We have witnessed a paradigm shift the past two years in the Steelers’ approach to draft picks, trades, and free agency. Will it carry over into the 2020 draft, and if so, what potential surprises lay in store for Steelers fans? This one is going to go off the rails quickly.
For decades the Pittsburgh Steelers were like the most well-known geyser in the world, Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. For the better part of my childhood, Old Faithful would erupt every hour on the hour, down to minutes and even seconds. Upon visiting our greatest National Park, my family and I would get ice cream from one of the many vendors around Old Faithful and watch the digital clock count down until the next eruption. It was fun, reliable, and beyond our ability to understand or comprehend. It simply was and nothing would change it.
Then, in my late teens and early twenties, something odd happened. Old Faithful stopped erupting with the predestined regularity that the entire world had witnessed for the decades and centuries prior. Sure, it was close. They still have the countdown clock and visitors still know the general time when an eruption will occur, but it is no longer every hour, on the hour, without fail.
My favorite football team has been much like Old Faithful for most of my adult life. During the NFL offseason, there were two things a person could count on. The first was that a somewhat desperate NFL franchise would “win” the offseason. Be it the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles and their “dream team,” or the Cleveland Browns last year, fans could count on someone overspending in free agency, making trades that disrupted their team’s chemistry, and at the end of it all the paper champion would end up falling apart when the actual season began.
The second thing fans could count on was that the Pittsburgh Steelers would stand pat. They would re-sign their own best players, hold onto their draft picks like the valuable currency they are, and produce a winner over 70% of the time, since 1990. It was a formula that worked and which was about as exciting as watching cattle eat grass for hours at a time.
But then, in the past three years, something odd has happened. Much like Old Faithful, the Steelers changed. At first, a person had to look hard to see the differences. Instead of signing Le’Veon Bell long term, the Steelers hit him with the Franchise Tag twice while opening up the coffers for eccentric wide receiver, Antonio Brown. Gone were the days of Santonio Holmes who rolled out of bed one morning, tweeted about a “wake and bake,” and found himself traded to the NY Jets for a 6th round pick. Brown’s issues are now well documented, but even before his recent downward spiral, there were signs that the issues would come. But the Steelers ignored them and paid him and let the best running back in the NFL walk after a season-long hold out on the tag.
After that, the team paid Steve Nelson more than any free agent in franchise history. Most fans dismissed the move. The Steelers, after all, seemed to always land a free agent or two who were not high on the sporting media’s list of sexy pickups.
So, what’s the big deal? I get it. Every team has to make tough decisions with their roster and not all of those decisions work out. Many teams make shrewd free agent pickups that pay off. But in April of 2019, the Steelers made known to the world that like Old Faithful, they were no longer fully predictable. When the Denver Broncos were announced to be “on the clock” for the 2019 NFL draft, Kevin Colbert and crew worked a trade for the ages, moving up 10 spots to select inside linebacker, Devin Bush, from Michigan. Not since the trade that landed the Steelers eventual Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu, had the black and gold made such a move.
Then, in game two of the regular season, disaster struck. Future HOF quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was injured and out for the year. Most Steeler fans saw this as an opportunity for the club to leverage their first-round pick on a signal-caller of the future. The Steelers, after all, never traded their highest draft pick. It had been decades since such a thing occurred.
Yet here we sit. The Steelers have Minkah Fitzpatrick instead of the 18th overall selection in this year’s NFL draft. I would wager that most fans are very pleased with the all-pro safety they landed.
But no honest Steeler fan can say they know for certain what the club is going to do with the limited draft capital they possess in 2020. Could they trade down? How about trading up? Will they make selections that are veritable head-scratchers?
What the heck, I say. How about we take a look at the wackiest things the now “unpredictable” Steelers might do come Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.