.
The Roethlisberger pick alone probably would have been enough to rank the 2004 draft class above the group from 2006, because that selection netted the Steelers that rarest of assets: the franchise quarterback.
Either the best or second-best signal-caller in team history (depending on whether one prefers passing ability or Super Bowl MVPs), Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at present. It is not surprising that the Steelers’ recent run as a Super Bowl contender has coincided with Big Ben’s time in the league.
Landing firmly in the middle of the pack is the Steelers' 2005 draft class.
As one might expect, the Steelers’ selections that year were neither excellent nor terrible. Those picks netted Pittsburgh only one bona fide star, but the team also got several contributors and selected only two players who never stepped on an NFL field.
A respectable four of the Steelers’ eight draft choices in 2005 played in at least 10 games a year for four seasons, ranking that year’s draft class in the top half of these 10 drafts by that measure. Second-rounder Bryant McFadden, third-round pick Trai Essex and sixth-round choice Chris Kemoeatu each played in Pittsburgh in at least six seasons.
When on the field, though, they were far from outstanding as those three players’ individual AVs/year ranked in the bottom 100 among the 228 Steelers who played for the team for at least four seasons.
Overall, the 2005 draft class had the lowest AV per player per game of any group since 2000.
The only thing that keeps the class of 2005 from falling closer the bottom of this list is Heath Milller. The first-round pick from Virginia has emerged as one of the five best tight ends in the league over the past couple of years and was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise disappointing 2012 Steelers team.
Thanks to Miller, the 2005 draft class has two Pro Bowl selections to its name and at least one Steeler who ranks among the organization’s current best.
With three players whose career AV ranks in the top 125 among the 810 players who have suited up for the Steelers since 1950, the 2000 draft class produced several key contributors who helped Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl win of the 21st century.
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress is the obvious star of the class of 2000. In six seasons spread over two stints in Pittsburgh, the first-rounder put up more than 1,000 yards receiving twice, scored 23 touchdowns and averaged a healthy 15.9 yards per catch. His 7.8 AV/year ranked him 53rd among players with at least four years of service with the Steelers.
Unfortunately, five years with the two New York teams and some time in prison cut short Burress' contributions in black and gold.
Less prominent than Burress, but arguably just as valuable, was tackle Marvel Smith. Thanks to nine years of playing more than 12 games a season at a high level, the second-round pick finished his career with the 59th-highest total AV of any player to suit up for the Steelers since 1950.
Linebacker Clark Haggans proved to be one of Pittsburgh’s biggest draft steals of the decade. In a four-year stretch from 2004-2007, the fifth-round selection averaged 14.25 games, 58.25 tackles and 6.25 sacks per season.
Defensive lineman Kendrick Clancy and defensive back Hank Poteat were also steady contributors. The former appeared in 52 games in five seasons while the latter averaged more than 13 games in his three years in Pittsburgh.
Holding the 2000 draft class back are the other four selections.
Fourth-rounder Danny Farmer, fifth-rounder Tee Martin and sixth-rounders Chris Combs and Jason Gavadza have totalled just nine games with the Steelers. Farmer never played in Pittsburgh and Gavadza was released before ever stepping on an NFL field.
Pittsburgh's 2001 draft marked the beginning of a three-year run of brilliance for the Steelers.
That draft class had the third-highest proportion of players who averaged 10 games played for Pittsburgh for at least four years since 2000. It also had the third-largest percentage of draftees whose AV/year ranked in the top 75 among Steelers who have logged at least four years with the team.
The team nailed its No. 1 pick in 2001, selecting nose tackle Casey Hampton. The former Texas Longhorn has been a mainstay of the Steelers’ defensive line, appearing in the most games of any Steeler draft pick since 2000. His stellar play has earned him five trips to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, marking the second-most for a Steeler drafted in the first decade of the 21st century.
Second-round pick Kendrell Bell also made the Pro Bowl, earning a selection in his rookie year. The inside linebacker booked a trip to Hawaii, thanks to an 82-tackle, nine-sack performance in his first season in the NFL.
Bell’s next two years with the Steelers were nearly as good before he injured his knee in 2004, missed much of that season and was released by the Steelers prior to the 2005 campaign.
Fifth- and sixth-round selections Chukky Okobi and Rodney Bailey were far from stars, but each made valuable contributions for Pittsburgh. Okobi averaged almost 13 games at center for six seasons. Bailey, a defensive end out of Ohio State, averaged 15 games in the four years he played in Pittsburgh.
Though this talent ranks the class of 2001 ahead of most of the rest of the draft classes from its decade, the group isn’t consistently strong enough to supplant the best classes of the Colbert era. Fourth-rounder Mathias Nkwenti, sixth-round choice Roger Knight and seventh-rounder Chris Taylor contributed almost nothing in Pittsburgh.
Nkwenti’s career consisted of one game in 2001 and one in 2003. Linebacker Knight saw time with the Saints from 2001-2004, but never stepped on the field for the Steelers. Taylor never made an NFL squad.
Owing to the rather unusual circumstances that produced it, the Steelers’ 2003 draft is one of the hardest to evaluate.
For the only time in the first 10 years of the Colbert era, Pittsburgh entered the draft with fewer than seven picks. The team had traded three of its 2003 picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to get a better first-round slot, leaving the Steelers with just five picks.
Clearly, the 2003 draft class is not as deep as the others from that decade. Had the Steelers made other choices with its picks it kept, that year’s draft probably would have ranked lower, but what Pittsburgh did with those five selections rivals their best performances of all time.
