The Pittsburgh Steelers’ two-year playoff absence is their longest since Kevin Colbert became the team’s director of football operations in 2000.
Part of the problem is their recent drafts. Many of them are among the Steelers’ seven worst drafts since 2000.
Not every draft on this list was a bad one. This is just the bottom half of the 14 drafts that Colbert has run. But the higher a draft is ranked on this list, the worse it is.
No. 7: 2000
This class doesn’t rank in the top half of Colbert’s drafts because it produced only one Pro Bowl season and the Steelers are among the teams that get docked for choosing another quarterback (Tee Martin in the fifth round) over Tom Brady.
Overall, though, this was a decent draft.
Plaxico Burress was taken with the No. 8 pick, the Steelers’ only top-10 selection in the last 25 years. He’s eighth on the Steelers’ all-time list with 264 receptions and 4,206 receiving yards, but he left Pittsburgh after five years and won a championship in New York before making his prodigal-son return. There’s a sense of unfinished business there.
Unlike Burress, second-round pick Marvel Smith earned rings in Pittsburgh. He was a Pro Bowl left tackle in 2004 and the blind-side protector for Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers’ 2005 championship season. He started 108 games in nine seasons, including the first five for the Super Bowl XLIII champions before what turned out to be a career-ending back injury in 2008
The third round yielded two role players. Kendrick Clancy was a backup on the offensive line for five years before becoming a journeyman starter with the Giants, Cardinals and Saints. Defensive back Hank Poteat was mainly a kickoff and punt returner for three years.
Fifth-round pick Clark Haggans is an underrated linebacker in Steelers lore. He had nine sacks for the Super Bowl XL champions in 2005 and is ninth on the team’s all-time list with 32.5 sacks. Sixth-round defensive end Chris Combs appeared in eight games in two years.
Seven of the nine picks in this draft got on the field for the Steelers at some point – even Martin. The former Tennessee quarterback never threw a pass for the Steelers, but he did run the ball once for eight yards to help the Steelers beat the Browns in the meaningless 2001 season finale. Take that, Brady.
No. 6: 2013
The more recent the draft, the harder it is to put a definitive grade on it. It’s far too early to tell how last year’s draft will pan out. It makes this list because the top two picks came along slowly. But this draft is not among the Steelers’ five worst under Colbert because of its upside, and that’s all we have to go on right now.
Jarvis Jones had just one sack in eight starts. Sure, it takes time for players to learn Dick LeBeau’s system. But LaMarr Woodley had four sacks in his rookie season without starting any games. However, Jones played his best game in the season finale, hinting that he could make big strides next season.
Second-rounder Le’Veon Bell recovered from an injury that kept him out of the first three games and provided evidence that he can handle the load at running back. He averaged only 3.5 yards per carry, but in four of his last five games he ran for at least four yards per carry.
Third-round receiver Markus Wheaton and fourth-round safety Shamarko Thomas were seen mostly on special teams, but they’ll be expected to start next season if Emmanuel Sanders and Ryan Clark go.
Fourth-rounder Landry Jones has a lot of work to do just to become the Steelers’ No. 2 quarterback. Fifth-round cornerback Terry Hawthorne was cut in training camp.
The Steelers made up for that mid-round lull with sixth-rounder Vince Williams, who started 11 games at inside linebacker out of necessity and showed promise late in the season. He should be part of the Steelers’ plans going forward. Sixth-round receiver Justin Brown spent 2013 on the practice squad and could be heard from in 2014.
Nick Williams, a defensive tackle taken in the seventh round, spent his rookie year on injured reserve but could get a look if Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are gone next season.
There’s a chance the first four picks can be solid starters with Pro Bowl potential, and Williams keeps the back end of the draft from being a wasteland. This draft could turn out to be one of the Steelers’ best since 2000.
No. 5: 2011
Cameron Heyward finally made an impact in 2013, and he could have a productive career. However, teams don’t like waiting until Year 3 for a first-round pick to make his big jump, and that hurts this draft’s ranking.
Second-rounder Marcus Gilbert has been a consistent starter at right tackle on an offensive line that improved in the second half of the 2013 season. Third-rounder Curtis Brown has been an asset on special teams but has shown little at cornerback. Fourth-round corner Cortez Allen looked promising late in 2012 then had a rough start in 2013. He seemingly hit his stride as a starter late in the season. A lot will be expected of him in 2014.
Fifth-round outside linebacker Chris Carter has hung around for three years but can’t move up the depth chart. Sixth-round offensive lineman Keith Williams never made the team. Seventh-round running back Baron Batch missed his rookie year with a torn ACL. Injuries to other players gave him an opportunity to play in 2012, but he didn’t impress and was cut in training camp last year.
Of the Steelers’ seven picks in 2011, there’s still potential for three solid, long-term starters, and maybe even a Pro Bowler or two. But the ceiling for the 2013 draft is higher.
No. 4: 2012
This draft is starting to look good at each end, but there’s some junk in the middle.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked first-round pick David DeCastro the 10th-best guard in the NFL in 2013. Seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum took over at left tackle on an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the last seven games in 2013. Ben Roethlisberger has never been protected so well during any seven-game stretch in his career.
