The Steelers and Their 2002 Draft Class: 10 Years Later

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1st Round:

Kendall Simmons: Guard (Auburn)

Although Kendall Simmons’ career was marred by injuries and health issues (diabetes diagnosis in 2003, missed all of 2004 with an injured knee, missed games in 2006 due to frostbite from a cold-pack left on too long, and missed most of 2008 with an Achilles injury that also ended his tenure with the Steelers), Simmons when healthy did a solid job manning the Right Guard position.  Along with interior linemates Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca, Simmons did a fantastic job over the course of his career to pave the way for the Steelers’ lethal ground attack.

When healthy, Simmons a nice career in Pittsburgh at Right Guard. Mandatory Credit: Luc Leclerc-US PRESSWIRE

While I wish Simmons’ career was longer, the Steelers still got a large amount of production out of their 30th overall selection.  Simmons logged 80 starts (including all 20 of the Steelers games in 2005) while wearing a Steelers uniform.  He won the Steelers’ 2002 Rookie of the Year Award while starting all 16 contests and Pittsburgh’s 2 playoff games as well.  While unheralded and usually in the shadow of his much more talented linemate Faneca, Simmons more than helped the Steelers with his competent play over his career.

Sure the missed games are tough to think about, but the Steelers still haven’t fixed their RG position since Simmons’ career ended in 2008.  Guys like Doug Legursky, Darnell Stapleton, Trai Essex, and Ramon Foster have tried to fill the void, but to no avail.  In fact, one of the highest priorities for Pittsburgh in this season’s draft is finding a competent Guard/Guards.

It’s a shame that Simmons’ career succumbed to so many ailments, but we can’t deny his quiet impact on the team.  Some teams drafting 30th get little to no production out of their players, so the fact that Simmons started so many games for Pittsburgh and played in so many big games when he was healthy sits just fine with me.

 

2nd Round:

Antwaan Randle El: Wide Receiver (Indiana)

I can still remember some Steelers fans pissing and moaning over this pick at the time, because it seemed that there were some fans and even sports-writers that wanted the Steelers to select the troubled talent from nearby Pitt in the form of WR Antonio Bryant.

At the time, I personally wasn’t sold on Bryant.  I didn’t think the Steelers would select a tall field-stretching WR instead of a slot WR after soon to be 3rd year WR Plaxico Burress had enjoyed a break-out season in 2001, slot man Bobby Shaw had departed in Free Agency, and 1st Round bust from 1999 Troy Edwards’ play was declining (he was eventually traded to St. Louis before the year started).

Yet most of all, I did not believe that Pittsburgh would be going the WR route in Round 2 because they had other needs like Safety, Inside Linebacker, and more Offensive Line help which I felt were more pressing at the time.

Nevertheless, when the Steelers turned their card in and selected the 2001 Big Ten MVP in Randle El, I was excited and intrigued from the get go.  In my mind I knew that then-Offensive Coordinator Mike “Inspector Gadget” Mularkey (and later O.C. Ken Whisenhunt) would find all sorts of different ways to use the athletic and versatile Randle El.  Turns out, I along those who liked the pick got just what we wanted.

Randle El, a small college QB at 5’10”, would be moved to WR in the N.F.L. was thought to be the Steelers’ new “Slash” and also return punts for the team too.  Luckily for the Steelers, the Randle El selection worked out.  And over the course of his two stays in Pittsburgh (2002-2005, 2010), Randle El never disappointed with his big play ability and proved himself to be a solid contributor as a slot WR.

Randle El made 184 Catches for 2265 Yards and 7 TD’s as a Steeler.  Sure those numbers are a bit on the low side for a slot WR, but Randle El also accumulated 318 Yards rushing, went 16 for 18 and 170 Yards passing, and threw for 4 TD’s!

Randle El’s Kick and Punt Return numbers though are what made him such a special player and helped him to become an All-Pro performer in 2005.  Over his career with the Steelers’ Randle El returned 78 kicks for 1,742 Yards and a TD, returned 182 punts for 1,650 Yards and a whopping 4 TD’s!  Yet what Randle El will most be remembered for were his epic contributions for Pittsburgh in the postseason.