With its first-round pick, Pittsburgh took future Hall-of-Famer Troy Polamalu, a 10-year veteran who has arguably been the league’s best strong safety since he came into the NFL. During his career, Polamalu has been named an Associated Press First-Team All-Pro four times, was invited to play in the Pro Bowl seven times, and was chosen as the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. He also has the 14th-highest AV/year among Steelers who have played with the team for at least four years.
Just getting a superstar like Polamalu would have made the 2003 draft an unqualified success, but the Steelers added to their riches by scooping up cornerback Taylor in the fourth round.
Although not a superstar like his teammate in the defensive backfield, Taylor is a very good cornerback who has started for the Steelers in eight of his 10 years with the team. He has also been extremely healthy, missing only seven games over the course of his career.
Pittsburgh’s other three picks were pretty forgettable—Alonzo Jackson and Brian St. Pierre combined to appear in just 10 games in three total years, and J.T. Wall never played in the NFL—but its two marquee selections that year have been so good that the 2003 draft class has the highest AV per player per game of any in its decade.
Unsurprisingly, it also has second-highest percentage of players who ranked in the top 75 Steelers with at least four years with the team based on AV/year.
Those who want to defend Mike Tomlin’s skill at evaluating talent could point to the 2007 draft as an example of the type of players the young coach is capable of selecting.
In Tomlin’s first year in Pittsburgh, the Steelers hit an absolute home run in the draft. The team picked up two players who have become part of the backbone of the defense, a solid blocking tight end, a starting cornerback and a special teams contributor.
The players that Pittsburgh acquired appeared in the most games per player per year of any group that joined the team since 2000. More importantly, the Steelers added many of the pieces that helped the team reach the 2011 Super Bowl.
With its first two picks, Pittsburgh acquired inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Both have turned into great players and have continued the line of superior Steelers linebackers that dates back to the days of Jack Lambert and Jack Ham.
Despite being the second-round pick in 2007, Woodley got off to a faster start as he racked up 35 sacks in his second, third and fourth seasons in Pittsburgh and was named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad after the 2009 campaign.
Timmons didn’t crack the starting lineup until his third year in the league, but he quick established himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the game. Except for a 2011 season in which he was forced to play out of position, Timmons ranked among the top-10 inside linebackers in every year that he has been a starter, according to Pro Football Focus. The website judged him to be the best player at his position in 2010.
After the two linebackers, the Steelers picked up Matt Spaeth, a tight end out of Minnesota. Though not much of a receiver, Spaeth is a very effective run blocker. He has also been extremely durable. In his four years with the Steelers, the third-round pick missed just four games.
Though not the best punter in the league, fourth-round selection Daniel Sepulveda was a solid contributor who spent four years with the team and appeared in 52 games.
William Gay was another late-round Steelers pick who provided good return on investment. Acquired with Pittsburgh’s second fifth-round pick of the 2007 draft, Gay played in every single game in his five years with the team. By no means a star, the former Louisville Cardinal was an above-average nickelback and backup cornerback, recording almost nine passes defended per year. Gay proved good enough to start 37 games for the Steelers before leaving for the Arizona Cardinals before the 2012 season.
Though none of Pittsburgh’s other three picks played in more than eight games or lasted more than one season with the team, the strength of the rest of the draft class was enough to rank it among the best that Pittsburgh has picked since 2000.
The class of 2007 had the second-highest percentage of players who lasted four years with the team while averaging at least 10 games played per season. Because Timmons’s and Woodley’s AV/year rank among the top 75 all-time among Steelers with four years of tenure, the group also had the highest percentage of players that made that list.
Those three late-round picks the Steelers whiffed on in 2007 were the only flaws in that year’s draft performance.
Select contributors instead of duds with those choices, and the team would be looking at something approximating a perfect draft.
That’s just about what Pittsburgh achieved in 2002, when it had its best draft since Colbert joined the team. It’s hard to imagine how the team could have done better, considering it produced one of the Steelers’ best players of the past 10 years in the seventh round that year.
Though blessed with a little less star power at the top than the 2007 draft class, nearly all of the players whom the team picked in 2002 lasted at least four seasons with the team while appearing in at least 10 games per year. Only seventh-round pick LaVar Glover never panned out.
Interestingly, the two best players to emerge from the 2002 rookie class were both selected in the later rounds of that year’s draft.
Larry Foote, who has manned one of the Steelers’ inside linebacker spots for the better part of a decade, was picked up in the fourth round. Thanks to his consistency and longevity, Foote has played long enough and at a high enough level to rank 46th in AV among the 810 players who have appeared in a game for the Steelers since 1950.
Right behind him on that list is seventh-rounder Brett Keisel, who is almost certainly the team’s best (and is arguably the league’s best) last-round draft pick since the draft shortened to seven rounds in 1994.
Despite missing the entire 2003 season due to a shoulder injury, the popular defensive end has averaged more than 11 games played per year over the duration of his 11-year career. He was good enough in 2010 to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl at the end of that season.
The 2002 draft also yielded productive players like Antwaan Randle El and Chris Hope. In five years with Pittsburgh, the former compiled nearly 6,000 all-purpose yards thanks to his skill as a receiver and kick returner. The latter spent his first two years as a special teams player before cracking the starting lineup in 2004. In two years as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 free safety, Hope intercepted four passes and batted down 11 balls.
Fifth- and sixth-round choices Verron Haynes and Lee Mays are not household names, but each lasted at least four years with the team and played in at least 45 games.
So good was the 2002 draft for Pittsburgh that even the bad luck that its first-round selection experienced wasn’t enough to derail his career.
After starting at guard during his first two seasons, Kendall Simmons missed all of 2004 due to injury. He came back in 2005 and started all 20 games in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run. By the time another season-ending injury in 2008 finally brought his career in Pittsburgh to an end, Simmons had played in 80 games and earned a respectable 32 career AV.