Steelers vs Best NFL Draft Classes of Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has taken the trouble to rank the NFL’s best and worst draft classes of the last 25 years. Steel Curtain Rising has reviewed at the Steelers performance in the worst draft classes of the last 25 years and concluded that the Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Mike Tomlin ended up picking pretty well out of what Reineking picks as a bad crop.

But how have the Steelers done when the pickings have been good? Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2015 draft class

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert after the 2015 NFL Draft

Steelers 2001 Draft Class

Reineking ranks the 2001 NFL Draft as the best in the last 25 years, counting 3 certain Hall of Famers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Drew Brees for those taking notes) plus other stars such as Reggie Wayne and Michael Vick. He also notes 34 overall Pro Bowl selections, plus 17 first rounders making the Pro Bowl.

In the 2001 NFL Draft, the Steelers traded down and pick Casey Hampton who anchored the center of a defense that dominated the NFL for the next decade. Next, the Steelers picked Kendrell Bell. Had the 2001 draft’s story been written in January 2002, the Steelers would have gotten an A based on Bell’s and Hampton’s performances of that year.

  • But legitimate draft evaluation takes 4-5 years for a good reason.

Kendrell Bell missed the first four games of his second season due to injury, and only reached is rookie season form during the middle of 2002. After that, he faded. Aside from Bell, 6th round pick Rodney Bailey and 4th round pick Chukky Okobi were the only 2001 draftees to get any real time, and both of them essentially saw spot duty.

  • Any draft that delivers a Casey Hampton is hard to knock as “bad.”

But if the 2001 NFL draft class was the best of its generation as Reinking suggests, then Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher certainly should have done better.

Steelers 2007 Draft Class

Steel Curtain Rising has praised the Steelers 2007 draft class at length, and Reineking ranks the 2007 NFL Draft class as the second best.

The 2007 NFL Draft was Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s first effort together, and is one of their best. If their first choice, Lawrence Timmons, took a little longer to develop than desired, “Law Dog” has been the Steelers best and most consistent defender for three consecutive years.

Fans remember LaMarr Woodley for his second contract flame out, but who (other than BTSC’s Michael Bean) saw that coming? From opening day in 2008 until he injured his hamstring in the Steelers 2011 upset of New England, LaMarr Woodley sacked the quarterback 44 times in 55 games.

In 2007 Colbert and Tomlin also picked Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda, and William Gay in the 3rd 4th and 5th rounds. Both Spaeth and Sepulveda were “reaches” but Spaeth’s provides immeasurable value to the running game, and he’s greatly underrated as a pass catcher.

After a strong 2008, William Gay drew the fans ire in 2009 and 2010, only to score 4 touchdowns since his return from a sabbatical season in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona Cardinals.

If Reineking’s 2nd best ranking of the 2007 NFL Draft class is right, then Pittsburgh came away with 3-4 quality football players who helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII.

Steelers 1996 Draft Class

The 1996 NFL Draft is the only draft manned by Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher to make Reineking’s list. The biggest move of the draft was shipping the Steeler’s second round pick to St. Louis for Jerome Bettis.

But you measure drafts for the picks you take rather than the trades you make, and that gives Steelers 1996 draft class a paradoxical quality. At the top, Jamain Stephens is the worst Steelers first round bust this side of Huey Richardson and the 3rd round pick linebacker Steve Conley washed out after two seasons.

In the middle, Penn State fullback Jon Witman gave the Steelers solid, but far from spectacular, value as a 4th round pick, while 5th round pick Earl Holmes famously congratulated Bill Cowher for “picking the best linebacker in the draft.” While James Farrior quickly made Steelers Nation forget Earl Holmes, Holmes did start 79 games in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh picked fellow 4th rounder Jahine Arnold to replace Ernie Mills, but Arnold was a bust.

  • The Steelers arguably got the best value out of their 6th and 7th round picks in 1996, in the form of Orpheus Roye and Carlos Emmons.

Roye impressed as a rookie on specials teams, and was starting by his third year. Bill Cowher wanted to keep him, but Cleveland threw 30 million dollars at Roye, whon only had 4.5 sacks at the time.