Thank You Antwaan, Thank You so much. Mandatory Credit: Joe Robbins-US PRESSWIRE Copyright 2006 Joe Robbins

In 2002, Antwaan returned a punt for a TD against the Browns in the epic 36-33 Wild Card comeback, and even threw for the final 2 point conversion!  He would have had another punt return TD the following week in Tennessee, but it was called back due to a penalty.

During their magical postseason run in 2005, Randle El helped to execute the throw-back TD from Ben to Cedrick Wilson that broke the game open in Cincinnati, and Antwaan caught the first of Ben’s TD passes a week later in Indianapolis.  Yet it was Antwaan’s 43 yard TD strike to Hines Ward that sealed Super Bowl XL which makes him a legend in Steeler lore.

Even in his final season in 2010, Randle El came through in Super Bowl XLV when he caught two balls for 50 yards and ran in a 2 Point Conversion.  And his 37 yard catch and run ignited the Steelers’ Offense when it was utterly stagnant.  Sadly, the Steelers lost the game, but Randle El was a large part of why the Steelers were even in it.

The ultimate “Jack of all Trades, Master of None,” Antwaan Randle El was always a joy to watch.  He contributed in so many different ways, and his athleticism and willingness to be a team-player helped the Steelers throughout his career.  Sure it was a shame to see him go to Washington for the big bucks in 2006, but heck, he sealed “The One for the Thumb.”  And that’s something special.

 

3rd Round:

Chris Hope: Free Safety (Florida State)

While his career may have been brief in Pittsburgh (2002-2005), Chris Hope proved to be an efficient player on Defense and Special Teams, a two year starter at Free Safety, and finally, an integral piece of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL winning Defense.

While Hope may have got lost at times during coverage, and while may not have been the biggest or most talented Safety in the League, Hope could be counted on to deliver vicious blows, tackle the ball carrier, and pick off a pass or two if the ball came his way.

Chris Hope jarring the ball loose from "Butterfingers" Stevens in Super Bowl XL. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIRE Copyright 2006 Jason Parkhurst

During his two seasons as a full-time starter (2004 and 2005), Hope racked up 187 Tackles and picked off 4 passes (including 3 in 2005).  I’m sure that playing next to the best Strong Safety over the last quarter century in the form of Polamalu may have helped Hope, but that’s been the nature of the Free Safety position for the Steelers during the Polamalu era.  Don’t screw up too much, play solid heady football, light up any ball carrier when up in the box, and lay out anybody that comes into your area in the passing game.  As I alluded to before, Hope did those well, and proved himself to be a solid part in the Steelers’ Defense over those two seasons.

After the 2005 season ended though, Hope became an Unrestricted Free Agent after playing out his Rookie deal with Pittsburgh.  When the Titans offered him a lucrative deal that Pittsburgh couldn’t match (6 years $24 million), the Steelers were forced to look elsewhere for a Free Safety in 2006.

But true to form, the Steelers eventually replaced Hope with Ryan Clark (a former UDFA from 2002) who has blossomed into a Pro Bowl player.  While Clark’s play has made some forget about Hope, we should at acknowledge the production Pittsburgh got out of its 3rd Round pick from 2002 and be appreciative of his service to the team.

 

4th Round:

Larry Foote: Inside Linebacker (Michigan)

Pittsburgh mined themselves a mid-round gem in the form of Inside Linebacker Larry Foote.  Much like they did with a player they drafted in the 7th Round in 2002, Foote was a depth pick that was thought to possibly contribute down the road.  With Kendrell Bell coming off of a 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year season, James Farrior being signed in Free Agency, and Earl Holmes subsequently going to Cleveland, Pittsburgh was a little thin behind their starters.  In true Steelers fashion though, Pittsburgh went with Foote, developed him well under the tutelage of LB’s Coach Keith Butler, and Larry eventually became an enormous part of Pittsburgh’s success during their two Super Bowl winning seasons.

Foote has done a terrific job with the Steelers during his two stints. Mandatory Credit: Don Wright-US PRESSWIRE

Finally assuming a starting ILB role in 2004, Foote had four (2004-2007) solid and under-the-radar seasons while being part of the League’s best LB corps over that period of time.  Foote logged 364 Tackles, 13.0 Sacks, 3 INT’s, 6 FF’s, 3 FR’s, and earned one Safety back in 2005 against the Vikings.  My favorite Foote moment that many might not remember was his Interception of Jake Plummer against Denver in the A.F.C. Championship Game in 2005.  Denver was driving and trying to gain some momentum in the 2nd Half, but Foote made an athletic play to not only break up the pass, but hold onto the ball to give Pittsburgh the ball back.  It was a microcosm of Foote’s contributions to the Steelers over his career: influential but under-the-radar.

