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When the Steelers added Farrior and Harrison to build a modern day “Murderers Row”: Redrafting 2002

When the Steelers added Farrior and Harrison to build a modern day “Murderers Row”: Redrafting 2002

In this retrospective series, we’ll use 20/20 hindsight to play General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers to review past drafts – focusing primarily on top 2-3 selections – and personnel decisions year-by-year and redraft or implement trades based on the Steelers roster at the time.

General rule:  Any “redrafted” pick will generally fall within a 15-pick range and trade propositions being realistic and attainable.

 

Steelers situation and needs: 

  • The 2001 season was magical right up until it wasn’t.  Jerome Bettis was having his best season as a professional and on pace to top 1,500 yards rushing and was leading the NFL until a groin injury sidelined him.
  • A less referenced but equally critical injury happened to TE Mark Bruener, who went on IR due to a shoulder injury, but was effectively a 6th offensive lineman in the Steelers run heavy offense.
  • Special teams was the bane of the Steelers existence in 2001 – K Kris Brown could not kick in Heinz Field and had a 68.2%.
  • It cost them the first game vs. the Baltimore Ravens who they thoroughly dominated but K Kris Brown missed 4/5 FGs in a 13-10 loss.
  • Kris Brown had a missed extra point vs. the Cincinnati Bengals and it cost them a win in a 26-23 loss.
  • They gave up two special teams TDs in the AFC Championship Game in a 24-17 loss.
  • The offense was extremely simplified by new Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey, and it would be the first time the Steelers featured a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1000-yard receivers.

 

 

The greatest Steelers draft no one ever talks about:

Reviewing 2002: 1st Round – #30 Overall; 2nd Round – #62 Overall

When you’re drafting #30 and find a solid starter like the Steelers did with guard Kendall Simmons, you’re doing pretty good.  Simmons by and large was a consistent, quality guard who when he did have injuries, unfortunately they tended to be big.  Almost an immediate starter as a rookie in 2002, he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2003 – starting all 30 games in which he played. In a bizarre” twist” he tore his ACL and missed the 2004 season, reportedly “watching” Monday Night Football.  He returned to be a start every game of the 2005 Super Bowl run as part of one of the best Steelers offensive lines ever and the Steelers thought enough of him to extend him in 2007.  Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles tendon in 2008 (again on Monday Night Football) when playing the Baltimore Ravens and was sorely missed as the patchwork OL did just enough to win Super Bowl XLIII.  He was released in 2009 as the injuries were too much.  He was still young enough that he had good football left in him.

Kendall Simmons, per Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The DecadesRon Lippock:

“Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, and Jeff Hartings all contributed to my growth while I was in Pittsburgh. Marvel Smith is like my brother off the field. Alan Faneca’s knowledge of the game and his physical approach is something I have always admired. I watched him closely and asked a lot of questions. I owe Jeff Hartings a special thanks for letting me lean on him when it came to blocking assignments my rookie year. Hartings also taught me how to relax on the field.”

The Steelers had a front row seat to watch Pitt standout and 2000 Fred Biletnikoff Award winning WR Antonio Bryant, yet surprised many by taking WR Antwaan Randle El from Indiana.  Looking at a stat sheet, Bryant was a more productive WR and arguably the best WR from the 2002 draft class.  While Randle El did not have stats that jumped off the page, he provided a spark as a punt returner, kickoff returner, WR, RB and QB.  He sparked a lot of first downs, was named 1st team All-Pro as punt returner in 2005 and the coup de grâce – throwing the 43-yard game clinching TD in Super Bowl XL.  The contract offer he received from the Washington Redskins was stunning: $31M, $11.5M guaranteed.  It was more than Ward’s extension and reportedly $13M more than any team that was bidding for him.  Like all overpaid contracts, Randle El was released for salary cap reasons and returned to Pittsburgh for a final year in 2010.

Antwaan Randel El, per Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The DecadesRon Lippock:

“Leaving came down to financial reasons. It wasn’t even close, but it was hard.

My last contract year, the Steelers offered me $2.2 million, then after camp, $3.6 million. I was a starter and felt I was worth more so I didn’t sign the contract and played out the year. That year, I threw a touchdown in the Super Bowl, had three punt returns for touchdowns and had a good year receiving. I felt like I was playing poker and had the best hand. But they couldn’t come close to the Redskins offer. I had two kids…I wanted to stay, especially after the Super Bowl success, but the offer just wasn’t close. When I returned, the guys that still knew me said I got my money, so welcome back! Deshea Townsend wasn’t there, and that was weird. It was always Deshea and Hines. They brought Foote back, and that was good.

