It’s not every year that the 14th WR selected in his Draft Class (’98) will one day go on to be a Future Hall of Famer. In fact, Hines Ward was thought to be nothing more than a Slot WR/”Slash 2.0″ coming out of Georgia by many that April. Not only was Ward an afterthought to numerous people outside of Pittsburgh, he even had to change the minds of Coaches and the Staff in his own organization early in his career! For those of you that don’t remember or know, the Steelers selected four WR’s in the ’99 and ’00 Drafts to upgrade their WR corps! What made this an even bigger slap in the face to Ward, is that Pittsburgh selected two of the four WR’s in the 1st Round in those back-to-back Drafts!
As NPC’s resident “Draft Guy,” I want to celebrate Hines Ward’s career by illustrating to you the readers one important thing: in spite of his draft and roster status, Hines Ward took on any and all comers early in his career that sought to and were assumed to take his job. Thus, I will discuss the careers of each of the four WR’s that Pittsburgh drafted from ’99-’00, and how and why all of them were left in the proverbial dust by Hines Ward.
The 1999 N.F.L. Draft
(1st Round: 13th Pick Overall)
I can still remember sitting on my parents’ couch in Denver when Arizona selected WR David Boston with the 8th overall pick. Boston was considered to be the #2 rated WR in the ’98 Draft Class, and was thought by many including myself to fall to WR-needy Pittsburgh at #13. With no WR’s left on the board that could be valued with a 13th overall selection, I figured the Steelers would trade back. WRONG. Instead, the Steelers selected collegiate stand-out/Slot WR Troy Edwards of Louisiana Tech in the last Draft of the Tom Donahoe Regime.
Edwards racked up video game stats in Louisiana Tech’s wide open Offense and even won the 1998 Biletnikoff Award. Yet unlike Boston or Torry Holt (who was selected 5th Overall), Edwards had some glaring deficiencies in his game. In addition to his small stature 5’9″ 195 lbs., Edwards had some issues with running routes and catching and holding onto the football. All of which reared their ugly head during his time in Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, Edwards actually did a decent job during his Rookie season with the Steelers. He tied with Hines Ward for the team lead in Catches with 61, led the team in Receiving with 714 Yards, and finished second behind Ward with 5 TD catches in 1999.
Edwards however was plagued by drops and inconsistent play over the rest of his career with Pittsburgh. In his final two seasons in Pittsburgh, Edwards only accumulated 37 Catches for 498 Yards and 0 TD catches. While Edwards ran his mouth and clashed with Bill Cowher, the Steelers drafted another WR in Round 1 of 2000, and Hines Ward kept getting better to boot. Edwards was demoted and relegated to Special Teams duty by the end of 2000, yet that didn’t stop him from committing one of the worst penalties in Steelers’ postseason history.
In the ’01 A.F.C. Championship Game, a booming Josh Miller punt was negated by an illegal procedure penalty against Edwards who ran out of bounds and came back in while trying to cover the punt. On the re-kick, Patriots WR/PR Troy Brown fielded the ball and took it in for a score to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead in a game they went on to win. Edwards was shipped out of town before the 2002 regular season began, and became he first of four WR’s drafted by the Steelers to take a back seat to the great Hines Ward.
(5th Round: 166th Pick Overall, 1999 N.F.L. Draft)
Johnson was a big target coming out of Notre Dame that I and many figured could emerge after a year or two and help out beleaguered QB Kordell Stewart. Johnson never put up remarkable stats in college, because Notre Dame’s Offense in the late 1990’s was still run-oriented. Nevertheless, Johnson was a physical specimen at 6’5″ and 220 lbs., and it was thought he could be the Steelers’ go-to-guy at the Split End position with a year or two of seasoning.
