Finding Brett Keisel on the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft with the 242nd overall pick, grabbing an Aaron Smith in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft – those are the player personnel equivalents of hitting the lottery. And while it's true that somebody wins the lottery every day, very, very, very rarely are you that somebody.
Because defensive linemen in a 3-4 scheme have come to be seen as complementary pieces, and because the Steelers had such grand success with Smith and Keisel, can the argument be made that spending high draft picks on this unit is a waste?
"Yes, you can get lucky in the seventh round," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "Any time a late (drafted) player develops into a starter, you got lucky because if you thought that player was that good, you should've taken him earlier. It's a credit to the player and it's a credit to his coach that they exceeded our expectations."
Clearly, Smith and Keisel exceeded expectations. But does that then make the No. 1 pick used on Casey Hampton back in 2001 a waste? That seems to be a ridiculous contention to make about a player who was voted to five Pro Bowls – more than every defensive lineman in franchise history except for Ernie Stautner, Joe Greene, and L.C. Greenwood, by the way – and was a starter on teams that were 2-1 in Super Bowls during his career here.
"Defensive linemen are a premium in this league," said Colbert, "and so if you want to have a good defensive line, you do have to invest higher picks because, traditionally, the big guys are going to be picked higher. You look at the Pro Bowl numbers, 70 percent of the guys voted to the Pro Bowl are picked in the first three rounds. I believe it's 56 percent are picked in the first round. So, there's no great mystery to it. Whether or not a guy lives up to that expectation, we'll see."
Here's another question to ponder: who are the best 3-4 defensive linemen in the NFL right now? There could be some disagreement, but J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Justin Smith of the San Francisco 49ers are two of the players who must be included on any such short list.
Smith was a first-round pick in 2001, the fourth overall selection in the same draft where Hampton came to the Steelers 19th overall. And Watt was a first-round pick as well, 11th overall in the same 2011 draft that brought Cameron Heyward to the Steelers 31st overall.
And with Steelers fans, that's really the crux of the matter. Did their favorite team waste first-round draft picks on Ziggy Hood in 2009 and in Heyward in 2011?
As is to be expected, Colbert doesn't believe that to be the case with either Hood or Hayward, and it's not that difficult to come up with some facts to support his opinion.
Hood will play his fifth NFL season as a 26-year-old in 2013, and after learning behind Smith for most of his first two seasons he now has started 39 games. In 2012, his first full season as a starter, Hood finished with 40 tackles, three sacks and 17 pressures, second among the team's defensive linemen to Keisel in all three categories. Certainly the Steelers need more from Hood, and they will expect more from him as soon as the 2013 season, but those are not the numbers of a bust.
Heyward will play his third NFL season as a 24-year-old, and because he came into the league during the lockout he missed out on the entire offseason of his rookie year. Playing behind Keisel, Heyward has not made an NFL start as yet, and he finished 2012 with 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks. And don't be so quick to criticize Heyward for not being take Keisel's starting job, or Hood for finishing second to Keisel in those primary statistical categories, because Brett Keisel remains highly productive, with 58 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 40 pressures in 2012.
"Collectively that group of defensive linemen, we're happy with them because they're part of a productive defense," said Colbert. "Productivity for a defensive lineman in the 3-4 is based as much on plays that he creates as it is plays that he makes, because in all honesty, the playmakers in the 3-4 are designed to be the linebackers. There may be a time where a defensive lineman doesn't look like he's making the play, but he is creating a play for another guy.
"Traditionally, 3-4 linemen aren't going to be great playmakers, but they should be capable play-creators, and you do have to draft them high."