I actually talked to Tomlin when I worked for the NFL Network in 2008. After the championship, I interviewed him and said then that I’d come back home if there was a chance, and it came down to it.”

  • 3rd Round – #94: Chris Hope – The gaping hole that was the Steelers secondary in 2002/2003 was greatly aided by Hope being inserted as the starter at FS in 2004/2005.  Hope was naturally more of a SS and while he was a solid starter who was a big part of winning Super Bowl XL, they had someone a “little better” at the SS position.  Hope would sign with the Tennessee Titans and have a good career and a Pro Bowl in 2008.
  • 4th Round – #128: Larry Foote – While Kendrell Bell brought all the “explosiveness” before injuries shortened his career, Foote took over as starter at ILB, and while not the “splash play” ILB that Bell was, Foote was consistent 80+ tackle LB who played smart and did his job with the best year of his career coming in 2005, registering 102 tackles, 3 sacks and a 3rd quarter interception in the AFC Championship that all but ended the Denver Broncos hopes of a comeback.  After rotating with Lawrence Timmons at ILB for the 2008 Super Bowl Championship team, he requested his release and joined the Detroit Lions for a season, but returned to the Steelers for their Super Bowl XLV Championship bid, spending 11 years as a Steeler.
  • 7th Round – #242: Brett Keisel – Keisel was mainly a backup who got onto everyone’s radar with his performance in the 2005 AFC Championship, 2 sacks, 1 TFL and 1 FF.  Upon the retirement of Kimo von Oelhoffen, there was no question who the Steelers starter at RDE would be.  The front three of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel was at its peak in 2008 and the front line of the least appreciated greatest defense in NFL history.  “Da Beard” was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010, the same year of his “signature play” – a 79-yard INT returned for a TD vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Draft Grade: A

  • When you stop to think the Steelers also drafted Verron Haynes and Lee Mays, this wasn’t a bad day at the office.  They hit on picks in each of the first 4 rounds – all of whom would be starters on Super Bowl Champion teams.

 

 

2002 Steelers Free Agency deserves special notice:

  • Teams passed on OLB James Harrison in the draft, thinking that he was undersized – a thought that seems ridiculous to even consider today. He was on the Steelers practice squad and on the active roster for one game in 2002, but struggled to grasp the entire defense early in his career.  Things would change though a couple years later when he made the team in 2004, and like Hope and Keisel, started to make an impact around that time.

James Farrior, reflecting on James Harrison as a rookie in 2002 – per ESPN writer Elizabeth Merrill:

 “He didn’t really know the D. We’d be in practice, in training camp, and he might not know what he was doing so he’d just stop and throw his hands up and tell them to get him out of there. We thought the guy was crazy.”

  • When Clark Haggans was injured lifting weights in July 2004, the Steelers brought him back.  Harrison had a different mindset, determined to learn what he needed and brought over a 1,000 flashcards, refused to have a TV in his room and took this 2nd chance very seriously.  From the 2007 breakout game on Monday Night Football where he put up the stat line for the ages, to setting the team single-season sack record en route to winning 2008 DPOY, making the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history, and setting the franchise sack record – James Harrison belongs in Canton.

James Harrison, on the Steelers bringing him into camp in 2004 – per ESPN writer Elizabeth Merrill:

“I wanted to feel like if I did get cut, I gave it everything I could. There was nothing else I could do. It started making sense.”

  • James Farrior was drafted by the New York Jets with the 8th overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, where he languished as a backup at OLB over four unremarkable seasons.  When Herm Edwards took over as the Jets coach in 2001, the Jets changed defensive schemes and Farrior had a breakout season starting all 16 games with 142 tackles.  Kevin Colbert didn’t hesitate to sign Farrior to play the RILB, and when Bill Cowher flipped Bell and Farrior, he was able to raise his game to the next level.  Farrior finished 2nd in DPOY voting in 2004, had his best career postseason game with 2.5 sacks against the Indianapolis Colts in 2005 and became the Steelers unquestioned locker room general in the years following the departure of Joey Porter until his retirement in 2012.

Free Agency Grade A+

Redrafting 2002:  Why Bother?

The Steelers absolutely loaded up on players that were critical to their success and Super Bowl runs with this draft and offseason.  James Farrior is the best free agent signing of Colbert’s career.  Even if it did take a little bit of time and an unexpected injury in 2004, they had the relationship with James Harrison to try again after cutting him and it worked out.  They landed solid contributors in each of their first 4 rounds. There is nothing that changes this draft period.

 

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PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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