Unfortunately for Johnson and the Steelers, his career never quite took off the way they wanted. Due to Hines Ward, and the Steelers drafting another “big” Split End, Johnson’s carer lasted only 1.5 seasons in Pittsburgh. In fact, Johnson’s career N.F.L. stat line read 2 Catches for 23 Yards, all accumulated in his Rookie season. Johnson eventually finished the 2000 season on the Jets’ roster, but never played in a regular season N.F.L. game again.
The 2000 N.F.L. Draft
(1st Round: 8th Pick Overall, 2000 N.F.L. Draft)
At times, Plaxico Burress’ career with the Steelers makes me smile. In the four year stretch between 2001-2004, Burress was at his career peak: 239 Catches, 3,891 Yards, and 22 TD’s. His 2002 season I will always look back on fondly when “The Tommy Maddox Aerial Circus” came to town and Burress put up career highs in Catches and Yards. His performance in that 2002 tie against the Falcons was absolutely majestic and set a team record with 253 Yards Receiving that day. But the extra yard he needed most on that final Hail Mary catch to win the game eluded him. And like that extra yard, greatness and his name being etched into Steelers lore eluded him for his entire career in Pittsburgh.
Unlike Ward, Burress was the first WR drafted in 2000 after a successful collegiate career at Michigan State. The Steelers actually thought so highly of him, they passed over Brian Urlacher and Chad Pennington to draft him in the 1st Round. At that time, Burress was immediately slotted to be the #1 guy at Split End, and the #1 guy of the WR corps overall for the Steelers for years to come.
After his Rookie season saw him adjust to the N.F.L. game (as well as spike a live ball in Jacksonville), Burress exploded in his last four seasons in Pittsburgh making incredible catches and emerging as the “deep” WR across from Hines Ward. Nevertheless, Burress’ attitude and propensity to disappear at the most important times was never able to endear himself to members of “Steeler Nation” like myself. He still remains one of the most, if not the most talented WR I have ever seen in terms of raw talent alone. Burress was an absolute monster and force to be reckoned with during his years with the Steelers, but always disappeared in the Playoffs during his final three postseason games with the team.
Knowing that Pittsburgh couldn’t sign him, or knowing that they didn’t want to, Burress left Pittsburgh for New York in March of 2005. Don’t get me wrong, there were so many incredible moments he was a part of during his 5 year career with the Steelers. I mean, the incredible raw talent Burress possessed in his mid-20’s was a sight to see for anybody that witnessed him play from 2000-2004.
Unfortunately, Burress’ talent couldn’t overshadow his lack of character and lack of being a leader on the field at WR with the Steelers. Instead, it Ward emerged as the go-to-guy when both were on the field. Ward became the fan-favorite for his gritty play, his blocking, and willingness to go over the middle. And Ward became the Steelers All-Time Leading Receiver, not Plaxico Burress.
(4th Round: 103rd Pick Overall, 2000 N.F.L. Draft)
The Steelers were thought to be getting a steal in the 4th Round The 2000 N.F.L. Draft, and visions of Burress and Danny Farmer emerging as a tall, dominating, athletic WR duo danced in their heads. However, the idea of a “Burress-Farmer” starting duo was quickly erased following the 2000 preseason. Why you ask?
Because Farmer never even made the Steelers’ regular season roster and was waived! Not only did UCLA’s then-All-Time Leader in Receiving Yards get beat out by Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Troy Edwards, he got beat out by this list of guys:
Will Blackwell, Courtney Hawkins, Malcolm Johnson, and Bobby Shaw
Not quite the list of Hall of Famers if you ask me. It was at that point that Farmer simply became another “bigger, faster, stronger” player to be left in the dust by the Steelers’ 3rd Round Draft Pick Ward. Sure, Farmer was a 4th Round guy, but he was a productive WR at a major college program who stood 6’3″ and weighed almost 220 lbs.. Like they had done the year before, I guess the Steelers simply thought that their WR corps needed more of an upgrade at that point. Instead, what they got was another WR that Hines Ward beat out on the depth chart, and Farmer eventually played out the rest of his quiet 3 year career in Cincinnati.