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Steelers Draft Picks in the 21st Century: Defensive Line

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We’ve looked at every one of the Steelers offensive and special teams draft picks from the 21st century, AKA the Kevin Colbert era.

Steelers draft picks in the 21st century series: Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Quarterbacks | Special Teams

Now we’re onto defensive side of the ball.

It’s not a coincidence that in the Steelers’ Super Bowl appearances from 2005-2010  the team was top five in both yards and points allowed. And although being in the upper echelon in both categories hasn’t always translated into a Super Bowl appearance (see 2001, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2019) but it has meant playoffs in four of those seasons and included two additional AFC championship appearances.

At the heart of those defenses was a stalwart defensive line. Anchored by Colbert picks like Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, the Steelers run defense was exemplary, and their play helped open up lanes to the quarterback for the team’s linebackers Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Lamar Woodley, and James Harrison.

In recent years, the team has once again relied on Colbert draft picks to keep things locked down upfront. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave have all been key cogs in the defense, with Heyward making two All-Pro teams in recent years.

2000: 3rd round, Kendrick Clancey, DT, Mississippi; 6th round, Chris Combs, DE, Duke
2001: 1st round, Casey Hampton, NT, Texas; 6th round, Ronald Bailey, DE, Ohio St.

The man known as “big snack” would make 5 Pro-Bowls with the Steelers, starting 164 games throughout his exemplary tenure with the team. Hampton didn’t put up flashy numbers, he only had 9 career sacks, but his ability to absorb offensive lineman made things a lot easier for the rest of the defense and was one of the best run stoppers in football.

2002: 7th round, Brett Keisel, DT, BYU

Maybe the best late round pick in recent Steelers history (not named Antonio Brown), Keisel would team up on the defensive line with Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen to help lead the team to three Super Bowl appearances and two wins.

2003: None
2004: 5th round, Nathaniel Adibi, DE, Virginia Tech; 7th round, Eric Taylor, DT, Memphis
2005: 7th round, Shaun Nua, DE, BYU
2006: 4th round, Orien Harris, DT, Miami
2007: 4th round, Ryan McBean, DT, Oklahoma St.
2008: None
2009: 1st round, Ziggy Hood, DE, Missouri; 6th round, Ra’Shon Harris, DT, Oregon

Ziggy Hood wasn’t a bust, but he never lived up to his 1st round selection. He ended up playing five years with the Steelers, but only started full time for two years before leaving in free agency. As recently as July 2019 he was still in the NFL, but he currently finds himself out of football.

2010: 4th round, Thaddeus Gibson, DE, Ohio St.; 7th round, Doug Worthington, DT, Ohio St.
2011: 1st round, Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio St.

The Steelers struck 1st round gold with Cameron Heyward and he’s been paying big time dividends for much of the past decade. Solid if unspectacular for the first part his career, it wasn’t until 2017, his age 28 season, that he started being recognized as one of the best D-linemen in the NFL, being selected as a First-Time All-Pro twice and making three Pro Bowls in the past three seasons. He was named by PFF as the second best defensive lineman in the NFL this season.

2012: 4th round, Alamada Te’Amu, DT, Washington
2013: 7th round, Nick Williams, DT, Samford
2014: 2nd round, Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame; 6th round Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee
2015: 6th round, Leterrius Walton, DT, Central Michigan
2016: 3rd round, Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina St.

Throughout the 10’s, the Steelers have been adept at spending their early draft capital on linemen. Between Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave, the team was able to piece together a strong, homegrown defensive line, which allowed them to spend their free agency dollars elsewhere.

2017: None
2018: 7th round, Joshua Frazier, DT, Alabama
2019: 6th round, Isaiah Buggs, DT, Alabama

2000-2020 defensive line draft breakdown

Total selections: 23
Years selecting DL: 17/20

Selections by round:

1st round: 3
2nd round: 1
3rd round: 2
4th round: 4
5th round: 1
6th round: 6
7th round: 6

Selections by conference:

SEC: 5
ACC: 3
Big 12: 2
Big 10: 4
PAC 12: 4

Power 5: 19
Group of 5: 4

Notes:

The Steelers have had great success early but almost nothing from rounds 4-7 have worked out. … A notable exception was 2002 7th round pick Brett Keisel. … Colbert drafts Big 10 defensive linemen from Ohio State or nowhere at all. … Cam Heyward has the 2nd most sacks of any player drafted by the Steelers in the Colbert era with 54. Lamar Woodley is the leader with 58. … Casey Hampton is the Steelers defensive leader in starts since 2000 with 164 amongst players drafted by Colbert. Bret Keisel is 6th. … Cam Heyward is only one of three Steelers draft picks since 2000 to be selected to the All-Pro First-Team.

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