As a fan of a team that’s not participating on the biggest stage in sports, it can feel somewhat bittersweet to watch other organizations do just that. Unfortunately, for the last 12 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to confront that very reality.
This year’s Big Game — between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — pitted two of the collective best teams in the NFL against one another. In a season filled with underachievers and a postseason with an average score margin of 11.83 points, it’s somewhat refreshing that two deserving, superb 14-win squads squared off from State Farm Stadium in what should be a grand end to the 2022 year.
Of course, those aforementioned longing fans whose teams did not reach the Super Bowl are (often, yet again) asking themselves: what can my team do to get here? Those donning black and gold are no exception, especially in light of such a long title drought.
In some ways, Kansas City and Philadelphia could be viewed as outliers. KC possesses maybe the most talented quarterback ever in Patrick Mahomes, and possibly the best tight end of all time in Travis Kelce. Philly assembled the best roster in the entire league and became the first team ever with four players gaining 10+ sacks, per Stathead.
At the same time, there are legitimate takeaways to be had from the Chiefs’ and Eagles’ journeys to Super Bowl 57, especially in the last three seasons. If Pittsburgh wants to make its first Super Bowl appearance since Super Bowl 45, it should glean these three aspects of forming a title contender.
1. Even late draft picks matter
In the NFL, the onus is really placed on hitting on first-, second- and third-round picks — and for good reason. Those picks do hold the most value, and with such a litany of talented players available, wasting them only hinders roster development and team success.
At the same time, this year’s conference victors underscore maybe an even more important point: that even picks in Day Three hold significant weight.
Take the Chiefs’ 2022 draft class, for example. GM Brett Veach added Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis with his first two selections, and both players have panned out nicely to solidify KC’s retooled defense this year. However, the seventh round is where Veach really did his gold mining, adding CB Jaylen Watson and RB Isiah Pacheco.
As a rookie, Pacheco totaled 830 rushing yards, including 197 more in the playoffs. He’s become an integral part of the Chiefs’ offense, grinding out tough yards by forcing missed tackles — 90 of his 121 postseason yards prior to Super Bowl 57 came after contact, which ranked fourth in the NFL. Likewise, Watson has developed into a starting corner alongside L’Jarius Sneed and McDuffie, ranking 15th in coverage EPA among cornerbacks, per NFL Pro.
It’s not just this year that Veach has leveraged later selections to the Chiefs’ benefit, though. KC took starting RG Trey Smith in the sixth round in 2021 just a year before that.
Across the country, Eagles GM Howie Roseman has also made the most of where his cards lie. Roseman drafted LT Jordan Mailata in the seventh round in 2018, WR Quez Watkins in the sixth round in 2020, RB Kenneth Gainwell in the fifth round in 2021 and CB Avonte Maddox/DE Josh Sweat in the fourth round in 2018. All became valuable contributors to the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, even in more reserve roles, despite being associated with lower draft slots.
A look at the Steelers’ recent run of late-round picks is, well, far from similarly promising. Yes, Pittsburgh has already seen production from sixth-rounder Connor Heyward, but names like Chris Oladokun, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Antoine Brooks Jr., Ulysees Gilbert, Jaylen Samuels and Brian Allen emphasize that there have been a slew of misses from after Round Three.
Of course, no franchise will concretely nail every late selection, and the Chiefs and Eagles are no exception. However, both Super Bowl participants indicate that talent can be acquired in any round — something that Omar Khan and Andy Weidl should keep front of mind this April and beyond.
2. Be aggressive, even when you don’t think you “need” to
Around the NFL, there’s traditionally a balance that must be walked between yielding too many assets and destroying team chemistry vs. mortgaging for the future and taking shots. If you were to ask either Veach or Roseman about this concept, though, they’d lean much more heavily on the latter — and would verifiably be able to back it up.
