Since the early 1970’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have crafted a reputation as a team that builds championship rosters mainly through the NFL Draft. Even the advent of free agency in the NFL didn’t force the six-time Super Bowl champions from changing their philosophy of building the “Steeler Way”. Pittsburgh has continually drafted and developed Pro Bowl-caliber players on both sides of the ball, and even in the modern-era NFL, the Steelers have won two Lombardi trophies with teams predominantly made up of players they drafted and developed.
In Super Bowl XL, the Steelers started ten players on offense who were originally drafted or signed by their organization. The only player on that offense who was acquired via free agency from another team was starting center Jeff Hartings, a 1996 first-round pick of the Detroit Lions. The Steelers defense that year employed nine starters drafted by the team, with DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen (sixth-round pick, Cincinnati 1994) and ILB James Farrior (first-round pick, NY Jets 1997) the only players brought in from other organizations. The Steelers Super Bowl XLIII team was similarly home-grown – once again, ten offensive starters and nine defensive starters who were originally drafted/signed by Pittsburgh.
Of course, you live by the sword – you die by the sword.
Even the Pittsburgh Steelers are not immune to making some mistakes of draft day. Here are some of the biggest blunders made by the franchise over the past 20 years.
1996 1st Round – OT Jamain Stephens, North Carolina A&T
The Steelers have traditionally been pretty solid with their first-round picks, although if we go back to the 80’s and early 90’s we could easily add a few more to this list (Gabe Rivera, Aaron Jones, Tim Worley, Huey Richardson….). As far as recent first rounders go, Jamain Stephens heads up our “infamous” list. First of all, Stephens wasn’t even considered a top prospect – but more of a “project” player. He was a huge guy (6-foot, 6-inches 336lbs.) who had played on the defensive line until his junior year, then moved to offensive tackle. Stephens was barely on the radar of NFL teams, but for some reason the Steelers brass fell in love with him. Having lost starting RT Leon Searcy to free agency, Pittsburgh was looking for a long term solution at the position.
On the first day of Training Camp in 1999, Stephens showed up to St. Vincent College looking closer to 400 pounds than the 336 pounds listed in the Steelers media guide. Head coach Bill Cowher had a tradition of beginning camp each year with a challenging running test that was mandatory for all players. Stephens not only failed to finish the test, but he nearly collapsed ¾ of the way through. With the rest of the offensive players trying to motivate him, Stephens slowly walked through the final three 40-yard sprints. The incident was embarrassing to the entire organization, and literally three hours later Cowher cut the former first-rounder. It was a terrible end to one of the worst draft picks in franchise history.
1998 2nd Round – DE Jeremy Staat, Arizona State
The 1997 season was a successful one for Pittsburgh. After finishing 11-5 and winning the AFC Central Division, the Steelers knocked off the New England Patriots in the Divisional round before losing the AFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. The only hole on defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s “Blitzburgh” squad was at left defensive end, where NT Joel Steed and RDE Kevin Henry had played with two different starters in two seasons. The Steelers used their first-round selection (no. 26 overall) on LG Alan Faneca of LSU, a player that was simply too good to pass up that late in the first-round. That forced the team to use their second-rounder on the missing link for their defense, despite a very shallow talent pool at the position. With fellow defensive ends Kenny Mixon (LSU), Leonard Little (Tennessee), and Greg Spires (Florida State) still on the board, the Steelers decided on Arizona State DE Jeremy Staat.
Staat had very limited time at the defensive end position in college, but his 1997 season boosted his draft stock and put him on the map. He won the Morris Trophy, given to the best defensive lineman in the PAC-10 Conference and some NFL teams viewed him as a borderline first-rounder. While Staat had turned some heads during his senior campaign, most scouts had reservations due to his lackluster junior college career prior to landing in Tempe. The Steelers selected Staat with the 41st overall pick, and immediately placed him in competition with Orpheus Roye for a starting spot. He played in six games in 1998, mainly being used on special teams. In 1999, Staat played in all 16 games but looked woefully overmatched by NFL offensive linemen. He would last just one more season in Pittsburgh, playing in seven games during the 2000 season. Staat was released before the start of training camp in 2001, and he did not appear in another NFL game until 2003. The 2004 death of good friend and college teammate Pat Tillman convinced Staat to give up football and join the United States Marine Corps. Ultimately, Jeremy Staat spent four seasons in the NFL, playing in 31 games and making just 12 professional tackles.
