Steelers 2021 Draft Class Balances Offensive Yang Against Defensive Yin

Grades for the Steelers 2021 Draft Class will have wait a few years. But there’s already one word that can describe this group of 9 players chosen by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin: Balanced.

  • The Steelers 2021 Draft class is a group where the defensive yin balances out its defensive yang.
  • The addition of a special teams player at the tail end wraps a bouquet around the balance concept.

Whether they strengthened themselves enough at offensive or boosted their defensive depth sufficently remains to be seen. But the Steelers went all in on their plan. So lets take a glance at exactly who falls on the side of yin and how falls on the side of yang.

Steelers Yin an Yang

Image credit: Sybildeckerdf via Pin Interest

Steelers 2021 Draft Class at a Glance

1st Round: Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
2nd Round: Pat Freiermuth, tight end, Penn State
3rd Round: Kendrick Green, center, Illinois
4th Round A: Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle, Texas A&M
4th Round B: Buddy Johnson, inside linebacker, Texas A&M
5th Round: Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end, Wisconsin
6th Round: Quincy Roche, outside linebacker, Miami
7th Round A: Tre Norwood, cornerback/safety/Swiss Army Knife, Oklahoma
7th Round B: Pressley Harvin, punter, Georgia Tech

Has there ever been a draft when the Steelers have gone down their needs and ticked them off in almost clockwork like fashion? I don’t know, but if there is the Steelers 2021 Draft class will provide immediate competition.

  • For two years, decline has diseased the Steelers offense.

Black and Gold Yin and YangSure, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the need to alternative between Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019 exacerbated that condition. But the unit lost its way. The Steelers offense’s MO shifted from sacrificing itself by feeding the ball too much to its feature back, to throwing 50 times per game.

  • Attempts to convert 4th and inches became utter embarrassments.

In Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green the Steelers have three players who could and should start on opening day. If you believe offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, Dan Moore could also be in the mix to start.

After focusing exclusively on their offensive yang, Pittsburgh pivoted to fulfilling their need for defensive yin in the middle of round 4. There they went and addressed four straight defensive positions.

  • Perhaps they didn’t quite come in the ideal order, but each pick addressed a clear area of need.

And unlike the offense, even if these defensive players exceed all expectations, it is very hard to see any of them earning a starting spot or pushing for non-spot duty playing time. An injury or two could change things in a hurry. Think back to the 2013 opening day. But on paper, the defensive players were picked to provide depth and play roles on special teams.

2021 Draft’s Immediate Impact

Going into the 2008 season, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded readers that improvement would have to come from within, that it would be a mistake to count on the Steelers 2008 Draft class to deliver the difference.

  • Labriola was right. The 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, and the rookie class contributed nothing.

With that in mind, should we interpret the fact that the Steelers drafted 3 potential starters as an ominous sign? Hard to say. Other than Jack Lambert, other Hall of Famers the Steelers drafted in their legendary 1974 Draft class, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, were role players on the team that won Super Bowl IX.

On the flip side, the 2016 Steelers got immediate contributions from the top three members of their 2016 Draft class, and that season ended with them knocking on heaven’s door in the AFC Championship.

Suffice to say, the Steelers need 2021’s draft class to be more like 2016 than 2008.

 

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Steelers 1974 Rookie Class Legend Deepens Thanks to Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Induction

I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.

  • Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.

But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.

The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.

  • It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.

But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.

Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.

Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.

  • That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.

Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.

While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.

  • Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.

Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.

 

 

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4 Insights the Steelers 2020 Draft Class Gives Us Now

The 2020 NFL Draft is now history. The Steelers 2020 Draft Class is set and the assessments of Pittsburgh’s most unusual draft class in over a half century are already beginning.

  • Defining “Winners” and “Losers” two days after the draft is as understandable as it is silly.

It is understandable because in every draft a select few teams lay foundations for future championships while the rest undermine their shot at a Super Bowl.

  • The silliness comes in pretending to know which team falls on which side of the fence days after the draft.

Vito Stellino is one of the best NFL journalists there’s ever been, but he famously panned the Steelers 1974 Draft class. As Tony Defeo reminds us, it’s the nature of the beast that so many are already second guessing Steelers 2020 picks of Claypool and Highsmith. But how many of those voices rushed to declare Antonio Brown as a “steal” of the 2010 NFL Draft or call out Kelvin Beachum as 2012 NFL Draft’s true sleeper?

  • You get my point.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Draft Class

Steelers 2020 Draft Class. Image Credit: Steelers Twitter Feed

The Steelers 2020 Draft class is getting a B- in a lot of circles, but those grades are about as accurate as an early April batting average. However, Steelers picks nonetheless tell us something important about how Pittsburgh’s brain trust sees it the team.

