No. 27: Will the football gods forgive Steelers?

Three weeks from Saturday – Draft Day, 2003 – will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the great steals in NFL Draft history.

His hands were too small, his 40 time was marked by sundial and he liked to party with the boys, but quarterback Dan Marino sure could play and Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula knew it. So after five quarterbacks had been taken in the first round on April 26, 1983, Shula and the Miami Dolphins selected Marino with the 27th pick of the draft. He went on to throw more passes for more completions, more yards and more touchdowns than any player in NFL history.

The team picking 27th on the 20th anniversary is the team that may have received more criticism than any other for allowing Marino to fall so far, because the Pittsburgh Steelers watched the native son grow up.

Perhaps all of it adds up to some type of karma that will allow the Steelers to make up for their past sin. Perhaps, as CNN/Sports Illustrated is predicting, another tremendous quarterback, who's being nitpicked by scouts, Byron Leftwich of Marshall, will fall into the Steelers' laps on April 26. Steelers fans can dream, can't they?

The Steelers have picked 27th in the first round only one other time and the results weren't bad. Tight end Mark Bruner never became a Pro Bowler, and his 8-year career is presently hanging in the balance as he recovers from radical microfracture surgery on his knee, but he's had a solid career, one that would rank among the top tier of those selected in that draft range.

The Steelers have selected in the 25-to-29 range of the first round seven times and come away with two Pro Bowlers. Actually, cornerback Dave Brown (26th, 1975) made the Pro Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, who'd claimed him from the Steelers in the 1976 expansion draft.

Alan Faneca (26th, 1998) is working on two consecutive Pro Bowls and Bruener and Bennie Cunningham (28th, 1976) had productive careers as tight ends with the Steelers. On the down side, running back Greg Hawthorne (28th, 1979) and tackle Jamain Stephens (29th, 1996) were flat busts, but quarterback Mark Malone (28th, 1980) may have had a more devastating impact on the franchise. His place as Quarterback of the Future in the spring of 1983 may have had more to do with the Steelers passing on Marino than any of the scouts' perceived flaws.

As for the pick in general, there have been as many convicted murderers selected 27th as Hall of Famers. Marino, of course, is in the Hall of Fame and wide receiver Rae Carruth (1997, Carolina) is in jail.

Other notable 27th picks of the modern era (1970) include defensive end Julius Adams (1971, New England), guard Reggie McKenzie (1972, Buffalo) and quarterback Tommy Kramer (1977, Minnesota). Those are the best of what appears to be a thin history, however, the halfbacks have done well. Charles White (1980, Cleveland), Neal Anderson (1986, Chicago) and Michael Bennett (2001, Minnesota) became 1,000-yard rushers. The only other halfback selected 27th, Lorenzo Hampton (1985, Miami), peaked at 830 yards rushing in 1986.

For sheer volume, the four halfbacks give the position a slight lead over the offensive tackles who've been drafted 27th. Seven tackles have been chosen at the spot, giving the position a 3.5-to-1 ratio. Aaron Gibson (1999, Detroit) is the most notable of the group, only because he became the league's first 400-pounder.

No one drafted 27th in the first round has ever played safety on a regular basis in the NFL. Aaron Kyle (1976, Dallas) and Jeff Burris (1994, Buffalo) played free safety at Wyoming and Notre Dame, respectively, but played cornerback in the NFL, as did the only pure corner drafted 27th, Mike Rumph (2002, San Francisco).

Knowing that, perhaps the safety-thin Steelers might stick with history's guide. Only two quarterbacks were chosen 27th, and both Marino and Kramer enjoyed fine careers.

As for the history of the Steelers' second-round pick, No. 59, it's dubious at best. Quarterback Jeff Hostetler (1984, New York Giants), cornerback Aeneas Williams (1991, Phoenix), linebacker Steve Tovar (1993, Cincinnati) and cornerback Jason Sehorn (1994, Giants) are clearly the best of a motley crew that includes Scott Shields, for whom the Steelers traded down 15 spots in 1999. They drafted Shields that year and, later, with the additional third-round pick gained in the trade, drafted Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter.

By Jim Wexell
Steel City

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