Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but John Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving John Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked John Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

John Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, John Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to concede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Who is Gerod Holliman? The Steelers Next Darren Perry… Or Scott Shields?

NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah earned bragging rights during the 2015 NFL Draft. He had the Steelers picking Gerod Holliman and the Steelers drafted him. The problem is that Pittsburgh picked the Louisville safety in the 7th round and not in the first as Jeremiah projected.

  • The life and times of 7th round picks should normally remain ho-hum affairs. If the said 7th round pick is lucky fans will recognize his name when it appears on the list of final cuts.

Not so with Holliman, he’s one 7th round pick who’ll arrive at St. Vincents with notoriety. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed Holliman “…can take credit for making the first and last interceptions of the spring for the team” (including one of Ben Roethlisberger‘s passes) even though he didn’t get many reps.

  • Who is Gerod Holliman? Have the Steelers EVER had a 7th round picks whose generated such a buzz before training camp has even started?

The answer to the question is “No.” Steelers 7th round picks simply don’t generate this kind of attention. When Gerod Holliman arrives at St. Vincents all eyes will await the answer to two questions – can he hit and can he tackle?

  • The Steelers demand two things of their safeties – they need to be ball hawks and they must hit hard.

Hoillman’s 14 interceptions provide ample proof that he meets the first criteria, but the knock on him is that he shies away from contact. Gerrod Holliman “Write his own story” as Mike Tomlin would be wont to say, but history suggests two interesting if divergent parallels for Holliman’s development – that of Darren Perry or that of Scott Shields.

Darren Perry Under Spoken Upstart of the Steelers 1992 Draft

Darren Perry didn’t arrive at St. Vincent’s college in the summer of 1992 with fans and the press doubting his hitting and ball hawking skills. That’s because, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, internet profiles and YouTube video collages didn’t exist back then.

What Darren Perry did do is something that none of the “studs” from the Steelers 1992 draft classLeon Searcy, Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed – earn a starting spot.

Perry was an 8th round pick, meaning he would have even been drafted today, who showed up at camp, button his chin strap, and went on to win the free safety spot, making incumbent hold out Thomas Everett irrelevant in the process. (Although in all fairness to Everett, he was traded to Dallas and started in 3 Super Bowls for them.)

  • Darren Perry didn’t have lot of the measurable, standing at less than six foot and weighing less than 200 pounds.

But Perry was a professional ball hawk. The man had a knack for being around the ball which allowed him to haul down 32 interceptions in 126 starts with the Steelers from 1992 to 1998. In fact, Perry started every game he played with the Steelers, until Bill Cowher benched him in favor of Bo Orlando at the close of the 1998 season.

IF there’s such a thing as a Steelers patron saint of underdog safeties, Donnie Shell should probably win, but Darren Perry would be a close second.

Holliman can look to Perry’s example for inspiration, if need be, but he would also be wise to look just as closely at the story of the man who the Steelers drafted to replace Perry.

Scott Shields the Steelers “Inexplicable” Second Round Safety

While Perry played 7 strong season for the Steelers, his performance began to decline when his age crossed the big 3-0 threshold. The Steelers looked to the 1999 NFL Draft for his replacement, and picked Scott Shields.

  • While the internet was in full bloom by 1999, there still wasn’t as much detailed information out there on draft picks as there is today.

So, like many other Steelers expats living in the Washington DC area, yours truly looked to WTEM’s Ken Beatrice for insight on who the Steelers picked. Beatrice, who generally lauded the Steelers drafting in the 1990’s, labeled the Steelers decision to pick Shields in the second round of the 1999 draft as “inexplicable.”

  • As it turns out, Shields got labeled as one of the biggest draft busts of the last 20 years by Pittsburgh Sporting News.

IT didn’t start out that way for Shields however. While Jamain Stephens gassing out during the Steelers run test grabbed all of the headlines as the Steelers opened 1999 training camp, Scott Shields quietly led the team Cowher’s annual run test.

As an athlete, Shields had everything a coach could want. He was big, he was fast, he had the measurables, and he was versatile – word was he was good enough to function as a stand in place kicker if need be. Heck, the Steelers even issued him Mel Blount’s no 47….

And Shields rookies season was promising too. He sealed both the Steelers road victory over San Francisco and the Steelers post-Christmas win over Carolina with interceptions. In fact, he tied Dewayne Washington for the interception lead while only starting one game.

Shields started in the opening day shut out vs. Baltimore. He found himself relegated to the nickel, and after Tim Couch and Steve McNair both lead their teams down the field for late go ahead touchdowns, the Steelers benched Shields all together.

For all of his athletic prowess, Shields couldn’t tackle and struggled in coverage. He only appeared in ten games that in 2000, and was cut before 2001. If memory serves, Tom Donahoe gave him a shot in Buffalo, but Shields never made the roster. He played in 2002 for NFL Europe’s Scottish Claymores and spent time on the Kansas City Chiefs roster in 2004.

Holliman’s Opportunity Approaches

The Steelers defense is a unit in desperate need of turnovers, and Gerod Holliman would seem to offer Keith Butler and Carnell Lake that skill. As he prepares to go to St. Vincents, Holliman should do so secure in the knowledge that the Steelers will give him the fair shake just as they gave to Perry, but he should also know that they’ll also cut him loose just as they did with Scott Shields.