Steelers 2020 Draft Class at a Glance

2nd Round – Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver from Notre Dame
3rd Round – Alex Highsmith, Outside Linebacker, Charlotte
4th Round A – Robert McFarland, Jr., Running Back, Maryland
4th Round B – Kevin Dotson, Guard, Louisiana
6th Round – Antoine Brooks, Safety, Maryland
7th Round – Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle, Nebraska

That’s 6 picks, evenly divided between offense and defense with an early emphasis on offensive skill positions. Here are some conclusions that we can make now:

1. The Steelers Remain “All In” on a Roethlisberger Rebound

This has been true since the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade and is nothing new. Everything decision the franchise has made since that loss against Seattle suggests it is banking on a full recovery from Ben Roethlisberger. Taking Chase Claypool with their only pick in the top 100 players in the 2020 NFL Draft confirms the trend.

2. Steelers are Sold on Benny Snell Jr.

Before the draft Mike Tomlin was non-committal about whether the Steelers would draft a running back early. But he did commit running better in 2020 regardless of who the Steelers picked. A lot of folks are up in arms over the Steelers decision to leave J.K. Dobbins on the board in the 2nd round.

  • They may be right.

But the Steelers are giving a huge vote of confidence in Benny Snell’s  ability to carry the load should James Conner succumb to injury (again.)

3. The Steelers are Comfortable with Inside Linebacker Depth

Going into the draft with just six picks forced Pittsburgh to prioritize more than normal. Outside of tight end, every other position area could use a shot in the arm.

Yet, after making their first pick, the Steelers chose to address outside linebacker, running back, offensive line and safety at the expense of inside linebacker.

By implication, that suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with Ulysees Gilbert serving as “The next man up” at his position than they are with Jordan Dangerfield, Ola Adeniyi and/or Tuzar Skipper at theirs.

4. Steelers are Hedging on Dupree and JuJu’s Returns

Let’s look at some objective facts:

  1. The Steelers had no first round pick
  2. They have no obvious starting spots to be won
  3. Pittsburgh’s highest profile free agents for 2021 will be Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster
  4. The Steelers first two picks were at wide receiver and outside linebacker

Coincidence? Perhaps. But during the 1990’s the Steelers would routinely drafted with an eye towards replacing future free agents. (The strategy worked, for a while.) Could they be doing the same thing here?

Time will tell, but judging by how the a lot of different stars are lining up, the Steelers appear to be hedging their bets when it comes to the prospect of keeping JuJu and Bud Pittsburgh beyond 2020.

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Justice Done! Former Steeler Donnie Shell Elected to Hall of Fame Centennial Class

After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.

Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:

  • In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”

This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year

But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”

Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.

Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.

  • The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.

Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

  • Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.

By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.

Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.

  • Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.

Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.

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Steelers 2018 Draft Class Proves that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin Don’t Live in their Fears

The Steelers 2018 draft class is complete. Suffice to say, things didn’t play out as outsiders expected.

By consensus, the Steelers biggest need in the 2018 NFL Draft was at inside linebacker. Drafting Le’Veon Bell’s replacement would have been wise. And the conventional wisdom dictated by the manhandling suffered at the hands of Jacksonville that the Steelers hit defense early and often.

  • So how did Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin conduct this draft?

Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin shake hands with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

The duo refused to live in their fears, ignored the critics and marched to their own tune during the draft. Now that the dust has settled, the Steelers have concluded the 2018 NFL Draft and they:

  • Didn’t pick up an inside linebacker
  • Drafted a safety which few “experts” felt was first round worthy
  • Invested only 1 of 4 premium picks on defense and 4 of Pittsburgh’s overall 7 picks were on offense
  • Made zero attempt to replace Le’Veon Bell

That surprised many in Steelers Nation, yours truly included. But it shouldn’t have. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert don’t make personnel decision out of fear. And while need has influenced their picks in the past, it is pretty clear that the Steelers stuck to their draft board.

Here’s the Steelers 2018 Draft Class at a Glance:

1st round, Terrell Edmunds, Safety, Virginia Tech
2nd round, James Washington, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
3rd round A, Mason Rudolph, Quarterback, Oklahoma State
3rd round B, Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle, West Michigan
5th round A, Marcus Allen, Safety, Penn State
5th round, Jaylen Samuels, Running Back, North Carolina State
7th round, Joshua Frazier, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin got everyone talking by picking Terrell Edmunds. Mel Kipper Jr. had him rated as the draft’s 8th best safety. Some sites had him rated as the 20th best safety in the draft. Better safeties, in the eyes of many, remained on the board.

  • What to make of this?

As a draft ignoramus, I won’t hazard an argument. The experts, with a few exceptions, didn’t like it. There are only two or three decision makers in the Steelers draft room vs. an infinite number of pundits racing to offer instant evaluations.

Listening to the cascade of criticism generated by Terrell Edmunds pick reminded me of reaction to the New York Jet’s decision to draft Jeff Lageman in the 1989 NFL Draft. The legendary Pete Axthelm went so far as to joke that the Exxon Valdez hadn’t been piloted by scouts for the Jets. Lageman ended up making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and had a solid career, if one that fell below his status of the 14th pick.