In fact, Roseman may be the most aggressive general manager in the NFL, and it helped him field one of the most complete teams in recent memory. Here’s a look at what he did this past offseason alone:
- Traded for A.J. Brown in exchange for the No. 18 overall pick and No. 101 overall pick
- Moved up to Pick 13 to draft DT Jordan Davis for Pick 15, Pick 124, Pick 162, Pick 166
- Traded for CJ Gardner-Johnson for 2023 5th and 2024 6th
Brown, Gardner-Johnson and Davis became cornerstones for the Birds this season and likely will continue flourishing in the City of Brotherly Love for years to come. That doesn’t even account for Roseman grabbing veteran DTs Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh off the street for a combined $4M.
As you may have suspected, those are far from the only assertive transactions made by Roseman.
His most famous may have been drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round in 2020 despite Carson Wentz playing 16 games in 2019, throwing for 27 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and ranking 16th in EPA/play that year. Though the pick received tremendous scrutiny, Philly has had the last laugh, to say the least.
This past draft, Veach, too, traded up. The GM moved Picks 29, 94 and 121 in order to advance eight spots and nab McDuffie. The offseason prior, after making Super Bowl 55, he sent a 2021 first, third and fourth, plus 2022 fifth, in exchange for LT Orlando Brown Jr.
Both Roseman and Veach embody this ideal: the NFL is a league in which being complacent and embracing the status quo does not breed success. In a sport where organizations are continually striving for more acute insights and ways to improve their outlooks, teams have to be willing to gamble and trust the process.
For the Steelers, this does not have to mean following in Philly’s footsteps and drafting a quarterback to maximize chances. But, Khan should continually be working the phones and line up some big swings, which very well may turn into game-changing home runs.
3. Build through the offensive line
When the Bengals made the Super Bowl last season, it defied common knowledge: a team with a putrid offensive line won its conference and could have taken it all. Well, four sacks combined from Aaron Donald and Von Miller helped give credence to the importance of an OL. The good news? Both the Chiefs and Eagles reinforce that same sentiment.
Philly has possessed the best offensive line in pro football all season. Under the tutelage of Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles surrendered only 141 pressures this season entering Sunday, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. The combination of Mailata-Landon Dickerson-Jason Kelce-Isaac Seumalo-Lane Johnson played over 6,000 combined snaps and has surrendered only two sacks this entire postseason. Likewise, all hold PFF grades of at least 70, with Kelce, Johnson and Mailata above an 80.
Philadelphia drafted all of its primary five O-linemen, though a good mix of youth and experience has catapulted it to the top. Kelce and Johnson were picked in 2011 and 2013, respectively, while Seumalo was nabbed in 2016, Mailata in 2018 and Dickerson in 2021.
For Kansas City, the path to establishing a sound OL has been rather stark. With an offensive line of Mike Remmers-Nick Allegretti-Austin Reiter-Steven Wisniewski-Andrew Wylie in Super Bowl 55, Mahomes was pressured a ludicrous 30 times, which coincided with a 31-9 loss.
Veach knew he had to prioritize protection for his star gunslinger, and he did exactly that. The Chiefs inked elite guard Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal in 2021, completed the aforementioned trade for Brown and drafted both Humphrey and Smith. Just two years after a disaster on the grandest stage, the Chiefs had a 4.8% adjusted sack rate in 2022, good for fifth in the NFL. Yes, Brown had down moments this year, but he performed a bit better late and is still in line for a solid payday.
Whether through the Draft, free agency or trades, both Philadelphia and Kansas City have made the offensive line a priority — it’s no coincidence both have utilized such stellar units to achieve such astounding heights.
This offseason, Mike Tomlin, Khan and Weidl must really scrutinize the OL the team currently has. While the unit was better than expected, will it hold up in 2023 and beyond? How much can it be improved (the answer: pretty considerably). One way or another, it’s tough to make waves without being great in the trenches, especially on offense — something both the Eagles and Chiefs exhibit.