1999 1st Round – WR Troy Edwards, Louisiana Tech
The Steelers were in a transitional period for their offense in 1998-1999. With the NFL slowly becoming more of a pass-happy league, the Steelers felt they needed to adjust their style to fit starting QB Kordell Stewart and augment their dynamic Jerome Bettis-led rushing attack. In 1998, Pittsburgh drafted WR Hines Ward in the third-round of the draft and added him to a receiving corps that included veteran Courtney Hawkins, 1997 second-round pick Will Blackwell, and Bobby Shaw. The team decided to use their 1999 first-round pick to further deepen their group, choosing Louisiana Tech WR Troy Edwards. Edwards had been something of a phenom in college, winning both the 1998 Fred Biletnikoff and Paul Warfield awards and posting record-breaking numbers. In 1998, Edwards finished the season with 140 catches for 1,996 yards and 27 receiving touchdowns for the Bulldogs – leading the Nation in all three categories. In the season opener against top-ranked Nebraska, Edwards caught 21 passes for 405 yards. Despite standing at only 5-foot, 10-inches and 191 pounds, Edwards was thought to be one of the best wide receivers in the 1999 Draft.
The Steelers preferred to choose a tall receiver, as their top three WR all stood under 6-foot tall. When their pick came up at 13th overall, Pittsburgh was faced with a dilemma. Despite holding their highest draft pick since 1992, the Steelers were staring down the barrel of perhaps the shallowest WR talent pool in decades. With a roster that was returning intact and most of their starters under 30-years old, the Steelers could have selected the best player available or chosen to take someone to fill their need at cornerback or free safety. Instead, Pittsburgh stuck to the book and chose Edwards – on paper, the best wide receiver left on the board. Other players they considered picking that day included CB Antoine Winfield, CB Fernando Bryant, and WR Peerless Price. The Steelers chose Edwards, and signed him to a sizable rookie contract that included (at the time) the largest signing bonus the franchise ever offered a player.
Starting in 1999, Troy Edwards joined Kordell Stewart as the two most-maligned athletes in the Steel City. Edwards started seven games during his rookie season, catching 61 passes for 714 yards and five touchdowns. His numbers were not bad for a NFL rookie arriving from a small college, but he seemed to drop no less than two or three passes in every game. He also showed a fear of catching balls over the middle, and at no time did he seem to be on the same page as Stewart and Mike Tomczak. Edwards lasted just three seasons with the Steelers, never living up to his potential as either a receiver or as a kick/punt returner. The Steelers let Edwards walk after the 2001 season. Edwards finished his Steelers career with 98 catches for 1,212 yards and five touchdowns.
1999 2nd Round – S/DB Scott Shields, Weber State
Every few years, the Steelers draft a player that the fan base immediately falls in love with – regardless of their college resume or perceived potential. Names on that list include such luminaries as RB Frank “The Tank” Summers, DB Hank Poteat, and the next player on our list – DB/S/P/K Scott Shields. Yes, not only was he a defensive back – he also kicked and punted for the Weber State Wildcats.
Shields was a massive (6-foot, 4-inches 228lbs.) athlete who the Steelers chose with the 59th overall pick in 1999 (combining with Troy Edwards to form the unholiest of draft day duos). Pittsburgh was in dire need of a free safety after long-time starter Darren Perry left following the 1998 season and they were very high on Shields. When the Steelers watched most of the highly-touted defensive backs come off the board early in the second-round of the 1999 draft, they shocked the league by selecting Shields – universally rated as a late-round pick with no natural position by every draft publication.
Early on in 1999, it looked like Pittsburgh may have pulled a rabbit out of their hat. Shields was used primarily on special teams, sitting behind FS Travis Davis on the defensive depth chart. When he did get on the field however – he made it count. Shields played in all 16 games in 1999, picking off four passes and forcing a fumble. He continued his hard-hitting, making plenty of special teams tackles and occasionally blasting a slot receiver while playing out of the nickel package. Unfortunately for both the Steelers and Shields, he simply lacked the intelligence needed to learn the defensive playbook. Often times he would line up out of position. He would miss easy tackles, get juked out of his shoes by receivers in open field, and worst of all he would consistently get flagged for dumb penalties. In the span of one season, Shields went from a promising young player to a guy barely holding onto a roster spot in 2000. After being pegged as the starting free safety in camp, Shields lost his job to free-agent acquisition Brent Alexander. After backing up Alexander for ten games in 2000, Shields was released. He never played another down of professional football.
2003 2nd Round – OLB Alonzo Jackson, Florida State
The 2003 draft will forever be remembered as the conduit that supplied future Hall of Famer and all-time Steelers great Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. The Steelers mortgaged half of their draft for the opportunity to select Polamalu at 16th overall, trading their original first-round pick (#27), their third-round pick (#92), and their sixth-rounder (#200) to Kansas City for the Chiefs first-round slot.