In contrast, Mel Kipper Jr. praised the Steelers 1985 Draft Class, which turned out to be one of the worst in modern era and had to have contributed to Dan Rooney’s decision to fire Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.

And as everyone in Steelers Nation knows, the legendary Vic Stiletto panned the Steelers 1974 Draft Class after day one for not having improved themselves at punter. The 1974 haul brought Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster to Pittsburgh, all four of whom current have busts honoring them in Canton.

  • Will something similar happen to Terrell Edmunds? Will he become this generation’s Troy Polamalu? Will Mason Rudolph prove to be Ben Roethlisberger’s Aaron Rogers?

Time will tell. In the short-term the perception of the success or failure of this draft is going to hinge on whether Terrell Edmunds matches Tomlin and Colbert’s expectations or those of the pundits. But Mason Rudolph offers an “X” factor. The Steelers apparently had a 1st round grade on him, and if he proves to be a worthy success to Big Ben then this draft will be a success even if Edmunds is as base as the Mel Kipper Jr.’s of the world assure us he is.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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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Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

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2 Lessons Learned from the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Steelers Nation is celebrating Pittsburgh’s 1974 draft this spring as it should. In 1974 the team of Chuck Noll, Art Rooney, Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn authored the best draft in this history of the National Football League.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch for the faithful to do a collective fist pump and channel their inner Brett Hart’s saying,

  • The Steelers 1974 Draft is the best there was, there ever will be!

You earn the right to say that when your team drafts 4 Hall of Famers in the form of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster.

steelers 1974 draft war room rooney nunn haley
Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, V. Tim Rooney, and Art Rooney Jr.

The stories behind the 1974 draft remain the stuff of legend. Of Art Rooney Jr. scouting Lambert while he practiced on asphalt at Kent State. Bill Nunn’s slight of hand in scouting John Stallworth. These and other yarns will be spun and respun and will again.

Expecting the success of the 1974 draft to be repeated in Pittsburgh or elsewhere simply isn’t realistic. The playing field is far too level now. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons Steelers Nation can take from the 1974 NFL Draft as we move towards the 2014 NFL Draft.

Lesson I – The Fallacy that The Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Hall Sparked 4 Super Bowls

Alan Robinson’s hardly the only one to make this kind of statement. In fact, many assume it is simply reality. Nonetheless, Robinson’s recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review provides a perfect example:

This is the 40th anniversary of the Steelers’ Class of 1974, a 21-member draft class that is the best in NFL history. Of the five Hall of Famers drafted by NFL teams that year, four were Steelers, an unprecedented talent haul that immediately propelled the franchise to four Super Bowl wins in six seasons. (Emphasis added.)

That’s poetic and looking back 40 years later it certainly seems like a true case of cause and effect at work. Except closer examination of the record reveals something else.

Of the four Hall of Famers taken, only Jack Lambert started immediately. The NFL didn’t keep sacks then, but Lambert bagged two interceptions and force a fumble.

Mike Webster started 1 game but appeared in 14, as Chuck Noll worked out a rotation system for Webster and Ray Mansfield. Webby got his time, but it was still Mansfield’s line.

  • As for Lynn Swann and John Stallworth? 

Lynn Swann is listed as starting two games, but recorded all of 11 catches and two touchdowns. Swann contributed on special teams, returning 41 punts for an impressive 14.1 average and one touchdown.

John Stallworth is listed as starting 3 games that year, but still only made 16 catches for 1 touchdown.

Lambert’s contributions were the most important, and roughly analogous to those the Heath Miller made as a rookie in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XL. Webster, Swann and Stallworth did their parts, but paled in comparison to those made by the likes of Joe Greene or Franco Harris, let alone those of Frank Lewis, the team’s number 1 wide out.

  • The bottom line is that fans hoping for salvation via the 2014 should temper expectations

A strong rookie class can boosts but does not transform a contender into a champion.

Lesson II:  Beware of Paralysis by Analysis

Post-draft day grades and evaluations are about as useful as MLB batting averages on April 15th — papers are almost obligated to publish the number, but come late September no one will care. Nonetheless, the rush to be the first to declare a “winner” to the draft after the last selection is called has accelerated to inane levels in the age of the internet.

  • But such paralysis by analysis is hardly something born in the digital age.

In his self-titled autobiography Dan Rooney shared this bit of instant analysis published after Day 1 of the 1974 NFL Draft:

The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn’t get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn’t get a punter, although none of the nation’s best collegiate kickers weren’t in the first five rounds. They didn’t get an offensive tackle that might’ve shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the number-5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks.

The rush to judgment after a draft is only human. But the Steelers had just taken 4 future Hall of Famers, and the columnist from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was miffed because they didn’t take a punter.

None of this will or should stop professional writers and bloggers from analyzing the 2014 NFL Draft. But lesson of the Steelers 1974 Draft is that such instant draft analysis must be taken with several healthy shakes of the salt shaker.

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