Steelers trades: Moving up to grab a legend

Jared Wickerham

The Steelers moved from the 29th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft to the 16th in order to grab one of the best players in franchise history.

With the annual NFL Draft on the horizon, it brings to mind some maneuvering that paid huge dividends for all involved, while others just didn't pan out for any teams or the players who were traded.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers targeted Troy Polamalu during the 2003 NFL Draft, but in order to secure the talented Southern Cal safety's talents they had to trade up in the first round that year.

The Steelers held the No. 27 overall choice in the first round in 2003 and decided that moving up to No. 16 would accomplish that goal, so they traded their first-, third- and sixth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs basically for a shot at Polamalu. The Steelers were successful in getting Polamalu, while the Chiefs didn't do too badly, either. But none of their choices are potential future Pro Football Hall-of-Famers like Polamalu.

The Chiefs selected Penn State running back Larry Johnson with the No. 27 overall choice in the first round and Tennessee cornerback Julian Battle with pick No. 92 in the third round. Kansas City sent the sixth-round selection, spot No. 200, to the New York Jets in a subsequent deal. And the Jets took Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger with that pick. There were other picks as well involved in trades between the Jets and Chiefs.

When moving up in the NFL Draft, or down for that matter, it's even more of a guessing game than usual. In this case, the Steelers bargained that Polamalu still would be available at No. 16. And it played out that way with just two secondary players -- cornerbacks Terence Newman from Kansas State to the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 5 overall pick and Washington State's Marcus Trufant to the Seattle Seahawks at No. 11 -- being taken in the top 15.

Some other players taken ahead of Polamalu included quarterback Carson Palmer by the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 1, wideout Charles Rogers by the Detroit Lions at No. 2, wideout Andre Johnson to the Houston Texans at No. 3, quarterback Byron Leftwich to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 7, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 10 and Penn State defensive linemen Jimmy Kennedy to the St. Louis Rams at No. 12 and Michael Haynes to the Chicago Bears at No. 15.

As far as what the Chiefs got directly from moves with the Steelers, Johnson was a solid pick. He ran for more than 2,000 yards (8.0 yards per carry) as a senior with the Nittany Lions. He was a unanimous All-American and earned four national individual awards after the season. He was far less successful in the NFL, but Johnson was a two-time All-Pro (2005-06), the AFC rushing leader in 2005 and also set the league's single-season record for carries with 416.

Johnson spent six full seasons in Kansas City (2003-08) and half of 2009 before moving on to the Cincinnati Bengals. He spent 2010 in Washington and 2011 in Miami before his NFL career came to an end after several off-field incidents. His best years, clearly, were with the Chiefs. Johnson had 1,750 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns in 2005 with 33 catches and another score. In 2006, he tallied 1,789 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns with a league-record 416 carries. He also had 41 receptions and two scores.

Battle lasted just three nondescript seasons with 26 games and one start. He was a career backup and special teams performer, but nothing more.

Polamalu struggled as an NFL rookie in 2003, but he played in all 16 games on special teams. He became the Steelers' starting strong safety in 2004, however, and has remained there through this past season. After 11 stellar NFL seasons, Polamalu is in for an interesting 2014. He missed the majority of the 2009 and 2012 seasons, but played in all 16 games in 2008, 2011 and 2013 and 14 in 2010. However, Polamalu is scheduled to make $8.25 million this season with a cap hit at $10,887,500. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2015, so the Steelers must decide what to do with Polamalu.

They likely will restructure Polamalu and possibly add a year, depending if they believe he can remain healthy. Upgrading the free safety spot with a younger player, either second-year pro Shamarko Thomas or a free-agent signing -- possibly former Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas -- would help Polamalu.

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