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Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Updated: April 17, 10:17 AM ET
No. 1: Steelers' best draft class

By ESPN Stats & Information
Special to Insider

ESPN Stats & Information has ranked all NFL players drafted in the modern draft (1967 to 2008) based on their performance during their NFL careers -- regardless of how they fared with the team that drafted them. Insider will count down each team's best draft class (seeded 1 through 32), then conduct a tournament to determine the best class of all time.

For a short explanation of the ranking system, click here, or, for a more detailed rundown of how the system was developed, click here.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the prohibitive favorite heading into Insider's NFL Draft Class Tournament. After five rounds of voting, the legendary class emerged as the champion, rolling past the third-seeded 1985 Buffalo Bills to claim the championship.

STEELERS' BEST CLASS: 1974

Pittsburgh Steelers history has two eras: things that happened before Chuck Noll arrived, and things that happened afterward.

In the first era, the Steelers were woeful losers. In the first 40 years of their existence the Steelers made the playoffs only twice and did not win a division title until 1972, while treating the NFL draft as if it were punishment instead of a chance to bolster their roster. They often traded away their picks, and they filled the choices they couldn't trade away with names of college players they read about in preseason college football magazines.

They were particularly fallible when it came to quarterbacks, trading away or cutting an impressive list of players, including future Hall of Famers Sid Luckman, Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson as well as Jack Kemp, Earl Morrall and Bill Nelsen, who quarterbacked championship teams in the AFL and NFL in the 1960s.

Instead, the Steelers turned their offenses over to an undistinguished group that included Ted Marchibroda, Kent Nix and Dick Shiner.

The Steelers' philosophy turned 180 degrees after Noll was hired as head coach in 1969. He wanted the Steelers to build with their draft choices and set the tone by choosing Joe Greene of North Texas State with his first pick.

The selection signaled two hallmarks of the new Pittsburgh Steelers: ferocious defense and terrific drafting. Noll and his staff were at their drafting best in 1974, starting with Southern Cal wide receiver Lynn Swann with the 21st selection of the first round and not finishing until they had called the names of four men who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio -- Swann, Kent State linebacker Jack Lambert, Alabama A&M receiver John Stallworth and Wisconsin center Mike Webster.

WR Lynn Swann (Round 1, Pick No. 4, Southern Cal): Combining the grace and agility borne of ballet training and his blazing speed with a level of savvy that later pushed him to a career in politics, Swann became the standard against which all acrobatic receptions were measured in the NFL. He didn't crack the Steelers' starting lineup until the end of his rookie season, although he led the league in punt returns that year, but his touchdown catch against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game sent the Steelers to the first of their four Super Bowl appearances in six years. He was named MVP in Super Bowl X, and his tumbling, 64-yard catch against the Cowboys that day remains one of the most replayed feats in NFL history. Swann retired after the 1982 season and began a full-time career in sports broadcasting.

LB Jack Lambert (Round 2, Pick No. 46, Kent State): Six linebackers were drafted in the first round in 1974 and two more in the second round before the Steelers chose Lambert, undersized at a generous listing of 220 pounds. None of the eight linebackers called before him had the impact Lambert had. His 11-year career ended prematurely in 1984 because of a painful case of turf toe. But he became the centerpiece of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense and earned the 1974 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Lambert went to the Pro Bowl nine consecutive times, was named All-Pro eight times, was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1976 and played with a demeanor as blunt as his tackling.

Lambert might have turned the tide in Super Bowl X when he hurled Dallas' Charlie Waters to the turf after a perceived injustice toward kicker Roy Gerela. Later, he famously reacted to NFL legislation designed to protect quarterbacks saying that they might as well wear skirts. Even his countenance was intimidating. An elbow in a high school basketball game cost him his four front upper teeth. When he played without his partial plate, he was referred to as "Count Dracula in Cleats."

WR John Stallworth (Round 4, Pick No. 82, Alabama A&M): Noll's dedication to tireless scouting paid off in the fourth round when the Steelers selected a lanky wide receiver from tiny Alabama A&M in Huntsville. Stallworth played second banana to Swann for most of the Steelers' Super Bowl years in the 1970s but rose to prominence during the team's fourth championship when his 73-yard scoring reception from Terry Bradshaw pushed the Steelers past the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. He ended his career as the franchise leader in career and single-season receptions and career reception yardage.

