Six Super Bowl victories. The trophy case of the Pittsburgh Steelers says it all about the team’s success since the 1970s. Pittsburgh has become the model NFL franchise, to the point that it is almost shocking when the Steelers are not playoff contenders during holiday seasons.
Hall-of-Famers at running back, quarterback and at defensive back have been common throughout the team’s history. The Steelers have made it a tradition of finding true gems in the first rounds of NFL Drafts. Pittsburgh building the foundations of championship teams early on in drafts is why the club is often in postseason conversations when December turns into January.
Here are the top 10 greatest first-round NFL Draft picks in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
10. Bill Dudley — HB/TB/QB — 1st Overall in 1942
Dudley made an immediate impact upon joining the Steelers as a rookie. He was a first-team All-Pro in 1942, during which he led the league in rushing yards, rushing yards per game, and rushing attempts. Dudley was on his way to being an elite player for Pittsburgh.
Then came World War II.
Dudley returned to pro football and to the Steelers in 1945. He would play two more years for the club, and in 1946 Dudley earned league MVP honors for his play on offense, on defense and on special teams. Dudley joined the Detroit Lions via trade after the 1946 season, and he would complete stints in Detroit and with the Washington Redskins before calling time on his playing days.
A member of the Hall of Fame class of 1966, Dudley would be much higher on this list had he spent more time as a member of the Steelers.
9. Heath Miller — TE — 30th Overall in 2005
The 30th selection is one of the least-coveted first-round picks a team can have in a draft. Pittsburgh didn’t find one of the greatest tight ends to ever play in the NFL when they took Miller in the ’05 draft.
The club merely found a mainstay at the position, a reliable starter who has featured for the Steelers in each of the last nine seasons.
Miller has 466 catches and 40 receiving touchdowns to date. No tight end in the history of the team has more career receptions than does Miller. A two-time Pro-Bowler, Miller is a tremendous value pick considering when he was selected nine years ago.
8. Alan Faneca — G/T — 26th Overall in 1998
Faneca was not a hit starting on day one of his NFL career, but he did appear in all 16 of Pittsburgh’s regular season games in his rookie campaign. He improved and improved over the next several seasons, and Faneca was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2001. That was also the first year in which he was a first-team All-Pro.
The trend of Faneca being viewed as one of the best offensive linemen in the league didn’t end there.
Faneca would, from ’01 through ’07, be a six-time first-team All-Pro. He was named to Pro Bowl teams from 2001 through 2009. Faneca is on the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Reference First Team All-2000s Teams.
7. Ben Roethlisberger — QB — 11th Overall in 2004
The Cleveland Browns, rivals of the Pittsburgh Steelers, passed on Big Ben in 2004 in order to draft tight end Kellen Winslow. K2 famously flamed out as a member of the Browns, Cleveland hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade (they lost to Pittsburgh in that Wild Card game), and Roethlisberger has absolutely owned the Browns in his ten seasons in the league.
Roethlisberger also has two Super Bowl titles to his name.
A QB who was placed in a situation where he didn’t have to do a whole lot to win, Roethlisberger eventually developed into a quality and reliable pro quarterback. The 2004 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year has survived on-the-field beatings he has sustained throughout his career. No active QB in the league has suffered more career sacks than has Roethlisberger.
He wins, and he could be one more Super Bowl run away from guaranteeing himself a spot in Canton.
6. Troy Polamalu — S — 16th Overall in 2003
Age catches up with everybody, even with elite athletes. Polamalu is no different, and thus he is now in the twilight of his career. An incredible career it has truly been, as good as that had by any defensive player who has been in the NFL over the past decade.
Polamalu has, since day one, been a true defensive play-maker, pro football’s own “Mr. Hustle.” He never – never – gives up on plays. The eight-time Pro-Bowler who has been a four-time first-team All-Pro and who also won the 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year Award should already have a plaque waiting for him in the Hall of Fame.
Make sure the hair looks great, guys.
5. Lynn Swann — WR — 21st Overall in 1974
Every sport has those moments that are forever featured in highlight reels. Baseball has “The Catch.” Basketball has Michael Jordan and “The Shot” (and “The Shot II”). US Soccer has the Landon Donovan “Goal, Goal USA!!!” tally from the 2010 World Cup.
No Super Bowl highlight reel would be complete without Swann going up into the air and reeling in a pass when facing the Dallas Cowboys.
Swann twice went for 11 touchdown receptions in regular seasons. He was the Super Bowl X MVP. A finalist in Hall of Fame voting 11 times, Swann finally received the honor he rightly deserved in 2001.
4. Franco Harris — RB — 13th Overall in 1972
It’s hard to believe, looking back, that some questioned the Steelers taking Harris in the first round of the ’72 Draft. He quickly silenced any and all critics, winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award that season. Two years later, Harris was named the Super Bowl MVP.
Guess he was worth the pick, after all.
Harris would go on to cement his place in record books. He sits at tenth overall in career rushing touchdowns (91). Only 12 running backs in history gained more yards on the ground than did Harris (12,120). The nine-time Pro-Bowler entered the Hall of Fame in 1990.
3. “Mean Joe” Greene — DT — 4th Overall in 1969
Those of us who weren’t around when Greene was an active player know him more for his nickname than for what he achieved in 13 NFL seasons. He more than earned the “mean” tag. Greene was a dominant force for the Steelers right out of the gate, winning the 1969 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
He only got better from there.
Greene twice earned AP Defensive Player of the Year honors (1972 and 1974). He is a member of multiple First Team All-1970s Teams. He was a cornerstone of the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh defense that helped the club win the Super Bowl on four occasions. Greene’s physical attributes along with his toughness and competitive nature made him undeniably one of the greatest to ever play the position.
2. Rod Woodson — DB — 10th Overall in 1987
Woodson is widely remembered for being the best overall defensive back in the NFL during his prime. It’s easy to forget just how good a return man the former track star was for seven and a half seasons. In all, Woodson returned four kicks (two punts and two kickoffs) for touchdowns from 1988 through 1992.
That said, Woodson made his money while playing in the secondary. He was the 1993 AP Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson was named to 11 Pro Bowl teams from 1989 through 2002, and he was a six-time first-team All-Pro. Woodson is third overall in career interceptions, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
1. Terry Bradshaw — QB — 1st Overall in 1970
You could insert one of several players either already enshrined in Canton or to-be Hall-of-Famers into this spot and not be wrong. The demands on a quarterback taken first overall in any draft exceed that placed on any other player at any other position. Bradshaw proved his worth on football’s biggest stage four separate times, and thus he rises to the very top of this list.
Bradshaw’s most admirable trait as a quarterback may be how he stepped up in big-game situations. He may not have had the numbers put up by the likes of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or John Elway. There’s an argument to be made that Bradshaw would be the ideal historic QB to start for a championship one-off.