State Your Case: Dick Haley

Presided over the greatest draft in NFL history

(Published March 2019)

I’ve always believed that, in a salary-cap world, the most important guy in an NFL building is the guy who finds the players.

The financial restrictions imposed by the salary cap don’t allow teams to keep all of their players so there is annual roster turnover. The best teams get hit the hardest because their players want to be rewarded financially for that team success … but there are only so many dollars to go around.

So you need a steady stream of young talent to fill in the blanks on your depth chart. That’s why the draft is so important. That’s seven chances every year to improve your football team. That’s where your talent evaluators come in. They need to be difference makers for a franchise.

The establishment of a contributor candidate by the Pro Football Hall of Fame has opened the door for the men who build those championship teams. Former NFL general managers Bobby Beathard, Bill Polian and Ron Wolf now have busts in Canton as does former personnel director Gil Brandt.

It’s time the Hall of Fame selection committee addresses another difference-maker in personnel — Dick Haley, whose drafts set the stage for the Pittsburgh Steelers winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He presided over arguably the greatest draft in NFL history in 1974.

The Steelers used the 21st overall pick of the draft in the first round on wide receiver Lynn Swann of Southern Cal. He became a Hall of Fame. They used their second-round pick on linebacker Jack Lambert of Kent State. Another Hall of Famer. The Steelers didn’t have a third-round pick, then took wide receiver John Stallworth of Alabama A&M in the fourth round. Another Hall of Famer. They took center Mike Webster of Wisconsin in the fifth round. Another Hall of Famer. Four picks, four home runs.

In Haley’s first draft in 1971, the Steelers added seven players who would start in the team’s first Super Bowl in 1974 – wide receiver Frank Lewis (first round), linebacker Jack Ham (second), guard Gerry Mullins (fourth), defensive tackle Dwight White (fourth), tight end Larry Brown (fifth), defensive tackle Ernie Holmes (eighth) and safety Mike Wagner (11th). The Steelers added yet another Super Bowl starter, safety Glen Edwards, as an undrafted college free agent that year.

Ham also has a bust in Canton and White, Brown, Wagner and Edwards went on to become Pro Bowlers. Haley drafted a sixth Hall of Famer with his first-round pick in 1972, fullback Franco Harris, and drafted two more Hall of Famers with first-round picks in the 1980s, cornerback Rod Woodson in 1987 and center Dermontti Dawson in 1988.

In his 20 years running Pittsburgh’s drafts, Haley selected eight Hall of Famers and 23 players who would become Pro Bowlers for the Steelers. He drafted three more players who would become Pro Bowlers for other teams – tight end Brent Jones, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and safety Thomas Everett. Nickerson also became one of the nine all-decade players drafted by Haley.

Haley moved on to the New York Jets in 1991 and built a team for Bill Parcells that allowed the Jets to reach the AFC championship game for the first time in 16 years in 1998. During his 12 seasons calling the shots in the New York war room, Haley drafted an NFL passing champion (Chad Pennington) and nine more Pro Bowl players. One of those nine, edge rusher John Abraham, is a member of the 100-sack club and will be a Hall of Fame candidate for the first time in 2020.

Haley also played in the NFL. A ninth-round draft pick, Haley spent six seasons as a starting cornerback with the Redskins, Vikings and Steelers, intercepting 14 passes. Six of them came in 1963 for the Steelers. He broke into scouting as a personnel analyst with the expansion Miami Dolphins before getting his break with his hometown Steelers.

Over the next 32 seasons Haley’s teams would qualify for the playoffs 16 times, reach eight conference championship games and win those four Lombardi Trophies. He drafted those eight Hall of Famers and 35 Pro Bowlers and his teams won 54.1 percent of their games.

Had it not been for Haley’s prowess in April, Chuck Noll may not have enjoyed the success he had in January. Noll now has a bust in Canton and the Steelers have those four Lombardis in the trophy case. It’s time for the Hall of Fame selection committee to visit the candidacy of Dick Haley and shine a light on one of the NFL’s best drafters.

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