C Mike Webster (Round 5, Pick No. 125, Wisconsin): After a two-year apprenticeship sharing the position with Ray Mansfield, Webster took over the starting center position for the final game of the 1975 season. That began a string of 150 consecutive starts that lasted until the 1986 season. Compact at just 6-foot-1, 255 pounds, Webster nonetheless was considered the strongest of all the Steelers and offered evidence to that claim by winning the Ironman competition in 1980. He was an All-Pro selection seven times and played in the Pro Bowl nine times.

HONORABLE MENTION

Pittsburgh Steelers top five: 1974 (242 points), 1971 (148 points), 1969 (136 points), 1987 (134 points), 1970 (107 points)

1971: Three interceptions against the New York Giants in his rookie preseason finale earned Jack Ham (Round 2) the starting spot at left outside linebacker, a position he held with distinction until his retirement in 1982. Ham's game was quickness and intelligence, and his calling card was making big plays. Ham was named to the All-Pro first team five times and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. His sterling play and Slovak heritage gave rise to the "Dobre Shunka" banner that waved at Three Rivers Stadium throughout his career. The translation was simple and to the point: Great Ham. The 1971 draft also featured seven players who won Super Bowl rings with the Steelers: WR Frank Lewis (Round 1), RB Steve Davis (Round 3), OL Gerry Mullins (Round 4), DE Dwight White (Round 4), TE-OT Larry Brown (Round 5), DT Ernie Holmes (Round 8) and DB Mike Wagner (Round 8).

1969:"Mean Joe" Greene (Round 1) was Noll's first draft choice, and it signaled the dawn of the Steel Curtain defense. Greene earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1969 and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1972 and 1974. He was a first-team All-Pro selection five times. Greene played at 275 pounds with the speed of a much smaller man and could dominate a game. He had an interception and a fumble recovery against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX, the Steelers' first championship. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, making him the first of nine Steelers from their 1970s championship teams to be enshrined. The 1969 draft also featured four players who won Super Bowl rings with the Steelers: QB Terry Hanratty (Round 2), RB Warren Bankston (Round 2), OL Jon Kolb (Round 3), and DE L.C. Greenwood (Round 4).

1987: This draft stacks up remarkably against the drafts of Noll's early years despite not producing anyone who earned a Super Bowl championship with Pittsburgh. The star of the group was DB Rod Woodson, a man of such athletic skill that he began his pro career with a contract holdout that allowed him to compete on the international track circuit as a hurdler. But his late start did not diminish his NFL accomplishments. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993, a first-team All-Pro selection six times and was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times, a record for a defensive back. Woodson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February and will be inducted on Aug. 8. Others of note: DB Thomas Everett, who won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys; LB Hardy Nickerson, a two-time All-Pro first-team selection; DT Tim Johnson, who won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and LB Greg Lloyd, a three-time first-team All-Pro selection. The draft also produced RB Merril Hoge (Round 10, Pick No. 261, Idaho State), who now works as an ESPN analyst.

Honorable mentions: C Dermontti Dawson (1988), the successor to Mike Webster at center, a six-time All-Pro first-team selection and Hall of Famer who played in 175 consecutive games; WR John Stallworth (1974), part of Steelers' Hall of Fame receiving tandem with Lynn Swann in 1970s; DE L.C. Greenwood (1969), a two-time Hall of Fame finalist whose speed -- 4.7 in the 40 -- and 6-6 height made him an outstanding pass-rusher (and those gold shoes didn't hurt); DB Troy Polamalu (2003), an acrobatic five-time Pro Bowler and one of the stars of the top-ranked defense that helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII.

Note on rankings

We ranked players based on the following criteria: Hall of Fame induction, MVP awards, All-Pro first-team selections, All-Pro second-team selections, Pro Bowls, offensive and defensive player of the year and rookie of the year awards and membership on a Super Bowl winning or losing team. A player scores on our ranking system when he earns at least one of those honors. For a deeper explanation, click here.