7 Biggest Draft-Day Mistakes in Pittsburgh Steelers History
Outstanding drafts during the 1970s helped build the foundation one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports. The 1974 draft alone produced four Hall of Fame players. Continued success was sustained for much of the next 40 years as the Steelers won an NFL record six Super Bowl titles.
But even the best cannot be perfect.
For every Joe Greene, John Stallworth, Greg Lloyd and Troy Polamalu, the Steelers have had countless others who never made the final cut.
Whether the Steelers reached for a low-rated player or bypassed an all-time great, they have had plenty of draft-day mistakes that have impacted their franchise. Here is a look at the top errors during the draft from players who just did not pan out to those who may have set the franchise back for years.
All stats and draft information are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
RB Tim Worley, First Round, 1989
Given their consistency, it is a rarity for the Steelers to select in the top 10 of the draft. They have only done so six times since 1970.
The Steelers were unable to take advantage of this opportunity of 1989 when they took Tim Worley with the seventh selection.
After a respectable rookie season in which he ran for 770 yards on 195 carries and five touchdowns, Worley did little for the rest of his career. He would carry the ball just 141 more times for the Steelers before they traded him to the Chicago Bears.
Injuries and a year-long suspension due to drug use helped derail Worley’s career before he was ever able to really get it started. Besides not producing for the Steelers, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Worley’s presence on the team led to them passing on Emmitt Smith in the 1990 draft.
As though Worley’s struggles in the NFL weren't enough, missing on a Hall of Fame-caliber running back because of him had long-lasting results on the franchise.
QB Mark Malone, First Round, 1980
There are few things that will set a franchise back more than selecting a quarterback who is not a capable starter in the first round. The Steelers fell victim to this in 1980.
In need of finding a young quarterback to replace Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers selected Mark Malone with the 28th pick in the 1980 draft.
Malone started 60 games and compiled a 21-24 record with the Steelers. Not exactly what they envisioned when selecting him in the first round.
For his career, Malone completed only 50.9 percent of his passes with the Steelers and never threw for more than 2,444 yards or 16 touchdowns. His best season came in 1984 when he helped lead the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game.
Malone would threw three interceptions in a 45-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. It was the final time that he would play in the postseason.
Pittsburgh would not select another quarterback in the first round of the draft until Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
OT Jamain Stephens, First Round, 1996
If quarterback is the most important player on the team, then left tackle may be the second-most important. The Steelers needed one after Leon Searcy left for the Jacksonville Jaguars following the 1995 season.
The Steelers used the 29th pick to take Jamain Stephens out of North Carolina A&T.
A small-school prospect is always a risk, but one with conditioning issues becomes a disaster. That is exactly what happened with Stephens.
Stephens started 11 games for the Steelers, but he won’t be remembered for what he did on the field, but for a rather embarrassing moment during training camp.
As many coaches do, Bill Cowher began his 1999 training camp with a conditioning test. Not only did Stephens fail to report to camp in shape, but collapsed during the run test and was promptly released by Cowher.
It is one thing for a player to fail on the playing field, but to not even finish a conditioning test is downright awful.
WR Troy Edwards, First Round, 1999
Ask any Steeler fan to sum up the feud between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe and you will almost certainly hear about the selection of Troy Edwards in the 1999 draft.
Edwards was a highly productive small-school prospect coming out of Louisiana Tech. However, was he worth the 13th pick? Not at all.
The Steelers needed a receiver, but the top two—Torry Holt and David Boston—were gone before it was their turn to select. Instead, they turned to the 5’9” Edwards.
Edwards had a productive rookie season with 61 receptions for 714 yards and five touchdowns, but he would never come close to these numbers again. Over the next two seasons he only caught 37 passes and no touchdowns for Pittsburgh before moving on to the St. Louis Rams.
But it wasn’t Edwards' lack of production alone that made this one of Pittsburgh’s worst draft-day mistakes. It was the fact that they passed on Jevon Kearse to select him.
“The Freak” would have looked very good rushing the quarterback from the outside linebacker position and may have developed into one of the best pass-rushers in Steelers’ history.
2008 Draft Class
A complete whiff with two or three picks in an NFL draft is not unexpected. However, to miss on an entire draft has severe consequences when constructing a franchise.
If you have any questions to why the Steelers have struggled in recent years, you can point your finger to the 2008 draft. After only five years, there were no players left from this draft on the roster.
The selections of the recently retired Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed appeared to be steals that would help the Steelers build one of the elite offenses in the league. Instead they are still looking for a tall receiver and had to draft Le’Veon Bell in the second round last season.
Mendenhall started 48 games and had mixed results.
During his five seasons in Pittsburgh, Mendenhall ran for 3,549 yards and 29 touchdowns. Despite his big-play ability, he only averaged 4.1 yards per carry during this time and may be best remembered for his fumble in Super Bowl 45.
Sweed was never able to establish himself and will go down as one of Pittsburgh’s most disappointing second-round picks ever. He had trouble holding onto the ball and even appeared to fake an injury after dropping a wide-open pass during the 2009 AFC Championship Game.
In that same game, he had the highlight of his career with a monster block on a Baltimore Ravens defender to help free up space for Heath Miller.
Third-round pick Bruce Davis never made an impact while Tony Hills and Dennis Dixon were limited to roles at the bottom of the depth chart. Mike Humpal didn’t even make the team.
The only other contributor was seventh-round pick Ryan Mundy. He provided valuable depth at safety and had five starts.
Pittsburgh should have two or three players at the least from this draft contributing on the 2014 team. To have zero at this point is a testament to the poor use of draft choices in 2008.
OLB Huey Richardson, First Round, 1991
Chuck Noll may have been the architect of the Steelers of the 70s, but the magic ran out by the time he made his final first-round draft choice in 1991. Huey Richardson not only was one of the Steelers' biggest draft-day mistakes, but he may go down as their biggest bust of all time.
The previous names on this list at least showed flashes of quality play before flaming out. That was not the case with Huey Richardson.
As quickly as Richardson entered the league, he was gone. He played in just five games with the Steelers and accumulated no stats according to his page on NFL.com.
Five games played, zero tackles. Let that sink in for a moment.
Undrafted free agents are capable of performing better. It is no wonder that Richardson was gone by the next season and goes down as the worst first-round pick in team history.
Passing on Dan Marino in 1983 Draft
One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL grew up in Pittsburgh, played at Pitt and was in position to be drafted by the Steelers in the greatest quarterback draft ever.
Unfortunately, the Steelers passed on Dan Marino. It would be a move that they would regret for years as they struggled to find a replacement for Terry Bradshaw.
Rumors surrounding Marino being addicted to cocaine was a reason often cited for the Steelers passing on Marino. Dan Rooney said otherwise in his book that was published in 2007.
Via WTAE.com, Rooney suggested that he was urged by a local sportswriter to take the Pitt quarterback.
"I made a mistake. Instead of telling our (front office) I thought it up myself, I told them it was (the writer's) idea. And that was the end of it."
The Steelers had a chance to replace their Hall of Fame quarterback with a future Hall of Fame quarterback who grew up right in their back yard. They passed.
No other draft-day mistake that the Steelers made had such long-lasting implications. They went without a franchise quarterback for over 20 years before selecting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
There was no doubt that Dan Rooney wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice—and it is a good thing he didn’t. Pittsburgh didn’t pass on a chance at a franchise quarterback, and they jumped on the chance to select Roethlisberger.
Unlike some, Rooney was able to admit his error and made sure he did not make the same mistake again. His learning experience paid off quite well with the second-greatest period in team history with two Super Bowl titles.