The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the greatest franchises in sports history. Currently the only NFL team with six Super Bowls, the Steelers have made their mark in the history as a legendary franchise. The greatest franchises often win by drafting, and the Steelers are no different. And in comparison to other teams, the Steelers have one of the best track records of drafting players that go on to become great. Pittsburgh is notorious for their legendary defenses, notably the "Steel Curtain" which is the best example of what great drafting and scouting can do for the legacy of a franchise. That’s not to say that all Steelers picks have become what they thought they would have when drafting them. Pittsburgh has dealt with the frustration of drafting busts as well, which means this list will contain the eight best and seven worst Pittsburgh Steelers first round draft picks.
This list will contain the best first round picks only, so the likes of Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Mel Blount, etc. will not be included because they weren't drafted in the first round of their respective drafts. Also, this list will not include the likes of Bill Dudley and Len Dawson who, though they are Hall of Famers drafted by the Steelers, reached their tremendous accomplishments with other teams. This list will also not feature Gabriel Rivera because if it were not for his tragic accident, we don't know what he would have accomplished on the field.
With that said, here are the eight best and seven worst first round picks in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
15 Alan Faneca (Best)
For some teams, a future Hall of Fame lineman could be the best player the team has ever drafted in their franchise's history. Since the Steelers have a great legacy, a player like Alan Faneca may be overlooked as one of the greatest in the team's history, but his resume suggests that he is one of the greatest linemen ever. Faneca was drafted 26th overall out of LSU in the 1998 draft, standing out in a draft that featured Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Randy Moss, and Hines Ward, among others. Faneca became a nine-time Pro Bowler, was named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team, and has also been named to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. Though Faneca would finish his career with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, he will always be remembered as one of the most important pieces of the Steelers' Super Bowl XL championship team in 2006.
14 Mark Malone (Worst)
Mark Malone was seen as a potential replacement for Terry Bradshaw when the Steelers picked him the 1980 NFL draft. Unfortunately, Malone did not become the Bradshaw-type QB Pittsburgh hoped for, and though he lasted eight years with the Steelers, he was never too impressive with Pittsburgh and was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1988. He also isn’t a very popular Steelers alumnus, as Pittsburgh decided not to draft Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL draft because they were fine with Malone as their starter. All told, it's possibly the worst decision at quarterback in Steelers history.
With such high hopes for Arizona State quarterbacks entering the draft and the disappointment Malone brought to Pittsburgh, he is one of the worst first round picks in Steelers history. Luckily for Malone, he ended up having a very successful sportscasting and directing career, winning four Emmys for his sports directing. He also has a radio show with fellow ex-NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb titled Under The Center With Mark Malone.
13 Lynn Swann (Best)
Lynn Swann will forever be remembered as one of the most memorable players of those 70s Steelers teams. Drafted 21st overall in 1974 out of the University of Southern California, Swann is a part of what is considered the greatest draft class in Steelers history, in which four Hall of Famers were drafted that year, with Swann joined by John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and Jack Lambert.
Swann made three Pro Bowls, became the NFL's Man of the Year in 1981 and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, also winning the Super Bowl X MVP against the Dallas Cowboys. The legendary wideout played his entire career with Pittsburgh, went on to have a political career and became the chairperson of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition until 2005. In 2011, Swann became the co-owner of the AFL (Arena Football League) team Pittsburgh Power. No matter what, the city of Pittsburgh will forever love Lynn Swann.
12 Aaron Jones (Worst)
Then-defensive line coach “Mean” Joe Greene begged the Steelers to draft Aaron Jones in the 1988 NFL draft. Greene didn’t hit a home run on this pick as Jones only lasted four years with the Steelers and didn’t do much of anything in those years, registering just 7.5 sacks, and didn't even have his best year statistically with the team that drafted him 18th overall. His best statistical year came in 1994 when Jones would play in 16 games and register four sacks for the New England Patriots. That is still a very disappointing season for a guy who was drafted so highly, but that was the peak of his career, as he was out of the NFL by 1996, last playing for the Miami Dolphins. Thankfully, the Steelers got a Hall of Fame Center in Dermontti Dawson in the second round of the 1988 draft.
