One thing that free agency has done in the modern era of the NFL is it’s fostered a belief in many circles that if a team signs a player who plays a specific position, that position is “set” and does not need to be addressed with a premium draft pick.
I don’t know why or when this belief first manifested itself—other than through talk radio, social media, blogs and podcasts, of course—but it’s certainly not foreign to NFL franchises and how they choose to address the draft following free agency.
In fact, back in the days when talk radio was a way bigger influencer of public opinion than any of those other aforementioned entities, the Steelers likely would have taken a much different path in the NFL Draft had their free-agent plans not made a last-second left turn to nowheresville.
I’m talking about the spring of 2003. Dexter Jackson, a free agent safety who had just won Super Bowl XXXVII MVP honors as a member of the Buccaneers weeks earlier, appeared to reach a verbal agreement on a deal with the Steelers. But much to the surprise and frustration of head coach Bill Cowher, general manager Kevin Colbert, and the rest of the Steelers brain trust, Jackson had a change of heart and, instead, signed a contract with the Cardinals.
In long-time Steelers writer Jim Wexell’s book, Polamalu, he chronicles how this threw the Steelers for a loop. You could certainly understand why at the time. After all, Jackson, a fourth-round pick by the Buccaneers in the 1999 NFL Draft, had established himself as a full-time starter in a great defense by his third season. At just 26 years old, Jackson appeared to be coming into his own as one of the top safeties in the league.
Bottom line, the Steelers had to go in a different direction—they had to come up with a Plan B, if you will—and decided to focus their attention on this freakishly athletic and super-intense safety from USC—Troy Polamalu.
By the time the draft rolled around, the Steelers were convinced that Polamalu could be a game-changer for their secondary and decided to trade up to the 16th spot (all the way up from 27) in order to ensure that they’d get their man.
Speaking of man...man, can you imagine how much different recent Steelers history would be if Jackson, who would go on to have a rather lackluster NFL career after only lasting one year in Arizona, hadn’t changed his mind at the last second?
The Steelers damn-sure wouldn’t have focused their attention on Polamalu, and they damn-sure wouldn’t have traded up to get him. Furthermore, Polamalu damn-sure would not have lasted until the 27th pick, and even if he had, would the Steelers have decided to focus their attention on other needs?
I’m guessing they would have focused their attention on other needs.
And that brings me back to today and the Steelers' flurry of Week 1 free-agent activity.
Signing Mitch Trubisky should not preclude the Steelers from drafting a quarterback in the first round if they feel one is worthy of such a selection. Myles Jack shouldn’t prevent Pittsburgh from seriously considering Utah’s Devin Lloyd if he’s still there at pick number 20.
Heck, even the additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels shouldn’t prevent the Steelers from taking a Tyler Lindenbaum if they really like him.
When all is said and done, NFL free agents—even the most desirable on the board—are usually players not deemed valuable enough to be franchise tagged by their previous employer.
Someone from the Steelers' recent crop of free-agent acquisitions will likely wind up having a career like Dexter Jackson.
Let’s just hope the Steelers don’t miss out on drafting a Troy Polamalu-like player because they think they’ve already filled an area of need.