Skip to main content

Labriola On

Steelers' 1974 draft class still the gold standard

Accepted protocol in the wedding industry is to commemorate a 50th anniversary with a gift of gold, and within the business of professional football that same span of time can represent the gold standard as well. Fifty years ago was 1974, and that NFL Draft had the Pittsburgh Steelers do it better than any other franchise ever has, before or since.

In 17 rounds over two days, the Steelers identified and selected four Hall of Fame players over the first five rounds, and then once the picking was over they added a fifth. Five busts in Canton. Four Lombardi Trophies. Twenty combined Super Bowl rings. And immortality in the world of professional sports drafting.

Chuck Noll was hired by the Steelers on Jan. 27, 1969, and the next day the franchise spent its first pick in that NFL Draft on Joe Greene and ushered in a new era. The new era reflected an acknowledgement that the annual NFL Draft would become and remain the Steelers primary method of roster building, and the selection of Greene was the first and most important piece in dragging the team from a generation of losing into a decade of dominance.

The Steelers had gotten off the schneid by winning the AFC Central Division in 1972 for the first-such title in franchise history, and then in the Divisional Round of those playoffs came the Immaculate Reception, which was voted the Greatest Play in NFL History and sent the Steelers into the AFC Championship Game by virtue of that 13-7 win over the Oakland Raiders. But the momentum stalled a bit in 1973. They lost games on the road to AFC Central Division rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland, their offense imploded with 6 turnovers in a loss to the defending Super Bowl Champion Dolphins in Miami, and they lost to a mediocre Denver team for their only home defeat of the regular season. Then came a 33-14 payback by the Raiders in Oakland that eliminated them from the playoffs in decisive fashion in the Divisional Round.

Author Roy Blount Jr., who had been embedded with the Steelers since the start of training camp in 1973 titled his book about them, "Three Bricks Shy of a Load." A perfect description of where the franchise was at that stage, and the Steelers utilized the 1974 NFL Draft to find those three bricks and add two more for good measure.

Lynn Swann. Jack Lambert. John Stallworth. Mike Webster. Donnie Shell. Members of the Hall of Fame Classes of 2001, 1990, 2002, 1997, and 2020, respectively.

In NFL history, no team ever has added so many Hall of Fame players in a single draft, and the league has been staging its Annual Selection Meeting since 1936. The closest any teams ever have come to matching the Steelers' 1974 haul of Hall of Famers were the 1958 Green Bay Packers and the 1964 Dallas Cowboys with three apiece.

Green Bay's 1958 draft class included fullback Jim Taylor on the second round, middle linebacker Ray Nitschke as its second pick in the third round, and guard Jerry Kramer in the fourth round. Dallas matched that in 1964, with safety Mel Renfro in the second round, wide receiver Bob Hayes in the seventh round, and quarterback Roger Staubach in the 10th round.

As the Steelers put the final touches on their preparation for the 1974 NFL Draft, they did so 38 days after that playoff loss in Oakland where their offense managed less than 200 yards and turned it over 3 times in falling behind, 26-7, in the fourth quarter. That served as the exclamation point in a cry for help for a unit that during the regular season managed just 89 first downs passing, turned the ball over 40 times, and averaged 2.2 touchdowns per game. That the Steelers still managed to finish 10-4 and qualify for the playoffs was a testament to their defense.

In the 1970 Draft, the Steelers selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw No. 1 overall, and in 1972 they got their bell-cow running back when they selected Franco Harris 13th overall in 1972. It was the passing attack that needed help, and the team's scouting department was focusing on receivers Lynn Swann from USC and John Stallworth from Alabama A&M. Swann was on everybody's radar after having caught 85 passes for 1,407 yards (16.6 average) and 10 touchdowns during three seasons at nationally-prominent University of Southern California. And if Stallworth had the anonymity of playing at Alabama A&M, he was well known to Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who had been guiding HBCU prospects to the NFL going all the way back to his time as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier.

One of the defining moments that helped Stallworth get to the Steelers took place during a scouting trip through the South during the autumn of 1973.

In that era, scouts traveled in groups, and on a wet and miserable day in Huntsville, Alabama, the group that included Nunn worked out a gangly receiver then known as Johnny Stallworth. Johnny's 40-time was awful for the position he wanted to play in the NFL, and the group of scouts left the workout largely unimpressed.

The following day, when the group was packing to go to its next stop along the trail, Nunn informed the traveling party that he was feeling ill and said it would be best to stay and recuperate for a day before re-joining them later at the next stop. Nunn then rustled up a pair of football cleats and scoured Huntsville in search of a dry field, and he took Johnny over to it for another chance at that 40-yard dash. This time Stallworth ran like an NFL wide receiver, but because of the bad 40-time that was out there the Steelers had themselves an edge.

During that draft's preparation process, Noll came to view Stallworth as worthy of a first-round pick. But it was Nunn who convinced Noll that since Swann played at USC and Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, the prudent move was to pick Swann on the first round because he was more well-known. And so the Steelers did pick Swann, but Noll wasn't about to let anyone in the draft room forget about Stallworth.

In the second round, Stallworth still was on the board, and Noll was interested. But Vice President of Player Personnel Art Rooney Jr. made a case for linebacker Jack Lambert, who turned out to be a great player, but Noll was worried about losing Stallworth because the Steelers had traded away their third-round pick in the 1974 draft to acquire veteran defensive tackle Tom Keating in 1973. As the discussion continued and the clock ticked on the second-round decision, Noll is said to have turned to Nunn and asked for assurances that Stallworth would be available to the Steelers in the fourth round.

Completely unable to make such a guarantee, Nunn played the situation perfectly. "I told him I thought Stallworth would be there in the fourth," said Nunn. "I said, 'The average (team) isn't looking at him like we are.' We had to sweat, but he was still there in the fourth round."

Then in the next round, the Steelers finished their first day of the 1974 NFL Draft by using a fifth-round pick (125th overall) on an All-Big Ten center from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, named Mike Webster, who played 15 seasons and 220 games while being voted offensive captain nine times. It wasn't until the draft was over that the Steelers added the cherry on top when they signed Donnie Shell from South Carolina State, and this move also had Nunn's fingerprints all over it.

A linebacker in college until a switch to safety for his senior season, Shell had 77 tackles, 8 interceptions, and was a co-captain for South Carolina State in 1973. As an undrafted rookie, Shell had options, and his decision came down to Nunn's relationship with South Carolina State Coach Willie Jeffries. Nunn assured Jeffries that Shell would get a fair shot to make the team and Noll had no preconceived bias against HBCU prospects, and his word was good enough for the coach to endorse Shell signing with the Steelers.

While ultimately historic, the Steelers' haul from the 1974 NFL Draft was not an immediate hit. In the Jan. 30, 1974, editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, after the first 5 rounds of the draft during which the Steelers' picks were No. 1 Swann, No. 2 Lambert, No. 4a Stallworth, No. 4b Jimmy Allen, a CB from UCLA, and No. 5 Webster), a columnist wrote:

"The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn't get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn't get a punter, although none of the nation's best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn't get an offensive tackle who might've shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks."

What the Steelers actually got that day were four Hall of Fame players with a fifth on the way, and the road map to four Super Bowl titles over the next six seasons and recognition as the Team of the Decade. It was the result of a draft class that remains the gold standard.