Mike Adams looked like he was headed straight to Bustville, but it’s too early to give up on him. He could compete at right tackle with Marcus Gilbert in training camp. Third-round inside linebacker Sean Spence tore up his knee in the 2012 preseason, and that’s no one’s fault. He’s still fighting his way back and there’s a chance he could suit up at some point.
The Steelers can be faulted for repeating history and giving up their sixth-round pick to move up in the fourth round. They took nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu, who was a problem off the field and never got on the field before being cut after one season. He did start three games in Arizona last year.
In the fifth round, the Steelers again took a chance on a guy with a checkered past when they chose running back Chris Rainey. He was lightly used in his rookie year before getting into trouble again and being shown the door.
So far, Beachum highlights the Steelers’ mother lode of four seventh-round picks. The only other one from this round to make the team was backup tight end David Paulson, who likely will be fighting for a roster spot in training camp. Wide receiver Toney Clemons and cornerback Terrence Frederick both caught on elsewhere, but didn’t survive training camp in Latrobe.
Anything the Steelers get from Spence is a bonus. Realistically, only three of the nine picks will make their mark. While this draft is shaping up as a boon to the offensive line, it’s not likely to help any other positional unit.
No. 3: 2006
Yes, the Steelers chose a Super Bowl MVP in the first round of this draft. But only two of the nine players chosen made any significant contribution.
Holmes gave the Steelers so many headaches that they traded him to the Jets for a fifth-round pick after he caught 79 passes in 2009. The Steelers didn’t have a second-round pick in 2006, but chose safety Anthony Smith and wide receiver Willie Reid in the third round. Smith lasted just three years and made his biggest impression when he provided the unbeaten New England Patriots with bulletin-board material before the Steelers went to Gillette Stadium in 2007. Reid caught just four passes in the NFL. Fourth-rounder Willie Colon was a solid starter at right tackle from 2007 to 2009 before being plagued by injuries. None of the other five picks played a down for the Steelers.
No. 2: 2009
If first-rounder Ziggy Hood and seventh-rounder David Johnson aren’t brought back in 2014, the yield from this draft will run dry after five years.
Hood hasn’t exactly been a bust. He’s been durable if nothing else, but he’s the Steelers’ worst first-round pick of the Colbert Era. The Steelers gave up too quickly on third-round offensive lineman Kraig Urbik, who has been a solid starter in Buffalo since 2011.
Third-rounder Mike Wallace led the NFL with 19.4 yards per reception as a rookie. He was second with 21 yards per catch to help the Steelers get to the Super Bowl in 2010. Wallace followed that up with a Pro Bowl appearance in 2011. But the showpiece of this draft was gone after four years, and he didn’t quite give the Steelers what Santonio Holmes gave them.
Holmes and Wallace both caught 235 passes in four years with the Steelers. Wallace averaged 17.2 yards per reception and Holmes averaged 16.3. But unlike Wallace, Holmes returned kickoffs and punts and has a Super Bowl ring. No member of the Steelers’ 2009 class has a ring. It’s in danger of becoming the first Steelers draft since 1997 with no Super Bowl winners, and that’s why the 2009 draft is ranked worse than the 2006 draft even if it was a little more efficient.
The Steelers waited three years for third-rounder Keenan Lewis to have his breakout season. Then he signed with the Saints. Fifth-rounders Joe Burnett (cornerback) and Frank Summers (fullback) did little in one year with the team. Seventh-round center A.Q. Shipley is still in the NFL even though he never suited up for the Steelers. Johnson, even if he isn’t re-signed, has been a good value as a seventh-rounder. Of the nine picks in this class, four helped the Steelers at one time or another. But it could be one of two Steelers drafts since 2000 with a five-year expiration date.
No. 1: 2008
This is the Steelers’ worst draft since the turn of the century.
First-rounder Rashard Mendenhall was far from a failure. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2009 and 2010 and helped get the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV, but his days in Pittsburgh were over when he was 25.
Second-round wide receiver Limas Sweed and third-round linebacker Bruce Davis were flat-out busts. Fourth-round tackle Tony Hills hung around until 2010 but never really contributed. Fifth-rounder Dennis Dixon could never establish himself as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup quarterback.
Sixth-round linebacker Mike Humpal never made the team. Safety Ryan Mundy, also taken in the sixth round, started five games in four years before going to the Giants in 2013. The departures of Mendenhall and Mundy after the 2012 season left the Steelers with no one from this class.
Not only was this draft depleted after five years, but it’s one of three Steelers drafts since 2000 that hasn’t produced a Pro Bowler. The others were 2013 (there’s still plenty of time there) and 2006 (which at least turned out a Super Bowl MVP).
In terms of starters, this is also the Steelers’ most barren draft under Colbert. Mendenhall spent three seasons as a primary starter in Pittsburgh. No one else in this class was ever a primary starter. All the other Steelers draft classes from 2000 to 2011 provided a total of at least four primary starting seasons, according to Pro Football Reference. The Steelers’ two most recent drafts are on pace to surpass that total.
The two worst Steelers drafts since 2000 came in 2008 and 2009. That’s one of the reasons the Steelers ran out of gas and finished 8-8 in each of the last two seasons. But they’ve drafted better over the last four years, at least better than they did in 2008 and 2009. Perhaps that will start paying dividends