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The Undrafted Rookies

Posted Mar 24, 2016

A nine-part series looking at the best of the Steelers' drafts, on a round-by-round basis.

The NFL’s inaugural draft – or as it was known back then, The Annual Selection Meeting – was held in 1936, and that means the Steelers have participated in 80 of these exercises so far. This series will look at the best of the all-time Steelers’ draft picks, based on the round the players were selected. It also deserves mention that the Steelers have had a history of success with the players they’ve added to their roster as undrafted rookies, and so the first installment in this nine-part series examines the history of those undrafted rookies.

1951 – JACK BUTLER: Hall of Fame Class of 2012. With 52 career interceptions, Butler was No. 2 on the NFL’s all-time list when he retired after the 1959 season, and his interception percentage of 50.5 (52 in 103 career games), is the best of any player in the Hall of Fame. Butler demonstrated his knack for finding the football in 1951 when he registered five interceptions as a rookie. The following season he led the Steelers for the first of five times when he picked off seven passes. His nine interceptions in 1953 that included a record-tying four in a game against the Washington Redskins. In his sixth season (1956), he was voted second-team All-NFL. In 1957 he picked off a career-best 10 passes to share the league lead in that category to be voted first-team All-NFL. He added nine more interceptions in 1958 and had two interceptions in 1959 before sustaining a severe leg injury in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles that forced him into retirement.

1974 – DONNIE SHELL: A linebacker in college at South Carolina State, Shell made himself into an All-Pro safety whose 51 career interceptions still ranks second on the Steelers’ all-time list. To buy himself time to become a starting safety, Shell was the team’s best special teams player for several seasons. Shell started at safety in Super Bowls XIII and XIV, and he finished his career with 51 interceptions and 19 recovered fumbles in 14 NFL seasons. Tony Dungy recently said of Shell, "He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all." Four Super Bowl rings.

1982 – KEITH WILLIS: A 6-foot-1, 251-pound defensive end when he entered the NFL, Willis led the team in sacks three times over a four-season span of the 1980s. His 59 career sacks still has him sixth on the Steelers’ all-time list. During the four seasons spanning 1983-86, Willis led the Steelers in sacks three times, and two of those three times had him finish in double-digits.

2001 – CHRIS HOKE: Never a full-time starter at nose tackle because of the presence of Casey Hampton, Hoke still was a valuable member of a defense that finished in the top three in the NFL against the run nine times in his 11 seasons. Hoke is credited as having started only 18 games in his career, but the team’s winning percentage in those games was nearly perfect. Two Super Bowl rings.

2002 – JAMES HARRISON: His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals is one of the defining plays in Super Bowl history. Harrison either led the team or was tied for the team lead in sacks five times over a six-season span. During a 2008 season in which he was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison posted a career-high 101 tackles, plus 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and one interception. His 74.5 sacks puts him second in franchise history, behind Jason Gilson. If Harrison would return in 2016, he would need 2 sacks to become the Steelers’ all-time leader.

Whether Harrison returns for another season, which would be his 14th in the NFL and 13th with the Steelers, remains an unknown at this time, and Coach Mike Tomlin said he understands the process and is willing to wait for Harrison’s answer. “James is not going to shortchange himself. He is not going to shortchange the game of football. I believe him when he says he is going through a process to see his overall readiness and potential effectiveness. He knows what he is doing. He knows whether or not his body can do what he needs it to do. I respect that mentality. It’s really an unselfish mentality when you think about it. He doesn’t want to let his football team down in any way, and more importantly than that, he wants to make sure that he is capable of leading this team in the ways that he has done in the past. I don’t think any of us are going to be surprised if he is capable though, because I know James.” Two Super Bowl rings.

2004 – WILLIE PARKER: Buried on the depth chart at the University of North Carolina and undrafted as a result, Parker led the team in rushing in 2005-07, and in those three seasons he amassed 4,012 yards. His 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL is the longest in that game’s history. Two Super Bowl rings.

2008 – DOUG LEGURSKY: A versatile offensive linemen who started for the Steelers at both center and guard during his five seasons with the team. He started at center in Super Bowl XLV. One Super Bowl ring.

2009 – RAMON FOSTER: The Steelers have experienced a lot of upheaval along their offensive line in recent times, but one of the constants has been Foster. In his seven NFL seasons, Foster has started 87 regular season games and seven postseason games.

NEXT: Rounds 8 & later