Following the trade, Pittsburgh was left with just four remaining picks. In the second round, they reached for Florida State DE Alonzo Jackson. Jackson was another small Seminoles defensive end similar to former Arizona first-round pick Andre Wadsworth, and also like Wadsworth he had put up pretty solid numbers at Florida State. He led the Seminoles in tackles for loss with 18.0, posted 13.0 sacks, and four forced fumbles. The Steelers imagined Jackson as the next coming of Joey Porter. Unfortunately, after a decent preseason, Jackson disappeared. He was never able to break into the defensive rotation, and following two lackluster seasons in which he played in only nine games, the Steelers cut him loose.
2004 2nd Round – DB Ricardo Colclough, Tusculum
The Steelers have always been a team that gives small college players a shot. Sometimes it works out – Aaron Smith (Northern Colorado) and Willie Colon (Hofstra) for instance – and then sometimes it just isn’t in the cards.
Tusculum College is located just outside of Greeneville, Tennessee and has a population of just fewer than 3,000 students. It is the 23rd oldest operating college in the entire United States, and it isn’t exactly known for producing professional athletes. As a matter of fact, the only NFL player to ever come out of Tusculum was our next draft bust.
The Steelers 2004 draft followed the worst regular season the team had experienced since 1988. After finishing 6-10 in 2003, Pittsburgh had the 11th overall pick in the draft and they made it count. In a draft that would forever be remembered for producing three future Pro Bowl quarterbacks, the Steelers drafted QB Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami (Ohio). It was a franchise-defining pick that would ultimately ensure two more Lombardi Trophies for the Steelers. While their first-round pick obviously worked out, Pittsburgh didn’t fare so well the rest of the way. As a matter of fact it could be debated that with the exception of Big Ben, the 2004 Steelers draft class may have been the worst in the history of the storied franchise. Four of the Steelers eight picks never played one down for the team (DE Nathaniel Adibi, OT Bo Lacy, C Drew Caylor, and DT Eric Taylor), while sixth-round pick TE Matt Kranchick played in exactly six games for Pittsburgh. Besides Roethlisberger and third-round pick OT Max Starks, the entire class was a bust.
DB Ricardo Colclough spent four seasons with the Steelers, earning a Super Bowl ring along the way. He played in 36 games for Pittsburgh, mostly as a kick returner. On defense, the 5-foot, 11-inch cornerback was simply awful. The few times he was actually called on by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Colclough failed miserably. The final straw for Colclough in Pittsburgh occurred during an AFC North Division contest with the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 of the 2006 season. The Steelers were leading 17-14 with just under eight minutes to play in the 4th quarter. The defense had stopped QB Carson Palmer and the Bengals offense cold and it looked like the Steelers had shifted the momentum in their favor. Colclough had been horrible returning punts since inheriting the job, and most fans wondered why head coach Bill Cowher still felt the need to utilize him in that capacity. As Colclough was preparing to field the punt, he raised his hands above his head and proceeded to muff the catch. He then had a chance to recover his own fumble, but was unable to get his hands around the ball. Cincinnati recovered the fumble on the nine-yard line and one play later Palmer hit WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the end zone for a touchdown. The Bengals never trailed again, and the loss haunted the Steelers throughout the season. Colclough was placed on IR one week later due to a neck injury suffered during the bye week. He would appear in three more games for the Steelers in 2007 before being released.
2006 3rd Round – S Anthony Smith, Syracuse & WR Willie Reid, Florida State
We are going to combine the next two draft busts in one entry, as they are eternally linked due to being drafted in the same round of the same draft. As a matter of fact S Anthony Smith and WR Willie Reid were chosen a mere 12 picks apart.
Anthony Smith arrived in Pittsburgh with a ton of promise. A first-team All-Big East selection in 2005 at Syracuse, Smith was drafted by the Steelers to back up starting safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. He played in all 16 games during his rookie season, finishing with two interceptions while playing mostly in nickel coverage. The following season, Smith started ten games when Clark was placed on IR. While he was far from a true replacement for Clark – one of the true leaders of the Steelers defense – Smith was not a total disappointment. Unfortunately, 2007 also contained the defining moment of the NFL career of Anthony Smith. Prior to a Week 14 road match-up against the undefeated New England Patriots, Smith decided it would be a good idea to gather the media around and proclaim “We’re going to win. Yeah, I can guarantee a win. As long as we come out and do what we got to do. Both sides of the ball are rolling, and if our special teams come through for us, we will win.”
The 9-4 Steelers arrived in Gillette Stadium with a massive weight around their necks due to the Smith comments. The Patriots proceeded to pummel the Steelers 34-13, with Smith giving up several large plays. Rookie head coach Mike Tomlin benched Smith following the game, promoting well-traveled veteran Tyrone Carter into the starting spot. Smith played one more season in Pittsburgh before leaving as a free agent. He would spend time with five teams before retiring in 2011. Smith never recovered from his ill-advised comments about New England.
