- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded up 11 spots in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft to take Southern Cal safety Troy Polamalu, they started a run that might be the best in franchise history, as far as first-round selections.
Hyperbole, given the Steelers’ drafts that laid the foundation for the teams that won four Super Bowls from 1974 to 1979? Hardly.
A review of five-year periods in franchise history shows two are clearly above the others when it comes to Steelers first-round picks.
Here is a closer look at each one:
2003: Polamalu (16th overall) -- He is one of only seven players in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl at least eight times. All the others are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Polamalu and Charles Woodson are the only players since 2003 with at least 30 career interceptions, 10 forced fumbles and 10 sacks. Polamalu should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
2004: QB Ben Roethlisberger (11th) -- The Steelers don’t add to their collection of Lombardi trophies if they don’t draft Roethlisberger behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. They also don’t remain in the Super Bowl discussion as they rebuild their defense if Roethlisberger doesn’t continue to play at the top of his game into his 30s. Roethlisberger already holds a slew of team records, including all-time passing yards (39,057) and touchdowns thrown (251).
2005: TE Heath Miller (30th) -- The Steelers got a steal in the bottom of the first round when they drafted Miller out of Virginia. The 11-year veteran has been the definition of steady and reliable -- and has long been one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL. Miller is third on the Steelers’ all-time list, with 532 receptions and 6,034 receiving yards.
2006: WR Santonio Holmes (25th) -- The Steelers traded up seven spots to take Holmes, and he rewarded them in his third season with the toe-tapping catch that delivered the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title. Holmes lasted just four seasons in Pittsburgh before the Steelers traded him because he became too much of a headache. But the fifth-round pick the Steelers received from the Jets for Holmes was flipped for cornerback Bryant McFadden and the 195th pick of the 2010 draft in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers picked a wide receiver named Antonio Brown with the pick received in the McFadden trade.
2007: LB Lawrence Timmons (15th) -- The first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era got off to a bit of a slow start, but he has been entrenched as a starter since 2009 and made his first Pro Bowl last season. Timmons led the Steelers with 132 tackles in 2014, almost double that of free safety Mike Mitchell, who was second on the team with 70 stops. Timmons has started 69 consecutive regular-season games and missed just two games in his career.
And the best five-year period that preceded that one ...
1969: DT Joe Greene (4) -- “Mean Joe” is the greatest player in franchise history, and that is saying something, considering the Steelers could have their own wing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Greene leads all Steelers with 10 Pro Bowl selections. He is also the only player to win multiple Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year awards (1972 and 1974). The Steelers’ turnaround started when they hired Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969 and drafted Greene in the same year.
1970: QB Terry Bradshaw (1) -- The Steelers beat the Chicago Bears for the No. 1 overall pick by virtue of a coin flip. They hit the jackpot, even though Bradshaw struggled early in his career. He and Noll became the first quarterback and head coach to win four Super Bowls together before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick accomplished the feat. Bradshaw shined in big games, as two of his nine career 300-yard passing games came in the Super Bowl.
1971: WR Frank Lewis (8) -- Lewis never lived up to expectations in Pittsburgh, though he had a solid NFL career and made a Pro Bowl after the Steelers traded him to the Buffalo Bills following the 1977 season. Lewis never caught more than 30 passes in a season with the Steelers, and the 1974 draft left him on borrowed time with the Steelers. That is when they took Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the first and fourth rounds, respectively.
1972: RB Franco Harris (13) -- The Steelers organization took another significant pivot when they selected Harris over Robert Newhouse, another running back the Dallas Cowboys took in the second round. “The Immaculate Reception” delivered the Steelers’ first playoff win and one of the most indelible plays in NFL history. Harris is still the Steelers’ all-time leader in rushing yards (11,190 yards) and rushing touchdowns (91).
1973: CB J.T. Thomas (24) -- The Florida State product had a very productive career, as he intercepted 19 passes in eight seasons with the Steelers, including a career-high five in 1974, when Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl. Thomas won four Super Bowls with the Steelers before playing one more season with the Denver Broncos in 1982.
My take: It is tough to beat the Big Three of 1969-74. There were three first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famers in Greene, Bradshaw and Harris. Thomas and Lewis, meanwhile, were productive players. The 2003-07 group has future Hall of Famers in Polamalu and Roethlisberger and better overall depth. Holmes won a Super Bowl MVP award and helped the Steelers acquire Antonio Brown, who is on a path to the Hall of Fame. Plus, the Steelers’ average drafting spot from 2003-07 was 19.6; it was 10 from 1969-73. I give the edge to the 1969-73 group, with the acknowledgement that the 2003-07 crew only has one player in the clubhouse in Polamalu.