Pittsburgh Steelers: All-time Underrated Players
It's summer time at the NFL. During the next few weeks, we here at NFL.com will unveil our Most Underrated of All Time for all 32 teams and allow users to determine their choices as well.
Just as there always is some debate about what constitutes a Most Valuable Player, so can a similar discussion apply to picking the five Most Underrated Players in Pittsburgh Steelers history. Is a great player on a losing team underrated? Or does underrated apply to someone on good teams whose contributions are overlooked? And can a player who receives some recognition but not all that he deserves to be considered underrated? Based on 80 seasons of Steelers football, it would appear that a little of each can apply.
Greenwood -- DE, 1969-81
As a 10th-round draft pick from a school that at the time was called Arkansas AM&N, Greenwood entered the NFL behind 237 other players in 1969. And as a defensive end who weighed less than 230 pounds, Greenwood was no lock to make the roster. He would go on to be a two-time first-team All-Pro while being voted to six Pro Bowls, and he would retire as the Steelers' all-time leader in sacks -- since passed by Jason Gildon. Even so, Greenwood always was an underrated component of the defense that dominated the NFL for most of the 1970s. Greenwood started a grand total of 151 games as the end next to tackle Joe Greene on the Steel Curtain, and some of his best days came in the playoffs. He had four sacks in Super Bowl X, one in Super Bowl XIII, and was the one who batted the Fran Tarkenton pass that was intercepted by Greene in Super Bowl IX. He had four sacks in those five classic 1970s playoff street-fights with the Oakland Raiders. Overall, he posted 10 sacks in 17 playoff games, to go along with 73.5 sacks during his 132 regular season appearances between 1972 to 1981. He led or tied for the team lead in sacks four times in eight Steelers seasons that included four Super Bowl championships, and Greenwood was the preeminent pass-rusher on one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. L.C. Greenwood deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and because he is not, he qualifies as underrated.
Chandnois -- HB/TB/KR, 1950-56
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been competing in the NFL since 1933, and because the franchise never won even a Division championship until 1972, the 40 seasons preceding that milestone are ignored. Even though the franchise never was able to have enough good players to unseat the New York Giants through the 1940s or the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s, it did employ some very good players. Lynn Chandnois was one of them. Originally signed from Michigan State by Paul Brown in Cleveland, Chandnois ended up Steelers property as part of a dispersal draft held when the Browns joined the NFL from the All-America Football Conference. In 1952, his combination of rushing-receiving-returning skills got him named first-team All-Pro, and he joined Hall of Famer Bill Dudley as the only Steeler ever voted NFL Player of the Year by the Washington Touchdown Club. In particular, Chandnois' 35.2-yard average on kickoff returns led the NFL that year and remains the best mark in franchise history. During a 1952 game against the Giants played in the snow at Forbes Field, Chandnois returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, only to have it nullified by a 5-yard penalty. Chandnois then returned the re-kick 91 yards for another touchdown. To this day, Chandnois is No. 2 in NFL history with a 29.6-yard career average on kickoff returns, second only to Gayle Sayers' 30.6. From 1952 through 1956, Lynn Chandnois was the Steelers' most versatile and dangerous offensive weapon, but he was playing for a team that was the last in the NFL to switch from the single-wing to the T-formation. Teammate Jerry Nuzum once said, "If Chuck Noll had coached Chandnois, he'd be in the Hall of Fame."
Jon Kolb -- LT,
The 1969 NFL Draft was Chuck Noll's first as the coach of the Steelers, and one of his core beliefs was that games were won along the line of scrimmage. He addressed the defensive line by picking Joe Greene in the first round, and he addressed the offensive line by picking Jon Kolb in the third round. Kolb was the starting left tackle for all of the Steelers' playoff games during the 1970s when they would win four Super Bowls over a six-season span. He began as an agile and tenacious run blocker for Franco Harris, who averaged 4.8 yards a carry and scored 15 touchdowns in the 1974 and 1975 seasons that ended with the franchise's first two Super Bowl titles, and then he developed into a solid pass blocker for Terry Bradshaw, who threw for 54 touchdowns in the 1978 and 1979 seasons that ended with the franchise's third and fourth Super Bowl titles. In four Super Bowls, Kolb lined up opposite Jim Marshall, Harvey Martin twice, and Fred Dryer. Kolb allowed just one sack -- to Martin in Super Bowl XIII. During the eight seasons from 1972 to 1979, Kolb started at the critical left tackle spot for teams that won 88 games, seven division titles and four Super Bowl championships, and he never even was voted to a single Pro Bowl.
Aaron Smith --
When the Steelers made Aaron Smith their fourth-round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, he was an unknown, undersized defensive lineman from Northern Colorado. By his second season, he was a starter. By his third, he was a star. By the end of his career, longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was calling him the best 3-4 defensive end in the history of the position. LeBeau is renowned for coordinating attacking, pressure defenses, but there can be no pressuring or attacking unless it stops the run first. Aaron Smith played left end in the Steelers 3-4, and in his 12 seasons as a starter the Steelers rushing defense finished in the top three in the NFL nine times, and No. 1 four times. And by the way, Smith did more than just stuff the run. His 44 career sacks still ranks 10th on the Steelers' all-time list, and he also had 18 passes defensed. In 2007, the Steelers were 8-3 until Smith got hurt, then finished 2-3 and lost a Wild Card Game at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2008, Smith didn't miss a start, the team's defense was a statistically dominant unit and the Steelers ended it by winning Super Bowl XLIII. Aaron Smith was a key player and a respected locker room presence for Steelers teams that won six division titles, three AFC championships and two Lombardi trophies. He was part of four defenses that finished No. 1 overall and yet was voted to only one Pro Bowl.
Larry Brown -- TE/RT,
Chuck Noll once was asked this question: Of all the great players who contributed to those four Super Bowl championships during the 1970s, who among those not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame most deserves to be? Noll's response was instant. Larry Brown. When he came to the Steelers via the first of the team's four fifth-round picks in the 1971 NFL Draft, Brown was a 224-pound tight end. This was the era before tight ends were integral components in the passing game, and even though Brown's primary function was to block for Franco Harris, he was more than capable as a receiver when called upon. He finished his career with 48 catches for a respectable 13.3-yard average and five touchdowns. Among his six catches during the 1974 postseason was a 4-yarder for the clinching touchdown in a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX. After picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round of the 1976 draft, Brown's days as the starting tight end seemed numbered, and after the 1977 season Noll approached Brown about a position switch rarely successful at the NFL level. Over the course of one off season, Brown became a 246-pound right tackle and he moved directly into the starting lineup at a time when the Steelers were switching from a run-based offense to one featuring Terry Bradshaw and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. In Super Bowls XIII and XIV, Bradshaw passed for 627 yards and six touchdowns in wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Rams, respectively, and Brown made sure neither Ed "Too Tall" Jones nor Jack Youngblood got a sniff of the quarterback. Larry Brown was a starter for four Super Bowl championship teams at two very different positions, and he was voted to only one Pro Bowl, and that one came at the end of the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Special thanks to Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest for contributing the underrated players. Follow Bob on Twitter@BobLabriola.