OLD SCHOOL: The Best NFL Drafts, Part III of III

Street Talk OLD SCHOOL: The Best NFL Drafts, Part III of III

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The 1974 Steelers draft beat out the Packers draft of 1958 by the smallest of margins. Championships, then individual awards define great drafts and both the Packers of 1958 and the Steelers of 1974 had both. The Steelers 1974 draft just as the ‘58 Packers draft was vital to building each great dynasty.


While the Packers teams of the 60’s were better than the Steelers of the 70’s, that is not the point. The focus here is to determine which individual draft contributed most towards building these dynasties.  The verdict here says it was the 1974 Steelers.


The Steelers had 4 key members in the ’74 draft winning 4 Super Bowls and 16 championships among them, coincidentally the same amount as the ‘58 Packers draft class.


So let’s call that a push.


The Steelers have 4 members of that class enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Now, it could be argued that one of their members does not deserve enshrinement. Conversely, while the ‘58 Packers have two enshrined players, Jerry Kramer of the Packers does deserve a bust in Canton and will one day be inducted. A case can therefore be made to call this category of comparison between these draft classes a push as well.


So where is the difference?


The Steelers dynasty was built primarily through the draft paving the way to 4 Super Bowl wins between 1974 and 1979. They had a regular season record of 67-20-1, and a post season record of 13-2. The “Steel Curtain” was one of the best defenses in NFL history and their offense evolved into the NFL’s best in the middle of their dynasty.


An argument could be made that the one season (1976) during that stretch when the Steelers failed to win the Super Bowl may actually have been their best team, sending 11 players to the 1976 Pro Bowl.  Injuries prevented them from winning three championships in a row that season, despite allowing only one touchdown during their last nine regular season games. They would eventually lose in the AFC championship game.


The Steelers would eventually send 10 members from this dynasty to the Hall of Fame, the same amount as the Packers.




As it is well documented the Steelers were the worst team in football from their inception in 1933 to 1969 when they hired Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator Chuck Noll (although it should be noted that the Steelers offered the coaching job first to Joe Paterno first who turned them down).


Owner Art Rooney Sr. was well liked to the say least, but lacked a keen eye for recognizing football talent. It should be noted that the fable of him buying the Steelers, then known as the Pirates, in 1933 with winnings from a good day at the race track are actually true.


While Rooney was a true sportsman, his team was a mess. Their failures are well documented, drafting then cutting John Unitas, opting for Gary Glick in 1956 instead of Lenny Moore with their first pick, and their famous 1964 blunder, trading their number one choice in the 1965 draft to the Bears, for the Bears 2nd and 4th choice in the 1964 draft. The Steelers picked the forgettable James Kelly and Ben McGee, the Bears used the 65 Steelers’ pick for Dick Butkus.


Things changed in 1969 with the hiring of Chuck Noll and the Steelers promoting Art Rooney Jr., not current president Dan Rooney to run their drafts. Noll and Rooney Jr. began the rebuilding process with the draft. Noll and Rooney Jr. would work closely with the BLESTO scouting combine, run by former Steelers great Jack Butler. They would go on to orchestrate some of the best drafts and eventually the best draft in NFL history




Noll and Rooney Jr. selected Joe Greene, defensive tackle from North Texas State with the first  pick they ever made together in 1969, along with tackle Jon Kolb and defensive end LC Greenwood. Greene became a Hall of Famer while Kolb and Greenwood were vital Super Bowl starters.


With the overall number one choice in 1970, the Steelers selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and defensive back Mel Blount with the 53rd pick from Santa Ana Junior College. Both are now Hall members.


The 1971 draft produced 7 Super Bowl starters and one Hall of Famer in Jack Ham. The others from that class include: Frank Lewis, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes, and Mike Wagner.


Hall of Famer Franco Harris was their first round selection in 1972 to bolster a weak running game. JT Thomas a physical shut down cornerback and a starter on all 4 Super Bowl teams came in the 1973 draft.


The Steelers had stockpiled tremendous young talent and went from 1-13 in 1969 to a playoff team in 1972 and 1973. They would lose to the undefeated Dolphins in the 1972 AFC championship game and would be beaten easily by the Raiders 33-14 in the first round of the 1973 playoffs. They were a playoff team, but not yet a championship team. There were still holes to fill.