11 Terry Bradshaw (Best)
The legendary four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback is one of the best-known players in the Steelers' franchise's history; it could be argued that Terry Bradshaw is the first player most people think of when they think of a Pittsburgh Steelers player. Bradshaw was the 1st overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft, and ended up winning four Super Bowls in six years from the 1974 season to the 1979 season, became a three-time Pro Bowler, two- time Super Bowl MVP, and 1978 league MVP.
Ending his career with over 2,000 passing completions and nearly 30,000 passing yards, Bradshaw’s accomplishments are undeniable. After his career with Pittsburgh, Terry Bradshaw pursued a broadcasting career and is currently an analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. Though he often criticizes the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and players like Ben Roethlisberger, Bradshaw is still seen as one of the greatest players to ever play for Pittsburgh.
10 Tom Ricketts (Worst)
This Pittsburgh Panthers offensive lineman became a Steeler when they picked him with the 24th pick in the 1989 NFL draft. This draft was one for Steelers fans to forget as the Steelers misfired on another pick earlier in the first round in Tim Worley, who somehow avoided this list. After a couple of injuries and just two seasons with the Steelers, Ricketts was cut by Pittsburgh.
After his short stint with the Steelers, Ricketts would play for the Indianapolis Colts in 1992, then for the Kansas City Chiefs the following year, then a stint with the New Orleans Saints practice squad in 1994. In all, Ricketts only played in 53 games for the NFL and only started in 15 of them,. Being a hometown kid from the University of Pittsburgh, he had fans all ready to root for him, but the production never came, and Ricketts was considered a major bust for the Steelers. Steelers fans, always remember the '74 draft, but not the '89 draft.
9 Rod Woodson (Best)
The best defensive backs can do anything a team needs — play cornerback, safety, return kicks and punts. Rod Woodson did all that, and had one of the most versatile careers in NFL history. Woodson who was drafted 10th overall in the 1987 NFL draft, and blossomed into an elite corner with the Steelers, winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 as well as AFC Player of the Year that same year. After leaving Pittsburgh via free agency, Woodson made a change to his position, moving to safety. He then became a Pro Bowl safety with the San Fransico 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders.
In addition, Woodson went on to contribute to the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV victory over the New York Giants in 2000. Woodson has had numerous accomplishments spanning from his astonishing seventeen-season career, including a stunning eleven Pro Bowl appearances, two times leading the league in interception, and Hall of Fame honors.
8 Troy Edwards (Worst)
Troy Edwards was selected 13th overall out of Louisiana Tech in the 1999 NFL draft after winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver; his rookie season saw him have over 700 yards receiving and five touchdowns receiving. Not too bad for a rookie wide receiver, but unfortunately for him and for his team, he would never improve on those stats. In fact, Edwards would never eclipse 300 yards receiving and didn't catch another touchdown in the next two seasons with the Steelers. Edwards was seen mainly as a punt and kick returner for Pittsburgh but even then, he wasn't a great talent on special teams either. In the end, he was cut by the Steelers in 2001.
After his playing career with the Steelers was up, Edwards bounced around with the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Detroit Lions before going off to the AFL and finishing his football career with the Grand Rapid Rampage in 2007.
7 Troy Polamalu (Best)
He's arguably one of the greatest modern-day safeties of all time, and up there with the likes of Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson, and others. Troy was a freak of nature coming out of college at USC ,and quickly grew to become one of the most unique NFL players to ever grace the field ,with a style that is now copied by many players currently in the league. The constant blitzing, free-roaming strong safety is now a surefire Hall of Famer with eight Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl championships, and the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume.
Polamalu is one of the most beloved players in Pittsburgh Steelers history, a leader on the field who never caused any significant problems. Widely considered the best player of his draft class, Troy not only has incredible statistics, but the two-time Super Bowl champion also changed the way the safety position is played.
6 Jamain Stephens (Worst)
This pick was seen as a risky selection, as Jamain Stephens was a “project” player as the 29th overall choice in the 1996 NFL draft, out of the small school of North Carolina A&T. The risk did not pay off as the "Stephens project" was more of a disaster than anything else. In 1998, he was cut by Pittsburgh after showing up to the first day of training camp 20 pounds overweight, and unable to perform the drills, including the 40-yard dash and the scheduled runs. Head coach Bill Cowher was disgusted with the shape Stephens was in and cut him hours after his horrible display. Stephens would then sign for one of the Steelers' rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, and would play there until 2003, when the Bengals signed Marvin Lewis to be their head coach. Overall, Stephens never made an impact on either team he was on.
