Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton -- the team's third-round pick in 2013 -- holds onto the ball after a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter of the team's opening day game last season against the Tennessee Titans
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steelers greats Mel Blount and Hines Ward are Super Bowl champions. They hold franchise records, and because they played their positions with such unique distinction, they have NFL rules named after them.
The best cornerback in team history and one of its greatest receivers have something else in common: They were third-round draft choices.
Overlooked prospects coming out of college, third-round choices can become All-Pro-caliber players. They also can fail miserably and make critics question a team’s scouting methods.
The Steelers have had their share of third-round picks in recent years who have been more infamous than famous.
From Anthony Smith and Willie Reid in 2006 to Bruce Davis in 2008 to Curtis Brown in 2011, the failure to develop third-round picks has been problematic for a franchise that once made a living off them. And when the Steelers have found third-round gems, they have not been on the team long, opting to sign free-agent contracts elsewhere.
ESPN analyst Bill Polian, a former general manager for the Bills, Panthers and Colts, said there is good reason the Steelers have hit a dry spell with third-round picks. Inherently, third-round picks have a boom or bust quality.
“Generally speaking, third-round picks tend to be guys with talent, but there is some chink in the armor,” Polian said. “They’re either overachievers or they’re underachievers. They can have great talent, but there might be a character issue. If you hit on one, that’s good. But there is a miss factor there. In the first and second rounds you pretty much know what you’re getting. In the third round, you don’t as much.”
When teams do hit on third-round picks it can help them develop into championship-caliber teams. Some other third-round gems for the Steelers over the years include linebacker Jason Gildon, the franchise leader in sacks; linebacker Joey Porter, the emotional leader of the Super Bowl XL championship team; linebacker Mike Merriweather, a three-time Pro-Bowler who once recorded 15 sacks in a season; and quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who led the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX.
“Everyone is focused on the first guy in the first round, but there are a lot of good football players who are not first-rounders,” said Tom Donahoe, the former director of player personnel for the Steelers who drafted Ward, Gildon and Porter. “You are always worried about your depth and tomorrow. You’re concerned about free agency. You’ll lose some guys. You can handle free agency better if you have guys who are waiting in the wings to take over a spot. It’s critical to be able to do that.”
Ward slid in the draft for two reasons. He was born without ACLs in his knees and he was forced to play quarterback in his senior season at Georgia because the team was besieged by injuries.
For years, the Steelers took calculated gambles on tweeners — college defensive ends who would become outside linebackers in their 3-4 scheme. Porter and Gildon made seamless transitions; Davis was a bust. It happens.
Donahoe, who is now an adviser with the Eagles, is the first to admit there is a luck factor. In addition to his well-known hits, he had a couple of third-round picks who never materialized. Linebacker Steve Conley was the No. 72 overall pick in 1996 and only played three seasons in the NFL, two with the Steelers. Kris Farris, the No. 74 overall selection in 1999, never played in a game for the Steelers.
When teams do strike gold with third-round picks it can change the course of history. The most famous third-round pick is Joe Montana, who has four Super Bowl wins. He was deemed too small in college at Notre Dame.
Last year’s Super Bowl winning quarterback, Russell Wilson, also was a third-round pick. Like Montana, there were concerns about Wilson’s size coming out of Wisconsin.
Some other famous third-round picks in recent years include Terrell Owens, Jason Taylor and Curtis Martin.
“In the third round you are getting a top-100 guy,” said longtime scout and draft evaluator Joe Butler. “You can find some of the better guys in the draft. It’s an important round because you should be getting starters. In the third, fourth, fifth rounds, you can get guys who slip for whatever reason. They can develop into some big-time players.”
That has not happened often for the Steelers lately. Smith, a safety, was gone after three forgettable seasons. So was Brown, who was released in March without ever starting a game. Reid, a receiver and punt returner, was gone after two. Davis, an outside linebacker, lasted only one.
The Steelers have made some quality third-round picks, but circumstances have dictated they play elsewhere. They had three third-round draft picks in 2009 and all three are high-caliber starters, but now employed by other teams.
• Receiver Mike Wallace played four seasons with the Steelers and helped them get to Super Bowl XLV, but the Steelers elected not to match a big free-agent contract he signed with Miami.
• Cornerback Keenan Lewis also played four years with the Steelers before signing a free-agent contract with New Orleans before last season. The Steelers elected not to pay Lewis and kept Ike Taylor, whose play dipped considerably in 2013.
• Offensive lineman Kraig Urbik, the first third-round choice that year, was released after one season because Ramon Foster, an undrafted free agent in 2009, developed into a starter. Urbik is a starter in Buffalo.
• Receiver Emmanuel Sanders was drafted in the third round in 2010 and took Wallace’s place in the starting lineup, but signed a free-agent contract with the Broncos in March. The Steelers again are looking to replace him with yet another third-round pick, Markus Wheaton.
The only third-round picks currently on the roster are Wheaton (2013), linebacker Sean Spence (2012) and tight end Matt Spaeth (2007).
Whether it has been bad drafting, bad luck or the Steelers not wishing to match a contract offer for a player, they have not had many third-round picks reach second contracts with the team lately.
That’s not the reason general manager Kevin Colbert traded away this year’s third-round pick. He did it to move up in the fourth round to select safety Shamarko Thomas.
Part of the reason for the trade was that Colbert knew the Steelers would receive a compensatory third-round pick from the NFL for losing Wallace in free agency. That pick comes at the end of the round.
Regardless of where the pick comes in the draft order, the Steelers are hoping for the next Blount or Ward and not the next Brown or Reid.
History indicates making that happen is easier said than done.