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Steelers vs Worst NFL Draft Classes in Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has ranked the 4 worst draft classes of the NFL’s last 25 years. If that sounds curious it should. Reineking actually claims to rank the NFL’s five worst draft classes, but he’s already included the 2013 NFL Draft, and 2 years is far too short a time to draw conclusions about any draft class.

  • Beyond that, the simple fact is that at this time of year pro football focused sites, including this one, become desperate for anything that generates them page views.

But let’s assume that Reineking’s methodology is sound and the analysis behind his rankings is solid. The question of interest to Steel Curtain Rising is “How did the Steelers fare vs the worst NFL draft classes in history?”  Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Steelers 1992 NFL Draft Class

For Reineking, the 1992 NFL Draft was the worst of the last 25 years and if he’s right, then this is all the much sweeter for Steelers nation, because the Steelers 1992 draft class was one of the best of the post-Chuck Noll era.

The 1992 NFL Draft was Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s first together, and their first three picks were Leon Searcy, Levon Kirkland, and Joel Steed. None of the three started in Cowher’s 1992 opening day upset of the Houston Oilers. That honor feel to Darren Perry who started all sixteen games and hauled in 6 interceptions.

  • Searcy, Kirkland, and Steed did start on opening day 1993, and were regular starters through Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers also grabbed long snapper Kendall Gammon in the 11th round of the 1992 NFL Draft who served as long snapper for 4 straight years. Searcy left after 1995, but Kirkland, Steed, and Perry all signed multiple contracts from the Steelers. Kirkland and Steed made 3 Pro Bowls between them.

The Steelers 1992 draft class did not produce superstars, but Pittsburgh did find four solid, long-term starters and critical special teams role player. That’s a very good effort for any draft, and all the more so for one that is rated as the worst overall draft in a quarter century.

Steelers 2013 NFL Draft Class

It is way, way too early to evaluate the Steelers 2013 draft class. Going into 2015, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas represent huge question marks and you don’t want to say that of your first and third round pick two years after the draft. Especially when the success or failure of your defense hinges closely on their development.

Yet, Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams, and Markus Wheaton have all shown “something” and that bodes well for the overall fate of the 2013 draft class.

Steelers 2009 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 2009 draft class has perhaps been one of the most misunderstood. By definition, it’s a disappointment when no members of your draft class get second contracts. And if Ziggy Hood was a disappointing 1st round pick, he was no bust, and as Steel Curtain Rising demonstrated last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers made good picks in 2009, the problem is that the rest of the NFL benefited from them.

If 2009 was the third worst draft of the last 25 years, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin sent a lot of the right names to the podium, even if it did Pittsburgh little good.

Steelers 1999 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 1999 draft class was Tom Donahoe’s last, and it was far from his best. The Steelers were picking 13th, and their first two picks were Troy Edwards and Scott Shields, both of whom were busts. 3rd round pick Kris Farris represented another waste of a premium pick.

  • But the 1999 draft was far from a total loss for Pittsburgh.

Round’s 3 and four included men by the names of Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, two men who own three Super Bowl rings between them. Amos Zereoue also arrived in that draft and, while Zereoue never reached his potential he was hardly a bust.

The Steelers laid a couple of eggs in the 1999 NFL Draft, but they also found 2 diamonds in the rough.

Steelers 2002 NFL Draft Class

The 2002 NFL Draft was Kevin Colbert’s third with the team, and it was easily its best in terms of finding overall value. Only one of the 8 players the Steelers drafted in 2002 failed to make the roster.

Injuries ruined Kendall Simmons career, but he stayed healthy enough to start in Super Bowl XL. Most people will never think of Antwaan Randle El as great, but his value to the Steelers offenses went far beyond his stat sheet (just ask Hines Ward). Ditto Larry Foote. The Steelers upgraded when they replaced Chris Hope with Ryan Clark, but Hope was good enough to start during the 2004 15-1 season and the Super Bowl that followed a year later.

Verron Haynes and Lee Mays weren’t household words in Steelers Nation even when they were playing, but Hayes was a serviceable back up, and Lee Mays a decent spot duty role player.

  • The final pick was of course Brett Keisel. What more do we need to say?

Kevin Colbert really did save the best for last here.

Keisel might not be a future Hall of Famer, he might have only earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Brett Keisel blossomed into a great player in every sense of the word.

The Steelers do Well in Picking from Weak NFL Draft Classes

Going into ever NFL draft, fans are wont to hear that “This it’s a great year to for teams that need to draft ______ [insert your position name(s)],” or “Unfortunately, there aren’t any viable franchise quarterbacks coming out this year.”

  • The funny thing is, you rarely hear draft classes collectively panned or praised after the fact.

Credit NFL.Com’s Jim Reineking for trying to change that.

Steel Curtain Rising offers no opinion either way of his choices, but if his rankings are right, then the Steelers have provided a case study proving the old adage that “Good players are available in every round waiting to be found,” it just takes a smart scouting organization to find them.

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