Let’s wind the clock back to 2018.
The Steelers had a solid team, led by the offensive firepower of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster were both enjoying career years, while the defense was led by the talent of T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Joe Haden.
It was a playoff-caliber roster, with playmakers at nearly every position.
However, there was a gaping hole at inside linebacker.
It looked as if the Steelers had planned on drafting one before the season even started, but they watched from the 28th overall slot as Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander-Esch, and Rashaan Evans, the top prospects at the position, were all taken ahead of their selection. Instead, the team went with safety Terrell Edmunds, Tremaine’s older brother, as their first round pick. The middle of their defense went unaddressed that draft.
Pittsburgh entered the 2018 season with veterans Vince Williams and Jon Bostic as their starters at the middle linebacker spot. Even though both were more than capable at stopping the run, their lack of sideline-to-sideline ability and pass coverage skills showed throughout the course of the year.
The Steelers clearly hadn’t done enough to address their inside linebacker problem, and their lack of athleticism at the position was an Achilles heel for the defense all year. The front office’s failure to address the position was one of the main reasons the team missed the playoffs that year.
Entering the 2019 draft, the Steelers’ main priority was to do what they could not the year prior: Draft an inside linebacker.
There was one problem, though. The Steelers were picking at the 20th overall selection, but the only linebackers worth a first round pick, Devin White and Devin Bush, would definitely be gone before Pittsburgh was on the clock.
White was taken in the top 5, and with 15 more picks to go, the Steelers recognized they would have to do something if they wanted Devin Bush. With the Broncos on the clock for the 10th overall pick, the Steelers traded up and selected the new centerpiece for their defense. It wasn't cheap, however. The Steelers had to trade their 2019 first round pick (20th overall), their 2019 second rounder (52nd overall), their 2020 third rounder (it would turn out to be 83rd overall) - all for the Bronco’s 2019 first round pick (10th overall).
That tenth overall pick turned out to be Devin Bush, of course. For the Broncos, their new first round pick from the Steelers turned into tight end Noah Fant. Denver continued wheeling and dealing after the Bush trade, sending their new second round pick to Cincinnati along with their fourth and sixth round picks that year to trade up in the second round and select quarterback Drew Lock. With their new third round pick in the following year, Denver selected LSU interior offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry III.
To recap, the Steelers came out of the trade with Devin Bush, while the Broncos ended up with Fant, most of the draft capital they used to draft Lock, and Cushenberry.
I’ve written before on which team ‘won’ this trade, as the Steelers got exactly what they needed in a game-changing middle linebacker. The Broncos ended up with three starters, one of which has the makings of a future franchise quarterback. It looks as if Denver got the most value, but the Steelers’ need for Bush that year cannot be understated. If they had ended up with Denver’s draft haul instead they would have been much worse off.
It can be argued that Denver won the trade, but Pittsburgh certainly didn't lose it.
Both teams made high-risk trades that they needed to make for the future success of their franchises, and got exactly what they wanted. However, with the players in question still incredibly young, their careers are very far from being decided. Bush is really the only one out of the four to have clearly established himself as an above-average starter in the league.
With their careers so closely linked, and a lot more of their stories to be written, all four players will be taking the field on Sunday when the Denver Broncos come to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. It’s rare to get such a side-by-side comparison of a trade in the NFL, but there's a high chance all four players will be on the field at the same time in the upcoming game. Lock, Fant, and Cushenberry will be leading Denver’s young offense, while Devin Bush will be manning the middle of Pittsburgh’s feisty defense.
There's a good chance that the play of the Bush, Fant, Lock, and Cushenberry will all be large factors in the outcome of Sunday’s game. The matchup of Bush and Fant, both athletic playmakers, could be visited often as both young players have taken up large roles with their respective teams.
The outcome of Sunday’s game won’t be a definitive verdict on whether Denver or Pittsburgh came out on top in their trade, but fans will get a front row seat in watching one of 2019’s biggest roster moves play out on the field on Sunday.
Make sure to stay tuned to BTSC for more news and analysis leading up to Week 2’s matchup with the Denver Broncos.