In 1973 their wide receivers, Frank Lewis, Ron Shanklin, and Barry Pearson had just seventy six receptions between them. They had talent, but did not run precise routes. Teams then were able to focus on slowing the Steelers running game, which they did. In 1972 Harris was a 1,000 yard rusher, in 1973 he was held to just 698 yards.


Another contributor to the demise of the Steelers’ rushing attack was center Ray Mansfield. Mansfield entered the league in 1963 and was a great center, but by 1973 he was 33 and age prevented him from competing effectively against the league’s defensive tackles.


The other Steelers weakness was at middle linebacker. Ham and veteran Andy Russell handled the outside well, but journeyman Henry Davis was average at best at middle linebacker.


Noll felt he could not take the Steelers to the championship level without getting Bradshaw receivers who could stretch the field, complimenting his great outside linebackers with a dominating middle man, and replacing the veteran Mansfield at center.


Enter the 1974 NFL Draft.


January 29,1974 


Noll and Rooney Jr. focused specifically on their needs in the 1974 draft. They needed receivers, a middle linebacker, and a center. They had decided to pass on the infamous “best player available” opting instead for need picks.


With the 21st choice in the first round came wide receiver Lynn Swann from USC, the best player on the board and a match for the Steelers’ need. Then the Steelers would raise eyebrows with their next selection, choosing linebacker Jack Lambert from Kent State.  


GM’s throughout the league laughed since Lambert was slotted 7 or 8 rounds lower on most boards. Yet Butler’s scouting combine tabbed him as the man in the middle for Pittsburgh.


The Steelers did not have a third round selection, but the player they wanted from small Alabama A&M, wide receiver John Stallworth was still there at the 82nd pick in the 4th round. Again eyebrows were raised in the room. Stallworth was not even on most teams draft boards and this draft last 17 rounds. Noll felt with that choice he had both of his receivers.


The fifth round produced Wisconsin center Mike Webster. Webster would play in 220 games for Pittsburgh, nine Pro Bowls and was first team All Pro five seasons. They had found their dominating center and replacement for Mansfield.


Webster would share the starting duties with Mansfield for a season before taking over. Swann and Stallworth both gave Bradshaw the speed he needed on the outside. The Steelers in 1974 gained 36% of their yardage in the air. By 1978 it was 58%. Noll improved the passing game and balanced the offense – one that would eventually become the league’s best while complemented by the best defense in football.


Lambert would dominate the middle of the field for 11 seasons, playing in nine Pro Bowls and being All Pro six seasons, and was the final piece needed to complete the Steel Curtain.


All four would be key starters for Pittsburgh’s Super Bowls and would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.


As for Swann, he did win the MVP of Super Bowl X with some of the most magnificent receptions in football history. He also scored nine post season touchdowns, but had just 336 receptions for 5,462 yards. He made flashy plays but his yardage ranks him 181st all time – clearly NOT Hall worthy statistics. His play was invaluable to the Steelers winning yet his induction is difficult to justify. That fact however does not detract from his contributions to their 4 Super Bowls.


Stallworth dominated defenses his entire career. He had 537 receptions scoring sixty three regular season and twelve post season touchdowns. He was as effective later in his career as he was during their Super Bowl run.  


Noll and Rooney Jr. on January 29, 1974 crafted the best draft in NFL history.


But why was this draft better than the Packers’ Verne Lewellen’s 1958 draft?


They filled need positions with targeted players – players who were wildly underestimated. The Steelers stared popular opinion in the face and went against it – opting for their gut instincts and their own evaluation of talent.


The Packers in ‘58 were regular losers and Lewellen drafted the best players available according to his scouting. The Packers needed players everywhere. Noll and Rooney Jr. aimed to fill gaping holes and hit their mark each time.


No one in NFL history used a draft more effectively to augment their respective team’s roster than Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. did on that January day in 1974. In the process they went from being just a good team to the second best in NFL history.
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Kurt Backert

About Kurt Backert

Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would eventually lead Kurt on a journey to the world of fantasy football in the late 1980's where he's captured more titles than John Wooden's UCLA Bruins   Kurt carries a distinction that no other fan of the NFL can boast about.  He is the reigning NFL National Trivia Champion and he credits his Dad for passing on such passion for the game, something Kurt also hopes to pass along to his 9-year-old son. More from Kurt Backert


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