Ranking the Steelers' biggest NFL Draft gems of the past decade

The Steelers have had some surprising picks over the years, but here are the five biggest draft gems of the past decade.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

The final five years of the Kevin Colbert era did not go according to plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead of taking a 'best player available' approach in the NFL Draft, the former general manager opted to fill the biggest positions of need on the team.

This proved to be a bad team-budling philosophy. Just a small percentage of Colbert's draft picks still remain with the team. But even with his frequent misses early in the draft late in his tenure as GM, Colbert found some draft gems over the past decade.

These gems played a pivotal part on the team and proved to be among the best players on the roster. For these rankings, I considered factors such as draft position, value to the team, and production. Here are the five biggest draft gems of the past decade for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1. T.J. Watt: 1st-round pick, 2017

It's hard to call a first-round pick a gem. T.J. Watt was a highly-touted prospect entering the 2017 NFL Draft; not some late-round player that fans didn't know about. Still, Pittsburgh was selected 30th overall and six teams took edge defenders ahead of the Steelers. This allowed Watt to fall into their lap.

Myles Garrett was one of them, and this rivalry between Watt and Garrett isn't going away. But it's astonishing to think that players like Derek Barnett, Charles Harris, Takkarist McKinley, and Taco Charlton all went ahead of T.J. Watt. The Steelers star is going to have a bust in Canton, and he will go down as one of the best late first-round picks of all time for Pittsburgh.

2. Alex Highsmith: 3rd-round pick, 2020

Alex Highsmith seemingly came out of nowhere during the pre-draft process in 2020. The former college walk-on worked his way up the ladder to become an incredibly productive player at Charlotte. Still, this was a non-Power Five school, and the Steelers took a gamble on him in the third round -- knowing that the jump in competition would be enormous.

It didn't seem to matter, Highsmith caught on quickly and proved to be a better player for the Steelers than Bud Dupree (who was the former first-round pick he ultimately took over for). Highsmith has been one of the best third-round picks in the NFL over the past decade -- regardless of position.

3. Javon Hargrave, 3rd-round pick, 2016

Had the Steelers known that Stephon Tuitt was going to hang up his cleats early, they likely would have given Hargrave the massive contract extension instead. He could have been the defensive lineman next to Cameron Heyward all of these years.

Regardless, Hargrave was still an outstanding find for the Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft. He gave Pittsburgh four excellent seasons before earning Pro Bowl honors with both the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

4. Diontae Johnson: 3rd-round pick, 2019

Diontae Johnson didn't have the best reputation in Pittsburgh. His career was up and down, and he was criticized for things like drops, running backward after the catch at times, and a lack of effort as a blocker.

All that being said, Johnson was consistently one of the best route runners and separators in the NFL. He could create space with ease, which makes him a quarterback's best friend.

Diontae racked up 391 receptions for 4,363 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns over five years in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Panthers during the 2024 offseason. Johnson earned Pro Bowl honors in 2021 when he recorded 101 receptions, 1,161 yards, and 8 touchdowns in 16 games.

5. James Conner: 3rd-round pick, 2017

James Conner will always be a fan favorite by those in Pittsburgh. After beating cancer, the former Pitt star stayed close to home when the Steelers drafted him with their compensatory third-round pick in 2017.

Conner earned Pro Bowl honors in his second season in Pittsburgh when he notched 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in just 13 games. After his rookie contract, Conner waved goodbye to The Steel City, and he earned his second Pro Bowl in 2021 with the Arizona Cardinals. Conner never played a full season in his first seven years, but he has had an excellent NFL career, and this draft gem played a big role on the Steelers for four seasons.