While Foote’s career gave way to Lawrence Timmons during the 2008 season, Foote eventually came back to Pittsburgh in 2010 after a stint in Detroit where he enjoyed the playing time but got sick of losing.  The team player he is, last season Foote played spot duty at ILB due to injuries and performed well on Special Teams.  An ultimate team player, the Steelers got an incredible bargain with Foote in Round 4 of 2002, and I must tip my cap to a guy that has done so much for this organization.

 

7th Round:

Brett Keisel: Defensive End (BYU)

When you talk about a “diamond in the rough” in terms of recent Steelers draft picks, Brett Keisel’s name has to come to mind.  Looking to add depth behind Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen, the Steelers selected an undeveloped but a 5-Technique Defensive End that they believed could become a solid contributor in the future.  Let’s just say that things worked out pretty well for Pittsburgh and their 2010 Pro Bowler Keisel.

Like so many others on this list, Keisel earned his bones on the Special Teams units before being worked into the Defense.  By 2005, Keisel was in the D-Line rotation and since then has performed above and beyond the call of duty since assuming the starting role in 2006 after von Oelhoffen’s departure.

"The Beard" was a late-round steal that is still starting in Pittsburgh. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Sure, we all know Keisel as “That Guy With the Beard.”  But what we should appreciate is how effective he has been as a 5-Technique DE during his career in Pittsburgh.  Since 2005, Keisel has made 303 Tackles, 20.5 Sacks, had a staggering 30 Passes Defended, 6 Forced Fumbles, 5 Fumble Recoveries, and made that awesome Pick Six against Tampa in 2010 for 79 yards.

In spite of the Steelers drafting Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward to replace him, Keisel isn’t going away and is still performing at a relatively high level.  He knows the nuances of the LeBeau system, and he will still be a decent rotational player for three more seasons.

It’s not often that a 7th Round project works so well for a team, but that Keisel’s success and development a testament to Steelers Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau, Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell, and most of all to Keisel himself.

 

Bonus:

UDFA

James Harrison: Outside Linebacker (Kent State)

What more can you say about the Steelers’ best UDFA pickup from 2002, and arguably the best UDFA pickup in Franchise History not named Donnie Shell?  James Harrison and his career embody the iron will of a competitor coupled with the ability of the Steelers’ coaching staff to develop successful players that are a bit raw.

After bouncing between being cut by the Steelers, Ravens, and doing a stint in N.F.L. Europe, Harrison finally caught on with the Steelers full-time in 2004 after Clark Haggans got hurt in a weight-lifting accident.

After some spot duty as an OLB (that leap over the overrated L.T. in ’05 was awesome), tackling Browns fans, and tearing it up on Special Teams, Harrison finally got his shot to start in 2007 after Pittsburgh let Pro Bowler Joey Porter walk in Free Agency.  From 2007 on, Harrison (4x Pro Bowler with 2x All Pro selections) has evolved into one of the game’s most ferocious players, and his outstanding and physical play has caused the Commissioner and his cronies to get their collective panties in a wad and legislate the game against Harrison and others like him.

Harrison doing what he does best "Sack Strip." Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE

Over the last five seasons, Harrison has produced staggering numbers and made arguably the most memorable play in N.F.L. postseason history.  In regular season play, Harrison has accumulated  54.0 Sacks, 27 Forced Fumbles, 332 Tackles, and 4 INT’s!  Couple that with his 2008 Defensive MVP Award, and Harrison has done quite nice for himself.

But Harrison’s 100 yard INT return for a TD in Super Bowl XLIII was the shining moment of his career.  Deebo simply refused to go down and essentially swung the game by 14 points in the Steelers favor.  If you wanted to know how much heart and effort that a guy like Harrison has, I’d point to that play right there (as well as many others) and just say, there you go.

So kudos Deebo.  You fought your way up the roster and scratched and clawed for playing time, and eventually became one of the best, if not the best, 3-4 OLB in team history.  And well played scouts and Coaching Staff for keeping Harrison around and eventually giving him a shot.  I think it worked out best for all of those involved.

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