The 2020 NFL draft is packed with unknowns. Will Tua Tagovailoa turn out to be one of the all-time greats, or will his injury history limit his NFL outcomes? Will Chase Young or A.J. Epenesa truly translate their freakish edge rusher capabilities to pro ball?
The truth is that nobody knows until years after the fact. And 46 years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a strong case for having the best draft year in history. Four players, in particular, set the Steelers on course to be a dynasty. A good team became one that the rest of the NFL feared.
Here’s who they picked, and how they came to change the NFL for a generation of players.
The most notable players picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974
The 1974 draft had nothing short of legendary outcomes for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Surprisingly, they started with a particularly high pick. They chose USC wide receiver Lynn Swann with the second overall pick. A sensible choice, given he was responsible for 11 touchdowns and a strong 16.3 yards averaged per catch according to Sports Reference.
Kent State middle linebacker Jack Lambert was their second-round pick. The 1972 MAC Defensive Player of the Year was certainly recognized for his young talents. But his future role in the NFL was on another tier of skill entirely, as we’ll get to below.
Wide receiver John Stallworth was Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick. The Alabama A&M star retroactively earned an 80 Weighted Career Approximate Value from Pro Football Reference. Considering he went 82nd overall, picking up Stallworth so late was an absolute steal for the Steelers.
But fifth-round pick Mike Webster has to be one of the all-time misses for all teams involved. Picked 125th overall, the University of Wisconsin center clearly didn’t put on the show necessary for his eventual talents to be recognized. He would blossom into one of the best NFL centers of all time.
How the team became a ’70s dynasty
On the back of these four picks, the Pittsburgh Steelers went on to dominate the back half of the 1970s. Over the coming six-year span, Pittsburgh’s explosive new class took home the Lombardi trophy four times. Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, and Webster were picked far apart, but each earned spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame during these years.
Undrafted free agents were an additional part of the story of this version of the Steelers. Safety Donnie Shell and tight end Randy Grossman became key figures in leveraging the true potential of that explosive 1974 draft class. This was a team making moves that paid off well beyond even their own wildest dreams.
They immediately won Super Bowl IX. Super Bowls X, XIII and XIV followed soon after. It was one of the strongest runs of NFL success in the history of the league.
The career outcomes of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1974 picks
Jack Lambert only became the main guy in his spot after a Henry Davis injury put him in the spotlight. He served as something like a quarterback to the defense, adjusting plays on the fly and communicating the new plans with his teammates in real-time. The nine-time Pro Bowler was inducted in the hall of fame in 1990.
John Stallworth set three Steelers all-time records during his career. He caught 537 passes for a total of 8,723 yards, racking up 63 touchdowns in the process. That was more than enough to land him in the hall of fame in 2002. It didn’t hurt that former teammate Swann lobbied hard for his inclusion as soon as possible.
Mike Webster remained a backup for a bit longer than the other four. When he got his shot to start, he emerged as a pivotal force in the latter three Super Bowl wins for the ’70s Steelers.
He is often remembered today as a go-to example of difficulties of dealing with head trauma after the NFL. But as a player, the nine-time Pro Bowler was inducted in the hall of fame in 1997 on the back of his generational blocking ability.
If one team in the 2020 NFL draft gets even two players on the level of these four, they’ll be in prime playoff shape. Four? So far, that appears to be a once-in-a-lifetime success.