If you’re a Steelers’ fan, you probably don’t have a whole lot to complain about how the Steelers are run. They hire a top-notch coach every 15-20 years or so, they draft first-round picks that succeed year after year, and more years than not, they are in the conversation when experts talk about potential Super Bowl contenders.
Credit to that goes to everyone in the Steelers’ organization from the coaching staff to the players to the front office to the Rooneys. But it would also be fair to say that the Steelers have gotten lucky a time or two, especially when it comes to the first round.
Most Steelers fans are walking around wearing giant frozen grins on their faces this morning as we realize that somehow Stanford guard David DeCastro ended up being a Steeler. It was the pick many/most Steelers fans and experts wanted to see, but one that coming into the draft seemed so preposterous as to be labeled as wishful thinking.
Most draft experts had DeCastro pegged as somewhere between the sixth and 10th best player in this year’s draft. In a draft that was lacking in franchise-type players, one could argue that DeCastro was one of the small group of elite prospects in this year’s draft. Because he’s an offensive guard, there was a legitimate hope that he could fall in the mid-teens despite his glowing scouting reports, but no Steelers fan and very few draft experts projected that DeCastro would be around at pick No. 20, much less the Steelers’ pick at No. 24.
But that’s exactly what happened as a run on quarterbacks (four were taken in the first 22 picks) and defensive end/outside linebackers meant that when the Lions picked at pick No. 23, only one offensive lineman was off the board (USC’s Matt Kalil).
It’s a perfect storm that gave the Steelers a top 10 talent, one that has a long history of success at a major college program, at a position of dire need. While basking in the glow of a first-round that went way better than Steelers fans could have hoped for, it also isn’t hard to think how this appears to be another case of the Steelers getting very, very lucky.
Rewind to 1987 and the seeds of the Blitzburgh teams of the 1990s was set in place when the Steelers got lucky to land future Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson. The Steelers entered that year’s draft knowing that they had to fix the secondary that had gotten old and slow in recent years. Woodson was undisputed to be the best cornerback in the draft class, but picking a pick No. 10, the Steelers had no expectation that he would make it to their pick.
Let me emphasis, there was no Plan B at cornerback in the first round. If one of the nine teams ahead of the Steelers had taken Woodson, Pittsburgh would have had to look at another position–no other defensive back was taken in the first round that year.
When the Browns shocked everyone by taking linebacker Mike Junkin with the fifth pick, things started to fall into place. The Cardinals added another surprise by taking quarterback Kelly Stouffer. All of a sudden, Pittsburgh needed only one more surprise to get a chance to nab Wooodson. But Buffalo, picking No. 8, had been linked to Woodson in the month before the draft. The Bills chose linebacker Shane Conlin instead, and Pittsburgh all of a sudden had a chance to nab a Hall of Famer. Even at the time, it was clear the Steelers had granted a miraculous gift.
In 2004, a similar string of events had to happen for Pittsburgh to have a chance to land its franchise quarterback. Thankfully for Steelers’ fans, Pittsburgh rarely drafts in the top half of the draft, which makes it especially important that when they do, they land a top talent. In 2003, the Steelers’ Tommy Gun offense fell apart, as the Steelers put together one of their most disappointing seasons of the past two decades. But even then, Pittsburgh took the Ravens to overtime in the final game of the season before losing. A win in that game, as nice as it may have appeared at the time, would have meant the Steelers would have drafted at No. 13 at the best and No. 15 at the worst. Instead, Pittsburgh picked 11th. When the Giants and Chargers worked out a deal that put Eli Manning in New York and Phillip Rivers in San Diego, Steelers fans could start dreaming that Ben Roethlisberger would fall to No. 11. No one moved up ahead of the Steelers, and Pittsburgh landed its franchise quarterback. But remember, if Pittsburgh had managed to beat the Ravens in Week 17 in 2003, they would have picked behind the Bills. Needing a quarterback and shut out of the Manning/Rivers/Roethlisberger trifecta, Buffalo selected J.P. Losman instead.
If Pittsburgh hadn’t landed Roethlisberger in 2004, it’s fair to wonder if they would have gotten another shot at a franchise quarterback for years to come. Just a year later Pittsburgh landed the final piece of a Super Bowl winning team by picking Heath Miller with the 30th pick of the first round. Once again luck was involved. Miller was undoubtedly the top tight end in the draft, and the Steelers biggest need was at tight end. But a sports hernia injury that limited Miller during the pre-draft workouts caused him to slide down draft boards. The injury hasn’t bothered Miller since, but teams’ concerns about it at the time helped ensure he was available at pick No. 30.
Now with DeCastro Pittsburgh has gotten lucky again. He may not turn out to be a Roethlisberger, Woodson or Miller, but if he comes close to matching the production of any of those three, he’ll help extend Pittsburgh’s past two decades of success into a third.