5 Franco Harris (Best)
Franco Harris is one of the most celebrated players in NFL history. And he's yet another player who was a part of the four Super Bowl championship Steelers teams of the 1970s. He's also known as the player that made the “Immaculate Reception” against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC divisional championship. Not only is that play constantly replayed nowadays in Pittsburgh, but it was also during Harris's rookie season, a season that was quite impressive. Truly, that catch against the Raiders made him beloved in Pittsburgh, and that love would continue for the rest of his career.
Ranking 14th all-time in the NFL rushing yards and 11th all-time in rushing touchdowns, Harris dominated the 1970s as one of the best running backs of his decade with other Hall of Fame greats such as Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, and Earl Campbell. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Harris's NFL tenure was winning the Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings.
4 Darryl Sims (Worst)
Sims had a very disappointing career with the Steelers. A defensive tackle out of the University of Wisconsin, he played just two seasons with Pittsburgh and was cut in 1986. Sims played 32 games and registered just three sacks — that's it — that's pretty much his Steelers career in a nutshell. After Pittsburgh, Sims signed for the rival Cleveland Browns in 1987 but was cut in 1988.
Sims is considered one of the biggest busts the Steelers ever made after struggling to put up any numbers at all, and being out of the NFL entirely by the age of 27. He was selected just ahead of William "The Refrigerator" Perry in the 1986 NFL draft, and as we know, the Fridge helped the Chicago Bears win Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots. Darryl Sims obtained his master's degree in Educational Learning and now works as the Athletic Director of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
3 Ben Roethlisberger (Best)
“Big Ben” is one of the greatest quarterbacks in modern history, ranking 9th all-time in passer rating, 10th in passing yards, and 9th all time in passing touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger's stats speak for themselves, but the real accomplishments of his career are the fact that he has won the Steelers two Super Bowl championships while playing with countless injuries throughout the season. With five Pro Bowls, a stint as passing leader, and a reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Ben still has a few years left to pad his stats and possibly be among the top five in all major quarterback stats and be in the discussion for the top quarterbacks of all time behind guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and others.
That said, Roethlisberger will always be compared to the two quarterbacks taken in the draft before in 2004 — Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers. Though Manning also has two Super Bowl championships, it's pretty easy to argue that Big Ben is the best of the class.
2 Huey Richardson (Worst)
The worst first round pick in Steelers history. Picked 15th overall in the 1991 NFL draft, the 1991 season would unfortunately be the only year he would play with Pittsburgh. Richardson played just five games with the team, and recorded just three tackles in his career with the Steelers. Sadly, Richardson was the last first round pick of legendary Steelers head coach Chuck Noll, and when coach Bill Cowher came in, he was so disappointed in seeing Richardson in practice that he traded him to Washington for a 7th round pick.
After being cut by the New York Jets, Richardson was out of the NFL altogether by 1992. He's an incredible bust considering he was named to the University of Florida Hall of Fame, but his talent in college could not translate to the NFL. I'm sure Chuck Noll regrets having his last big pick be a player who was out of the NFL after just two years of pro football.
1 1." Mean" Joe Greene (Best)
He was the main man behind the famous “Steel Curtain.” “Mean” Joe Greene was selected 4th overall in the 1969 NFL Draft and was a pro bowler in the same year, while winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Wasting no time to dominate at the highest level, Greene would go on to become a ten-time Pro Bowler, two-time Defensive Player of the Year awards, and, of course, win the four Super Bowls that for the dominant '70s Pittsburgh Steelers. While the offense was great in the '70s for Pittsburgh, it was the defense that won those championships and the anchor of that defense was Joe Greene himself.
Greene was wildly popular in his playing career in pop culture, thanks to the famous Coca-Cola commercial, and is considered one of the greatest NFL players of all time. On November 22nd, 2014 Greene received the honor of being only the second player in Pittsburgh Steelers history to have his jersey number retired, with the first having been Ernie Stautner.