The Steelers have had a lot of great players over the years. But not everyone has been a star right out of the gate. In some cases (see Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu) it can take a year or two to get your feet under you and learn the nuances of the pros.
But then there are the players who comprise this list.
The six, plus the three honorable mentions, had no trouble making the leap from college to the professional ranks. They were rookies of the year, Pro Bowlers or even All-Pros from the start.
The Steelers have won six rookie of the year awards since it was first handed out in 1967 to the best offensive and defensive rookies in the league. You should know the 2004 offensive winner, that would be the team’s current quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The rest of the list will have plenty of names you know, although you may not know they were rookies of the year. Of course, winning Rookie of the Year award doesn’t necessarily put you on this list. After all, you won’t find a single winner from the offensive line in the history of the award. But we’ve included one here after he put together a phenomenal rookie campaign.
The Steelers have had one quarterback (the aforementioned Roethlisberger), one running back and one wide receiver win the offensive Rookie of the Year award. On the defensive side, it’s been two linebackers and a defensive end. Five of the six winners are represented here. The only one not to make the list? Louis Lipps, who won the award in 1984 after a phenomenal season which saw him set the record for punt return yardage by a rookie and rack up 10 touchdowns and 931 yards from scrimmage. It’s a good reminder of some of the legends that the Steelers have had on the team over the years.
Also just missing the cut were JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 917 yards and seven touchdowns his rookie campaign and Darren Perry, who despite being an eighth-round pick, started every game for the Steelers in 1992 and had six interceptions.
Honorable mentions: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darren Perry, Louis Lipps
6. Jack Lambert
Taken in the second-round of the 1974 NFL Draft, the Kent State product acclimated himself pretty nicely to the league in his rookie year. Starting every game for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, Lambert won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and helped the Steelers to a 10-3-1 record and their first ever Super Bowl victory. Lambert could probably be higher but we’re docking him a few spots because it was one of two years he didn’t make the Pro Bowl (his last year when he only started three games was his other). By his own lofty standards, it was a down year.
5. Joe Greene
We could probably put Joe Greene here just on reputation alone. But it turns out he was incredibly productive from day one in the NFL, too. Drafted to the moribund Steelers, the team, even with Greene anchoring the defensive line went 1-13 in his first year. The NFL didn’t keep stats on tackles, sacks or forced fumbles back then, so it’s hard to judge just exactly how good he was without seeing the film. But from all accounts, he was a heck of a player from the start of his NFL career. In his rookie year, Greene played every game, was named as the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and received an invite to the Pro Bowl.
An All-Pro caliber player from basically the moment he stepped on to the field, Maurkice Pouncey’s 2010 was one of the best ever by a Steelers rookie lineman. He started every game in the regular season as well as two playoff games before getting injured in the AFC Championship game against the Jets and subsequently missing the Super Bowl. Despite the disappointment of not finishing the season, Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl and garnered second-team All-Pro status.
What could have been if not for a series of debilitating injuries. Kendrell Bell was an absolute monster in his rookie year. Drafted in the second-round, Bell came into the league with a vengeance. The Georgia product had nine sacks, 82 tackles and a ridiculous 23 tackles for loss (second in the league behind Michael Strahan‘s 24.) For comparisons sake, the 2019 leader, Aaron Donald, had 20. Bell was named the defensive rookie of the year and was named to the Pro Bowl and as a second-team All-Pro. Unfortunately, that would be a high water mark for the linebacker.
There wasn’t much adjustment for Franco Harris when he burst onto the scene with the Steelers in 1972. The 1st round pick had one of his finest seasons as an NFL player, putting up 1055 yards rushing on a gaudy 5.6 yards per attempt, as well as 180 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. For his efforts, Harris was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Adding to the honors, he was also chosen for the Pro Bowl (his first of eight consecutive trips) and named a second-team All-Pro. Harris was so good he even enlisted Frank Sinatra as a general into the “Franco’s Army”.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
The city had high expectations for Ben Roethlisberger after the Steelers selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. But no one expected the young quarterback out of Miami (Ohio) to lead the team to 15-1. After taking over for Tommy Maddox after he was injured in week two against the Ravens, Roethlisberger went 13-0, the best mark in NFL history by a rookie, and an appearance in the AFC Championship game. Roethlisberger lead the league with four 4th quarter comebacks and five game-winning drive. He was unanimously named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the first quarterback in 34 years to achieve that honor. Despite the AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, Roethlisberger quickly established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, a mantle he’s carried to this day. Steelers fans wouldn’t have to wait long for that championship, either, as Roethlisberger would help the team win their fifth championship just a year later.