Pittsburgh Steelers: A Franchise History Of The NFL Draft


With the 2015 NFL draft only days away, what’s about to take place has evolved into a selection process that isn’t just as simple as picking collegiate players out of a hat. The draft has become a year-round job for pro scouts and they begin their homework each year at the succession of the draft.

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When the process concludes, teams are already looking ahead to the following year as to who might be worthy of selection. Next year will mark the 80th year of the National Football League’s annual collegiate selection process so this year is the 79th time the event has been held. Get our your pads and pencils football fans, it’s time for draft history 101.

The first-ever NFL draft took place in 1936 but ironically, it was Pittsburgh’s owner Art Rooney Sr. who put the wheels in motion among remaining owners to actually have such a process.

The year was 1934, and Rooney realizing his Steelers were not playoff bound, allowed two of his players to sign temporarily with the post-season bound New York Giants prior to the start of the playoffs. George Preston Marshall, owner of the then Boston Redskins appealed the move to the President of the NFL at that time, Joe Carr. Carr concurred with Marshall and the ploy was nixed.

Subsequently that winter, the league brought into play a rule disallowing any such signings. Instead, a player could only sign elsewhere if he was released by his team. With the new rule came teams spending more money on the better players which irked Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell. He felt that a draft needed to be held in order to have some parity in the league. The other owners agreed but ruled that the inaugural draft be held during the 1935 off-season, thus the first collegiate draft was scheduled for 1936.

Before that 1936 process began the ground rules had to be set. It only included college seniors and their names were placed in a pool and as it is today, the order of selection was based on each team’s final record from the season before. But after a player was selected, if he was unable to reach a contract agreement with his respective new team, that club had the right to trade him away.

However, the league president had the right to be a mediator and if at that point no agreement was reached, the drafted player was then placed in a reserve pool and ruled ineligible for the following NFL season. The Eagles with a 2-9 finish in 1935 had the first pick in the league’s inaugural draft.

The site of the draft has changed 31 times and this year for the first time since 1965, the three day event will not be held in New York City. It moves to Chicago where it was held from 1962-1964. The draft has also been held in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Washington D.C., and in good old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1948 and 1949.

In ’48 it took place in the Fort Pitt Hotel which made its home on Penn Avenue and 10th Street. The building came down in 1967 as it was replaced with the Penn Park Redevelopment Project. In 1948 the NFL draft made its home in the Hotel Schenley. The 110 year old building has gone from hotel to apartments to property of the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Steelers
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Pittsburgh Steelers

In front of their own fans in 1948, the Steelers picked Dan Edwards in the first round as he came to the NFL after playing at the University of Georgia. A year later it was Bob Gage, a defensive back from Clemson University.

In 1936 it was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philly where nine rounds of drafting took place and with the first-ever and first overall pick was Jay Berwanger by the Eagles. The initial rules kicked in with the pick as the back out of the University of Chicago could not come to terms with Philadelphia and he was subsequently traded to the Chicago Bears.

Their owner, George Halas could not get Berwanger to agree on a contract either and the rookie opted not to play at all professionally so his career was over before it even began. Interestingly enough, of 81 players drafted, only 24 actually went to to take the field in 1936.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers in that very first draft process, their first pick was the third overall. They went with Bill Shakespeare, a back from Notre Dame. From rounds two through nine it was Len Barnum (West Virginia Wesleyan), Bobby Grayson (Stanford), Truman Spain (SMU), Dick Sandefur (Purdue), Maurice Orr (SMU), Ed Karpowich (Notre Dame), and Joe Meglen (Catholic University).

Like Berwanger before him, Shakespeare never took the field for the Pirates (they were not yet named the Steelers in 1936). Instead, he chose a career in business. He left behind the fact that he was Notre Dame’s first player to be drafted into the NFL.

Pittsburgh’s second overall pick, Len Barnum failed to play a down for Pittsburgh either, instead having a career with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Art Rooney Sr. struck out again in the third round picking Bobby Grayson but he too decided against a pro football career.

Rooney probably had no idea that by the fourth round he would have three players who would never touch a football for his team; but it was deja vu in the fourth round as Truman Spain from SMU, who had an outstanding reputation at his alma mater, decided that football was not for him either. Finally, in the fifth round Dick Sandefur agreed to play and while he lasted only two seasons in the NFL, he actually did get playing time.

While there were only nine rounds of drafting that took place in 1936, that ballooned to as many as 20 rounds in the 1960’s. In 2015 it will be seven rounds as it has been since 1994. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, they certainly have their needs this year, most likely focusing on the secondary and defensive line.

Since 1969 when Chuck Noll was hired as the new head coach, Pittsburgh has had huge success utilizing the NFL draft for talent with 1974 going down by many experts as the greatest draft ever by one team.

That year saw the Steelers draft Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Mike Webster, four players who played a vital role in four Super Bowl triumphs and four men who would land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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  • Naturally along the way there have been a number of busts but so many success stories. Those four Hall of Fame players became Super Bowl champions in their very first year in the NFL. Lynn Swann was Pittsburgh’s first pick in 1974, Dave Brown would be the first choice in 1975 as the Steelers would repeat as NFL champions.

    When the Steelers returned to the Super Bowl to defeat the Cowboys again in 1979, Ron Johnson, a cornerback was the team’s first choice in the 1978 draft. Brown would play for the Steelers from 1975 to 1989, and Johnson from 1978 to 1984.

    Greg Hawthorne, a decent running back from Baylor was Pittsburgh’s first choice in the draft in 1979 when they repeated as four-time Super Bowl champions defeating the Los Angeles Rams in 1980.

    The fifth Super Bowl triumph would not come until 2006 and that season’s top pick was a great tight end still playing today, Heath Miller. In 2008, the Steelers would win their last Super Bowl on record and for that season Rashard Mendenhall was number one overall.

    In those Super Bowl seasons did any of the players drafted in the last round with Pittsburgh’s final pick ever make the team? Not so in 1974 (Larry Moore, defensive end-Angelo State University), 1975 (Stan Hegener, guard-Nebraska), 1978 (Brad Carr, linebacker-University of Maryland), or 1979 (Mike Almond, wide receiver-Northwestern-Louisana State University).

    For Noah Herron (2005), selected in the seventh round with the 244th pick overall in the draft, the running back from Northwestern did make the team albeit for just two seasons. In those two years he rushed for 273 yards and three scores.

    Finally in 2008, Ryan Mundy who hails from Pittsburgh was the team’s final choice in the seventh round and he did make the team and finished seven seasons with the Steelers.

    So there you have it, a brief history lesson on the NFL draft with a little Steelers twist to it. As of the end of next weekend, Pittsburgh will have at least eight more players added to their roster through the seven round process as they received an additional pick in the sixth round because of a compensatory selection.

    Barring any trades, next week we will be talking about the eight newest members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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