The football world has descended upon Indianapolis this week for the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
When all the bench presses, vertical leaps and 40-yard dash times for the 335 combine participants are recorded, the buildup to the 2014 NFL draft will kick into high gear.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who began his scouting career in 1984, said in a press conference Thursday morning that this is the deepest draft he’s seen in 30 years.
There will be a ton of new data to evaluate the 2014 draft class when the combine concludes Tuesday. For now, let’s take a look back and rank the Steelers’ top seven drafts since Colbert became the team’s director of football operations in 2000.
No. 7: 2005
Heath Miller, drafted in the first round, highlights a class that was solid in the first three rounds with additional help in the later rounds
Miller is the Steelers’ all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (466) and receiving yards (5,273). Those numbers rank him third and fifth, respectively, among all Steelers pass catchers. The 31-year-old Miller has been named to two Pro Bowls, has two Super Bowl rings and should have at least a couple of good years left in him.
Bryant McFadden was chosen in the second round and started 18 games at cornerback between 2005 and 2008. After a year in Arizona, he returned in 2010 and started all 16 games to help the Steelers reach the Super Bowl. Third-rounder Trai Essex was a jack of all trades on the offensive line for seven years and started every game at right guard in 2009.
Sixth-rounder Chris Kemoeatu started 43 games at left guard between 2008 and 2010. Fifth-round linebacker Rian Wallace appeared in a total of 16 games in 2005 and 2006.
The success of this draft starts at the top. As rookies, Miller and McFadden helped put the finishing touches on the Steelers’ long-awaited fifth championship.
No. 6: 2001
Nose tackle Casey Hampton, taken in the first round, went to five Pro Bowls in his 12 years with the Steelers. Only one other player drafted by Colbert has been to more. Second-round inside linebacker Kendrell Bell was the last rookie defensive player to make a major impact for the Steelers. He went to the Pro Bowl and was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year for a 13-3 team in 2001, but injuries sidetracked his career and he lasted just four years in Pittsburgh.
Fifth-rounder Chukky Okobi served as a backup center for six years. Sixth-round defensive end Rodney Bailey hung around for four years (2001-2003 and 2006). He highlighted his career with 5.5 sacks in 2002.
Like the 2005 draft, the 2001 draft was fueled mostly by the picks in the first and second round. The 2001 draft was a little better because it produced multiple Pro Bowlers, and Hampton anchored a run defense that was among the top five in the NFL in 10 of his 12 seasons, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
No. 5: 2010
Considering the rap against the Steelers’ recent drafts, it’s hard to believe that one of them could be in the top five.
It certainly wasn’t going into the 2013 season, or even halfway through the season. But Jason Worilds has given the 2010 draft a nice bump in the rankings. With seven sacks in his last eight games, he’s become the Steelers’ top free-agent priority.
Even before Worilds’ emergence, this was a decent draft. First-rounder Maurkice Pouncey made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. Third-rounder Emmanuel Sanders appears to be on this way out the door, but he averaged 40 catches a year in his four seasons.
This was the best sixth round of any Steelers draft since they took Greg Lloyd in 1987. Antonio Brown was second in the NFL last season in both receiving yards (1,499) and receptions (110). He became the first player in NFL history with at least five catches for 50 yards in all 16 games. Jonathan Dwyer has his flaws, but he’s had a nice career for a sixth-round pick.
Fifth-rounder Stevenson Sylvester is barely hanging on, but he’s contributed on special teams.
Half of this 10-player class has helped the Steelers at one time or another, and it’s the Steelers’ first draft since 2001 with multiple Pro Bowlers. The 2010 draft edges out 2001 in the rankings because while Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell were named to six Pro Bowls between them, Pouncey and Brown already have combined for five and are well on their way to more. If Worilds gets a ticket to Hawaii as a Steeler, this would be the franchise’s first draft with three Pro Bowlers since 1992.
No. 4: 2002
This is the Steelers’ most efficient draft under Colbert. Seven of the eight picks played at least two years in Pittsburgh.
