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Reported Steelers Dream Team fails to materialize at the trade deadline

The Steelers—rumored to be prime destinations for multiple star players—stayed put at the trade deadline

Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action against the Jacksonville Jaguars on October 28, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NFL trade deadline is up. Pragmatists rejoice, and gleefully bid it adieu. Dreamers…well, they mourn it, for Twitter was the easel, and the flurries of rumors, leaked secret intel, and gossip comprised the palette with which beat writers and access merchants painted vibrant mosaics of conjecture. The Steelers gallery was full of masterpieces: Jaylon Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Brian Burns, and, Patrick Surtain. Lo, what a collection to behold!

Alas, the Steelers did not make any blockbuster trades, which was not altogether unexpected considering that each of the aforementioned players would have been outrageous, if not outright prohibitively expensive to acquire, both in terms of remuneration and draft capital, and that the Steelers are likely somewhere in that weird third or fourth tier of teams that are talented enough to remain in the playoff hunt until late in the season but realistically outside the realm of legitimate championship contenders. Which, you know, is fine.

I would argue (and have argued) that trading for someone like Surtain constitutes shrew team-building even for a non-contender because he’s a high-pedigree player at a premium position, still very young, and under team control for multiple additional seasons—he represents a plausible best-case scenario for your own draft pick, so you might as well trade that pick to get the sure thing. But Denver hilariously forfeited a mountain of draft capital to acquire quarterback Russell Wilson (lol) and head coach Sean Payton (lolololol) and were almost certainly looking to recoup as many premium draft picks as possible in return for Surtain.

The NFL isn’t Madden, and real-life trades aren’t (necessarily) zero-sum games; it takes two to tango, and both sides are only interested in moving the needle if there’s something in it for them. A team that possesses a high-quality cornerback but is desperate to replenish its draft stock and a team that just so happens to need a high-quality cornerback but is historically steadfast in its preference to build through the draft are not compatible trade partners.

As someone who is naturally inclined to read too much into things, part of me did interpret the Steelers’ inaction at the deadline as an indirect admission of their straightforwardly apparent mediocrity. Super Bowl contention in 2023 isn’t realistic, so running it back with the current roster, seeing how the rest of the season goes, and setting their sights on the draft would appear to be the most prudent course of action.

But that’s also the part of me that writes things like that opening paragraph, so the other, more practical part of me imagined that the Steelers did their diligence in inquiring about Surtain, Burns, etc. but that those phone calls were largely perfunctory and ended the second Steelers GM Omar Khan heard the asking price. (Even though the Steelers were reportedly close to acquiring Johnson, I don’t buy that simply because I cannot imagine the Bears—Johnson’s employer—ever doing business with the Steelers again after getting fleeced in the Chase Claypool trade last season.)

Trading for a star player with the intent of signing them longer-term sounds good in theory, and players can certainly signal their own intent in doing likewise during preliminary negotiations, but the risk in trading for someone like Surtain (beyond the multiple picks exchanged for him translating into All-Pro caliber players) is that there is no real guarantee in him staying in the fold for longer than two years. Johnson, who was rumored to be available for a third- and fifth-round pick, is in the final year of his rookie contract.

Trading a third-round pick for a 24-year-old cornerback makes a lot of sense if you’re confident that he’ll sign a long-term contract with your team; it does not make sense in the absence of any such assurances for teams like the Steelers, who are in no position to exchange draft capital for rental players. The Eagles and Niners can afford to take swings like this; the Steelers cannot.

So, while I am bereft at the Steelers’ inactivity at the deadline, staying put was probably the right call.