The NFL Draft is about maximizing value as well as landing prospects that can develop into solid starters.
There was a time the Steelers could afford to let their good starters walk in free agency because they had capable back-ups on considerably smaller contracts who could fill the void of the departing starter.
Those days are largely gone due to a variety of reasons (misses in the draft, higher-than-expected free agent offers to players they needed to keep, and so on). The cupboard needs to be re-stocked, and it's not out of the question they're still capable of doing that.
It just requires making a few tough decisions. One of those decisions is the future of center Maurkice Pouncey.
There would be little preventing the Steelers from fetching a decent draft pick this year for Pouncey's services, even if he's coming off a significant knee injury. Pouncey's been riddled with injuries throughout his four-year stint with the Steelers, and he's racked up All-Pro and Pro Bowl team selections. His value is still low, but with the recent signing of rival center Alex Mack to a 5-year, $42 million deal, the Steelers have to view themselves right at as being at a crossroads with their star center.
First, they have little reason to think Pouncey is not going to open the bidding at Mack's deal, perhaps slightly higher. His accolades will carry with them a top-of-the-market price, and there's little the team will be able to use against that argument.
Second, the team is in a better, but not great, salary cap position for 2015 - and that's before any kind of contract extension for Ben Roethlisberger. Fellow offensive line stud, David DeCastro, will eventually command a large salary, and without a current tackle signed beyond the 2015 season (Marcus Gilbert is in the final year of his rookie deal and Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams are free agents after 2015), they may simply have to choose their future based on their current depth.
Third, the Steelers have a player signed now for the next three seasons on a low-dollar deal, Cody Wallace, who played very well in three starts last season.
Fourth, and this is probably the most important component, there's obviously a market for a high-end center. The Jacksonville Jaguars offered Mack the contract he signed; since he was under Cleveland's transition tag, they had the right to match it, which they did almost immediately.
It's easy to make the argument Pouncey would be closer to home in Jacksonville. He's from Lakeland, Fla., which is in the Tampa area, about three hours from Jacksonville. But the Jaguars would get the center they're looking for (as evidenced by the offer to Mack), and the Steelers could get a high draft pick in return.
They have the 39th overall pick, and 11 total picks, including seven in the top 150. While the 39th overall pick would be ideal for the Steelers, Pouncey, coming off injury with one year left on his contract, probably wouldn't fetch that. But No. 70 overall would entice the Steelers, giving them 10 picks in this draft with four of them coming in the top 97 picks (15, 46, 70 and 97).
The Jaguars get Baltimore's fourth and fifth round picks in this draft for Eugene Monroe, as well as Detroit's fifth round pick for WR Mike Sims-Walker, and San Francisco's sixth round pick for QB Blaine Gabbert.
A third round pick is a reasonable price, considering they still get Pouncey for a year on a cheap contract, giving them the opportunity to assess his future within their offense. They could argue his value goes down, considering they don't have a guarantee on his future (except to use the transition tag, making it something like a 2-year deal worth $11 million). Nothing would prevent the Steelers from doing the same, but tacking on around $10 million to the cap next year will be tough, and they wouldn't receive a compensatory pick until 2016.
The deal Alex Mack signed opens new doors for the talented centers that are dotted around the league. Pouncey figures to be next on that list, and if the Steelers see a pending contract battle, or already know they aren't interested in giving Pouncey a deal rivaling Mack's, they should explore trading him now, while he's still cheap and while they have a capable back-up ready to fill in to a reasonable and comparable degree.