Although his actual position was wide receiver, Willie Reid was drafted solely for his ability to return kicks and punts. At Florida State, Reid had developed a reputation as a dynamic return man, returning three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2005. The Steelers were in desperate need of help in that department, having relied on the lackluster duo of veteran Quincy Carter and Ricardo Colclough during their 2005 Super Bowl season. While Reid may have been a good returner, he lacked the bulk to take NFL-sized punishment. His 5-foot, 10 inch 185 pound frame was simply too frail and he ended up spending part of his rookie season on IR. During the 2006-2007 offseason, Bill Cowher resigned and Mike Tomlin took over as head coach. Cowher had been the biggest Willie Reid fan in the organization, and unfortunately for Reid – Tomlin wasn’t a fan. The Steelers traded a draft pick for KR/PR Allen Rossum prior to the 2007 season, and Reid was released. He spent time on the practice squads of Philadelphia and Dallas before retiring in 2009.
2008 2nd Round – WR Limas Sweed, Texas
We could spend the rest of this article talking about the disappointment that was WR Limas Sweed. Sweed had been a major part of the Texas Longhorns 2005 BCS Championship team, including a huge touchdown catch against Ohio State that secured the Longhorns a chance to play for the national title. Sweed set several Texas records during the 2007 season, including catching a touchdown pass in seven straight games. He entered the 2008 NFL Draft and after good showings in both the Senior Bowl and at the NFL Scouting Combine, Sweed was considered one of the top receivers available in the draft. A slow recovery from a wrist injury caused his draft stock to fall. Once considered a sure-fire first-round pick, Sweed found himself sitting around until midway through the second round. The Steelers had chosen RB Rashard Mendenhall with their first-round pick, and by adding Sweed the Steelers thought they had secured themselves two pieces of their next great offense.
It was just never meant to be. Sweed simply could not catch the ball. In Week 3 of the 2009 season, the Steelers had a chance to put away the Bengals in an important division game. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Roethlisberger found Sweed deep down the middle of the field – wide open – for a sure touchdown. Sweed failed to make the catch, and ultimately the Steelers would lose 23-20. In the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sweed was once again the target of a perfect Big Ben pass that would have resulted in a score. He took his eyes off the ball and the pass bounced off his hands. To make matters worse, the rookie failed to get up in time following the play and he forced the Steelers to use their final time out. In a tight game with a Super Bowl trip on the line, Pittsburgh ended up squandering a chance for a short field goal. With 40 million viewers watching the game on national television, Limas Sweed decided to have a “rookie” moment.
Sweed never recovered from that drop. The Steelers gave him every chance to win the #3 wide receiver job during the 2009 preseason, but he was never able to take advantage of the opportunity. When he finally got a chance to move up the depth chart following the release of WR Shaun McDonald, Sweed found himself dealing with “personal problems”, and ended up spending the rest of the season on the non-football injury/illness list. During 2010 mini-camps, Sweed injured his Achilles tendon and was placed on season-ending IR. By 2011, the Steelers had seen enough and they released Sweed.
2009 3rd Round – OG Kraig Urbik, Wisconsin
Occasionally, a player can be considered a draft bust – even if he technically isn’t. That is the case with OL Kraig Urbik, currently a three-year starter for the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers drafted Urbik out of Wisconsin in 2009, using their third-round pick on a position of dire need. Urbik was considered one of the top guard prospects in the draft, and the Steelers were heading into the season with Chris Kemoeatu and converted tackle Trai Essex as their starters. Furthermore, the only viable backups on the roster were free agent rookie Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky – neither of whom had ever played one NFL snap. Urbik had a solid preseason, and spent his entire rookie season on the Steelers roster. The Steelers offensive line was statistically one of the worst in the league, with QB Ben Roethlisberger leading the league by being sacked 50 times. Heading into 2010, the Steelers once again had a jumbled-up mess on the interior of the line. Urbik should have had a chance to step in and win a job, but instead he found himself on the unemployment line when he was cut prior to Week 1. Urbik spent exactly one day without a job before Buffalo claimed him off waivers. He was the primary backup at both guard positions in 2010 before winning the Bills starting RG job in 2011. Since then, Urbik has started 44 games in Buffalo and secured himself a long-term job by signing a four-year contract extension worth $13.3 million.
Sometimes a team simply makes a mistake judging a players value. The Steelers absolutely did so with Kraig Urbik. How good would the 6-foot, 5-inch 324 pounder look right now as the Steelers starting left guard? Pittsburgh is once again scrambling to find a solid combination of healthy offensive lineman as they head into 2014. Urbik was one big fish that simply got away.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are traditionally one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. As this list shows, the NFL Draft is hardly an exact science. As we count down the days to May 8, we should all keep that in mind.
(Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)