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The Steelers were never going to trade for Sam Darnold with Ben Roethlisberger on the roster

The Steelers may one day acquire a former high draft pick to be their next quarterback. But it’s not going to be this year or any year in which Ben Roethlisberger is still on the roster.

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

For the second-straight offseason, the Steelers sat idly by and watched an available quarterback with a tremendous pedigree go to another team—and for a bargain of a price.

Almost a full calendar year after former number-one pick Jameis Winston signed a cheap “prove it” one-year contract to be the Saints backup, it was announced on Monday that the Panthers acquired Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, from the Jets in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and second and fourth-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That didn’t seem like a lot of draft capital to give up for a Panthers team that was still searching for its next franchise quarterback after Teddy Bridgewater’s underwhelming one-year audition to replace Cam Newton in that role.

So why couldn’t the Steelers make a similar move to acquire Darnold?

On the surface, that might have seemed like a low-risk transaction, but the Steelers’ situation is a bit different than Carolina’s.

For starters, Pittsburgh still has its franchise quarterback for 2021, after working out a reasonable one-year deal with veteran Ben Roethlisberger.

The Panthers have reportedly granted Bridgewater permission to seek a trade. If a suitable deal isn’t worked out between Carolina and another team, Bridgewater will likely be released or asked to take a sizable pay-cut and be the backup just one year after signing a rather-lucrative contract.

Also, as per various reports, the Panthers have decided to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, which guarantees the young quarterback nearly $19 million in 2022.

This all makes sense. The Panthers are giving Darnold two more years to reach his full potential as an NFL quarterback. Darnold has been a starter in the NFL since his rookie season. While the results haven’t been what you’d want from the third-overall pick in the draft, it would make no sense to suddenly park Darnold on the bench for his fourth season and have him miss a year of development.

And this is why Darnold to Pittsburgh became a moot point the moment the Steelers and Roethlisberger worked things out for 2021.

Darnold is owed $4.7 million in 2021, which wouldn’t have been a horrible financial pill for even the cap-compromised Steelers to swallow if it meant they got Roethlisberger’s heir apparent. But what about nearly $19 million in 2022? Had the Steelers traded for Darnold, they likely would have picked up his fifth-year option, even if he rode the bench behind Roethlisberger in 2021. After all, it seems inconceivable to pay a young quarterback nearly $5 million to sit on the bench if you don’t have bigger plans for him the next season.

So, yes, hypothetically speaking, the Steelers likely would have picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option. And that could have been a risky move. Think about, Darnold would have headed into 2022 with three lukewarm years and a totally cold one under his belt before taking over as Pittsburgh’s starter.

$19 million may be well-below the going rate for franchise quarterbacks, these days, but it sure does seem like a lot to pay one who is largely unproven.

Speaking of the going rate for modern franchise quarterbacks, let’s say, under my hypothetical scenario, Darnold has a decent showing in 2022—say, 24 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. If you’re the Steelers, would you franchise tag Darnold for 2023? Would you fully commit to giving him a new contract?

I’m guessing either transaction would include a $30 million base salary, which may be a bridge too far for a Steelers team that has committed a ton of financial resources to the quarterback position over the past decade-plus.

No, it wouldn’t be a lot if Darnold was the real deal, but would anyone know for sure by 2023?

That would be the dilemma.

Yes, it’s also a risk for the Panthers to commit to Darnold past 2021, but at least they’ll have two years of hard data to make a decision on him when the time comes and not just one.

Finally, one of these years, the Steelers may trade for or sign a former high draft pick to be their next quarterback.

But it’s never going to be a year when Ben Roethlisberger is still on the roster.