Carlos Emmons was the classic case of a 7th round pick who simply seized the opportunities present late in the 3rd and 4th quarters of early preseason games. Emmons wasn’t a 7th round pick-turned stud the way Brett Keisel was, but he developed into a respectable starter.

Overall, the 1996 draft was fairly characteristic of the drafts during of later part of Tom Donahoe’s tenure, which saw the Steelers misfire on early picks, but do reasonably well after that.

Steelers 2004 Draft Class

Reineking ranks the 2004 NFL Draft class as 4th and that’s the draft where the Steelers passed on Marcus Turner for Nathaniel Adibi, a linebacker who never donned a regular season uniform. They also whiffed on offensive tackle Bo Lacy, center Drew Caylor, and defensive end Eric Taylor. Tight end Matt Kranchick, a 6th round pick from Penn State, made the 2004 roster and appeared in two games. He hung on until November of 2005 where he caught one pass for 6 yards while appearing in four games before getting cut.

Second round pick Ricardo Colclough held down a roster spot for 4 years with the Steelers, and was given multiple chances to contribute. But he failed to make an impact as either a return man or a corner.

2004’s third round pick Max Starks journey with the Steelers has been well chronicled here and parts elsewhere. Any way you measure it, Max Starks delivered excellent value as a third round pick.

  • 1 out of 7 players analyzed thus far that Pittsburgh picked in 2004 developed into a viable NFL player.

Sounds pretty bleak, especially when you consider the Steelers were drafting early in each round. But they used that low draft position to take a young man out of Miami Ohio, whose name is Ben Roethlisberger and that pick by itself makes the entire 2004 NFL Draft a smashing success for the Steelers.

Steelers 2011 Draft Class

For Reineking, the 2011 Draft Class is the NFL’s 5th best. An even though 4 years is sufficient to offer some solid draft analysis, the 2011 draft could still end up being either a boom or a bust for the Steelers.

6th round pick Keith Williams never made the team. 7th round pick Baron Batch was creating a buzz at St. Vincents until an injury ended his rookie season before it started, and he was never the same. Gerry Dulac once said that 5th round pick Chris Carter could be the steal of the draft, and Carter got chances but ultimately failed to prove Dulac right. 3rd round corner Curtis Brown was a bust.

Second round pick Marcus Gilbert’s development was shaky, as he was alternating with Kelven Beachum in early 2013, but his development has been solid enough since then that he got a second contract.

First round pick Cameron Heyward, for some unknown reason, found himself trapped below Ziggy Hood on the Steelers depth chart, but when the coaches finally rectified that, Cameron Heyward exploded into the stud he was supposed to be when the Steelers picked him first in 2011.

  • While Gilbert and Heyward add a lot of value to the Steelers 2011 draft class, alone they can’t prevent it from being a disappointment.

The honor falls to 2011’s third round pick, Cortez Allen. Cortez Allen flashed as a rookie, finished incredibly strong as a sophomore, struggled then stabilized in his third season, saw the Steelers extend his contract prior to his fourth season where he promptly imploded. Carnell Lake has a major Cortez Allen Reclamation project on his hands, and the success of that will determine whether the arrow on the Steelers 2011 draft class points up or down.

Symmetrical Quality for Steelers in Reinking’s Top 5

Reineking’s top 5 NFL Draft classes of the last 25 years have a symmetrical quality for them for Steelers fans. 2001 and 2004 were Kevin Colbert-Bill Cowher drafts, 1996 was a Tom Donahoe-Bill Cowher draft, while 2007 and 2011 were Kevin Colbert-Mike Tomlin drafts.

While the sample size is small, the duo of Colbert-Tomlin has been the most consistent, while the Colbert-Cowher hit very high on a couple of picks, but they missed almost completely on the rest. And, as mentioned, Donahoe did poorly early on but uncannily got better as draft position degraded.

This raises some interesting questions, which Steel Curtain Rising will discuss next week when mini-camp ends and the NFL’s true off season begins.

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