The Best of the Steelers’ 1998 N.F.L. Draft Class Paved the Way to Recent Greatness

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Alan Faneca

1st Round (26th Overall Pick)

Offensive Guard

Louisiana State University

When you talk about “All-Time Great Guards” of the last quarter century, Alan Faneca is a name that is at the top or near the top of almost every list constructed.  A Red-Shirt Junior coming out of Louisiana State where he earned Consensus All-American honors in 1997, Faneca was one of the Top Interior Linemen coming out in 1998, and had an incredible N.F.L. career while playing his best years with the Steelers.

Inserted into the starting lineup on October 11th, 1998 during his Rookie campaign, Faneca started 12 games that year on his way to earning the team Rookie of the Year Award for the 1998 season.  Faneca started 14 games in 1999, and all 16 contests in 2000 while showing great promise and skill as a road-grading blocker for the Steelers’ solid rushing attack.  Then in 2001, the Steelers hired future Hall of Fame Guard and former “Hog,” Russ Grimm to be their Offensive Line Coach.  Combining Faneca’s already terrific skills as a Guard as he was entering the prime of his career with the Coaching of a future Hall of Famer in the form of Grimm was a fantastic match, and everybody reaped the benefits.

From 2001-2007, Faneca made the Pro Bowl every season and was named All-Pro in six of them.  The only season he did not make All-Pro was in 2003.  A season I must add which Faneca unselfishly played Left Tackle for 8 games after injury struck Marvel Smith.  Watching Faneca during those years with the rest of the Offensive Line was nothing short of fantastic.  As the anchor, and the Line’s best player, Faneca was a stout pass-protector and gave Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, and Ben Roethlisberger loads of time to get rid of the football during those seasons.  However, Faneca’s most treasured skill as a Lineman was his run-blocking, and the Steelers’ Offensive Line during those seasons paved the way for some terrific rushing performances by Backs like Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley, and Willie Parker.  I mean, who can forget Faneca’s awesome pulling block against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL that sprung “Fast Willie” for 75 and to the house for 6?!

#66 was an absolute monster on the interior of the Offensive Line for the Steelers, Image Courtesy of usatoday.com

In all, Faneca started 153 out of a possible 158 games of his career with Pittsburgh, and it is little wonder as to why he was named to the franchise’s “75th Anniversary Team” during his final season of 2007.  Even after Faneca left via Free Agency to the New York Jets in 2008, his play remained stellar and he made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and 2009 as well and helped the Jets “Ground and Pound” run game achieve success in both of those seasons.  Faneca played his final season in Arizona and reunited with his former Line Coach Grimm again in the desert for 2010.

Despite finishing his career elsewhere, many will know Faneca from his glory years with the Steelers and what a special player he was during the 2000′s.  I for one can still see him pulling from his Left Guard spot and helping to open gaping holes during his tenure in the Steel City.  A tip of the cap on your fantastic career that saw you start 201 out of a possible 206 games Mr. Faneca.  We will see you on the doorsteps of Canton in the near future.

 

Hines Ward

3rd Round (92nd Overall Pick)

Wide Receiver

University of Georgia

Unlike Faneca, who came in as a highly touted prospect and was given playing time right away due to his terrific skill set, Future Hall of Famer and former QB/RB/WR at the University of Georgia Hines Ward had to fight his way up the Steelers’ depth chart and make a name for himself in the N.F.L. with little to no expectations and little to no fanfare at first.

It only motivated Ward that he was the 14th WR drafted in 1998.  It likely incensed him that his home-state Atlanta Falcons selected another WR in the form of Jammi German from Miami (FL) in the 3rd Round when Ward was available.  And it probably really pissed Ward off when he only caught 15 balls his Rookie season and the Steelers Drafted WR’s Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress with 1st Round Picks in ’99 and ’00, along with other WR’s Malcolm Johnson and Danny Farmer during those seasons as well.  Nevertheless, Ward kept on fighting his way up the depth chart despite his perceived status as a “jack-of-all-trades-master of none,” “Slash 2.0,” and “Possession-only WR.”  Then, beginning in 2001, Ward broke out in a big way and established himself as the Steelers’ undisputed #1 WR.

From 2001-2004, Ward made four consecutive Pro Bowls, won 2 Team MVP Awards (2002 shared with Joey Porter and 2003), had four 1,000+ Receiving Yard seasons, set the team record for Catches and TD Catches in 2002 (112 and 12), and earned the reputation as the League’s most punishing blocker from the WR position.  While all well and good, Ward still was without a Super Bowl ring at that point in his career.  But in Super Bowl XL following the 2005 season (where he shared the Team MVP with Casey Hampton), Ward shone the brightest on the biggest stage and earned the game’s MVP trophy as the Steelers triumphed 21-10 over the Seahawks to become World Champions.

3rd Round gem and 92 Overall Selection Hines Ward was an absolute steal. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Ward’s stat line of 5 Catches for 123 Yards and 18 Yards rushing was impressive, but it was his catch which set up the Steelers’ first TD of the game, and his game sealing 43 Yard TD reception on the reverse pass from WR (and former college QB) Antwaan Randle El that have him etched into the annals of Steelers’ lore forever.

Ward didn’t rest on his laurels after Super Bowl XL, and simply kept producing as the team’s #1 WR target in the years to come.  Two more 1,000+ Receiving Yard seasons (2008 and 2009), one more Super Bowl ring (Super Bowl XIII), and the constant effort of a true a dedicated professional have allowed Ward to become the Steelers’ All-Time leader in Catches (1,000), Receiving Yards (1,2083), and Receiving TD’s (85) (he has 86 total TD’s).

While his career with the Black & Gold may be nearing its end, I can say with full effect that it has been a treat to watch a talented throwback get the most out of his ability and become a legend in Pittsburgh over the last 14 seasons.  It’s important to note that the only WR that was drafted in front of him in 1998 which has had a comparable career to Ward’s has been Randy Moss.  That’s it.  And Moss has been what some would politely call a “headache” at points in his career.  So congratulations Hines, and I believe I can speak for all of “Steeler Nation” when I say: “Thank You.”

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