This also was the Steelers’ best draft of the Colbert Era in terms of late-round value. You could turn it upside down and it would look plausible. Brett Keisel was chosen in the seventh round. Sixth-round receiver Lee Mays played for a couple of years. Fifth-rounder Verron Haynes was a backup running back for six years, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and catching 61 passes. Fourth-rounder Larry Foote has been a leader on defense for more than a decade. Third-round safety Chris Hope was an important part of the Steelers defense during the 2005 title run.
Antwaan Randle-El, taken in the second round, caught 184 passes in five years with the Steelers. He also scored four touchdowns on punt returns and one on a kickoff return. First-rounder Kendall Simmons was with the Steelers for seven years, earning two Super Bowl rings. He missed 2004 with a knee injury, but started at least 14 games at guard in five seasons.
If the Steelers keep Foote or Keisel in 2014, this draft will still have some mustard that can be scraped out of the jar.
No. 3: 2007
Mike Tomlin’s first draft as Steelers head coach has been his best so far.
First-round inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and second-round outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley carry this class. If it weren’t for Timmons being snubbed, this draft would have produced multiple Pro Bowlers. Woodley made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and had double-digit sacks every year from 2008 to 2010.
Third-round tight end Matt Spaeth and fifth-round cornerback William Gay both contributed to two Super Bowl teams, and both are back for a second tour of duty and will be needed to help the Steelers get back to the playoffs. Gay was ranked sixth by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) among all NFL cornerbacks who played at least 75 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in 2013.
The Steelers gave up their sixth-round pick to trade up for punter Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round. They got only two full seasons out of him in the five years he was with the team.
Five of the eight players in this draft played at least five years for the Steelers, and there’s more where that came from with Timmons, Gay, Spaeth perhaps even Woodley still around.
No 2: 2003
The Steelers traded up in the first round to draft Troy Polamalu and took Ike Taylor in the fourth round. The four rings between them, and Polamalu’s eight Pro Bowls, makes second-round bust Alonzo Jackson forgivable.
The 2003 draft ranks ahead of the 2007 draft because its centerpiece tandem of Polamalu and Taylor likely will have more longevity than the combination of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. This has nothing to do with Timmons, who’s still only 27 and will be relied upon as a pillar of the Steelers defense for years to come. He’s missed just two games in his career. Woodley hasn’t been so durable. He might be shown the door before turning 30. On the other hand, Taylor was a shutdown cornerback well into his 30s. Polamalu has had his health problems, but he’s in better shape than Woodley right now.
This is the smallest draft in Steelers’ history. But with only five picks, they managed to find the franchises’ top two all-time leaders in passes defended, and one of them is a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.
No. 1: 2004
Sure, this draft is full of forgettable names. Of the last five picks, all coming between the fifth and seventh round, only sixth-round tight end Matt Kranchick of Penn State appeared in any games for the Steelers. He caught one pass in 2005. All that deadwood, and the Steelers’ second straight second-round bust in cornerback Ricardo Colclough from Division II Tusculum, could not ruin their 2004 draft.
Quality, not quantity, has been the hallmark of the Steelers’ most bountiful drafts since 2000. The 2004 draft is their best of the century because they took Ben Roethlisberger.
Third-rounder Max Starks was a nice throw-in. He played for nine years, including 16 starts at right tackle for the 2005 Super Bowl champions and 11 starts at left tackle after Marvel Smith went down during the Steelers’ 2008 championship season. But even without Starks, Roethlisberger alone makes this Colbert’s best draft.
After a quarter century of quarterbacks like Mark Malone, Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham, history changed when a pinstripe-clad Roethlisberger took that phone call from Bill Cowher on live TV and found out he’d be taken with the No. 11 pick. This draft tops the 2003 class because it seems to be a safe assumption that Roethlisberger still will be a Steeler after Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are gone. If all goes according to plan, the Steelers will reap the benefits of this draft long after the book is closed on more recent drafts.