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The Steelers missed their chance to get better at the trade deadline

With other contenders shipping away mid-round picks for immediate difference makers, one can’t help to think the Steelers missed a golden opportunity to goose their Super Bowl chances.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Here are a few notable NFL trades that happened before Tuesday’s deadline:

  • The Packers traded Ty Montgomery to the vile Baltimore Ravens for a seventh-round pick. Montgomery, who recently committed by far the year’s most hilarious blooper and is perhaps the only person on earth who Aaron Rodgers hates more than his own parents, is a decent enough offensive utility knife. He will help the Ravens.
  • The Lions traded Golden Tate to the despicable Philadelphia Eagles for a third-round pick. This season, Tate’s yardage and reception totals are similar to those of Antonio Brown. He’s amassed more than 180 receptions and 2,000 yards over the past two season. He will most certainly help the Eagles.
  • The Jaguars traded Dante Fowler, Jr. to the unbeatable Los Angeles Rams for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick. Fowler, a 24-year-old pass-rushing specialist, had eight sacks last season and is a capable run defender. Adding him to a defensive line that already features Ndamukong Suh and Aaron frickin’ Donald is not fair.
  • The Broncos traded Demaryius Thomas to the...unassuming Houston Texans for a fourth-round pick. Thomas has been slowed by age, injury, and gruesome quarterback play, but he’s a 9,000-yard receiver with 60 career touchdowns; pairing him with all-world receiver DeAndre Hopkins and inserting him into an offense that features the best quarterback he’s seen in five years makes him a prime candidate for a career revival.

Probably, none of the aforementioned transactions represent paradigm-shifting developments; the Rams were gonna win 14 or more games regardless of whether or not Dante Fowler played defensive end for them, ya know? But it isn’t a stretch to say that these deals have tipped the scales in the favor of the teams who are receiving the commodities that provide immediate value. Like, even if Ty Montgomery is buried on the depth chart beneath Alex Collins and Buck Allen, the 40 or 50 touches he may get this season are 40 or 50 more touches than some current D-II running back will have for the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. NFL front offices have unapologetically apotheosized mid-round draft capital, and teams privy to winning right now have reaped the rewards.

Except, of course, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are committed to winning right now unless winning right now challenges their steadfast insistence on adhering to the Steelers Way, or whatever. We previously broached this topic when All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson was ostensibly on the trading block—that was all just genuinely sanguine riffing. I don’t know if anyone anticipated—let alone expected—the Steelers to make a play for Peterson, even though doing so would have indisputably improved their secondary. It isn’t how they do things.

Now, this is the part where I’ll pause briefly to mention that NFL GMs tend to be shrewder than their virtualized Madden counterparts (with the notable exception of Jerry Jones, who is an oily old fool in every reality). It takes two to boogie, and no trades happen unless both parties are fully on board with the proceedings. It is very possible, then, that the Steelers did in fact contact the Arizona Cardinals to inquire about Peterson, but were quoted a price that was far beyond their budget and pulled the plug. It’s possible, too, the Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made calls elsewhere. Perhaps they offered a fourth-round pick for Tate but were outbid by the Eagles.

This is all obviously rooted in conjecture (please don’t sue me, Steelers), but I’m guessing what actually happened was that Colbert, Tomlin, et al. entered the deadline phase without a tangible plan and kinda just played the whole thing by ear. They almost certainly spoke with other teams, just as probably ever team does at the trade deadline, but unlike Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia (who, it should be noted, are all very much playoff contenders), they were not able to find a willing partner. As someone who would very much like to see the Steelers win the Super Bowl this season (and every season, but whatever; that’s neither here nor there for this exercise), this is frustrating! I am frustrated by this!

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, the Steelers could’ve traded, say, a third-round pick (or multiple mid-round picks) for a decent cornerback who’s currently on a garbage team, such as, I don’t know, Gareon Conley (or a veteran like Chris Harris or Janoris Jenkins; the actual player matters less than what the player represents, which is an upgrade over Artie Burns and/or Coty Sensabaugh). Conley’s had a rough go in Oakland, certainly, but he’s young and promising, and John Gruden would send his own son to the chilliest Serbian gulag in exchange for draft capital. I’m willing to bet Conley could’ve been had if the Steelers reallllllly wanted him. (Not to undermine my entire argument, but Conley was previously accused of rape—he was not charged—which is a scandalous and serious thing that could rightfully scare potential suitors away, so maybe that prevented the Steelers from making any moves). I’m of the opinion that trading a third-round pick (or multiple mid-round picks) for a 23-year-old former first-round pick who’s evolved into a serviceable professional would be worth the risk. If you don’t buy that rationale, here’s a brief list of some recent third- and fourth-round picks made by the Steelers:

-Cameron Sutton (3rd round, 2017)

-Jerald Hawkins (4th round, 2016)

-Sammie Coates (3rd round, 2015)

-Doran Grant (4th round, 2015)

-Dri Archer (3rd round, 2014—my GOD)

-Markus Wheaton (3rd round, 2013)

-Shamarko Thomas (4th round, 2013)

-Landry Jones (4th round, 2013)

(2013 was a bad year, yikes)

-Alameda Ta’aum (3rd round, 2012)

-Curtis Brown (3rd round, 2011)

-Cortez Allen (4th round, 2011)

Since 2011, in the first four rounds of the NFL draft, the Steelers have selected Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen. Taking this grim record of stunning ineptitude into consideration, if you’re a Steelers fan, do you have ANY FAITH WHATSOEVER in the team’s ability to find a cornerback that’s even a fraction as talented as Conley in the draft? Trade the pick, man.

For every mid-to-late round steal, there a dozens if not hundreds of worthless trash picks. Yes, there exists the possibility in any draft that your favorite team will draft the next Antonio Brown in the sixth round, but the likeliest scenario is that your team uses their sixth-round pick on a preseason body and cut him unceremoniously before the season. Pittsburgh’s 2017 class, which included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner was good then and it’s even better in retrospect, but classes of the caliber are shockingly infrequent.

Good players are pillars good teams, and many of the league’s best teams have cores that are largely homegrown, which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying that, duh, the draft is obviously very important and I’m certainly not advocating for flushing potentially valuable draft capital down the toilet. However, I am saying that, if you can ship away a mid-to-late round pick for an immediate difference-maker like Golden Tate, Dante Fowler, or Demaryius Thomas, you maybe ought to consider doing it, especially when you have a noticeable weak spot (for the Steelers, this is the cornerback and inside linebacker position) and are contending against conference foes (Kansas City and New England) who are built to torch teams with bad secondaries and shoddy linebacking corps.

The Steelers have rebounded nicely from a pretty horrific start and are currently leading the division. They look like the Steelers again, or at least some version of the Steelers that should be taken seriously as a title contender. I just think making a trade could’ve made them even better.