The Steelers win-now mentality will be tested in stacked AFC

Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin
Photo Credit: Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers are entering a new era of uncertainty, and the AFC will be harder to navigate than ever. How will they respond?

The Steelers haven’t felt the sting of a losing season since 2003. That doesn’t seem possible given the amount of parity the NFL experiences on a yearly basis. When you go from one Hall of Fame coach (Bill Cowher) to a potential one in Mike Tomlin, it should be no surprise.

Even with a broken-down version of Ben Roethlisberger and injuries to the vaunted defense, Pittsburgh still finished 9-7-1 and snuck into the postseason. They were no match for the mighty Kansas City Chiefs, but most teams aren’t. With Ben gone and GM Kevin Colbert entering his final draft, it should be time to focus on the future.

That isn’t what the Steelers do, however.

A team that rarely spends money in free agency spent over $70 million on outside free agents this off-season. Most of that was to fortify their offensive line, signing guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole. They addressed quarterback as well by signing Mitchell Trubisky to a two-year prove-it deal.

Those aren’t moves you make if you aren’t focused on being competitive in 2022. The Trubisky move could easily not work out, but I doubt he is worse than Ben last season. The defense, if healthy, has top-five potential. Najee Harris should have the chance to flourish with an improved offensive line. OC Matt Canada will have the freedom to truly show if he is the guy.

Under normal circumstances, I would be optimistic about the moves Pittsburgh has made. This off-season has been anything but normal, however.

The AFC goes nuclear as Steelers enter new era

First, it was Russell Wilson to the Broncos in the biggest trade in league history. Then, the Chargers went all in by securing the pieces on defense they desperately needed. Not wanting to be outdone, the Raiders traded for Packers star wide receiver Davantae Adams, reuniting with college teammate Derek Carr.

That was just what happened in the AFC West. The Dolphins secured major upgrades to their offensive line with deals for Connor Williams and Terron Armstead. They then followed it up with a massive trade for the Chiefs Tyreek Hill. The Bills signed Von Miller to a massive deal, then recently locked down Stefon Diggs for the future.

The Steelers were even outdone by the rest of their division, with the Browns becoming the team willing to gamble on quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Ravens brought in the to safety on the market in Marcus Williams. The Bengals signed much-needed help up front in guard Alex Cappa, center Ted Karras, and tackle La’el Collins.

There are even more moves I could talk about, but you get the picture. The AFC is shaping up to be an absolute gauntlet over the next few seasons. The Steelers are in real danger of falling far behind. Their win-now mentality is what has allowed them to always be in the mix, but even staying in the playoff hunt will be hard to ask of this team now. They seem to know that, which is why they are seemingly locked in on taking their quarterback of the future this year.

Should they be?

To QB, or not to QB

Everything the Steelers have done this draft process points to one goal: finding their next franchise quarterback. This quarterback class is widely considered to be mediocre, with very little consensus on who the top guy is. It seems like the Steelers are most interested in Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, but who their guy is doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether it’s the right time to be drafting a quarterback who you hope can be the next long-term starter.

Picking a QB in the first round is a big decision. So many teams have swung and missed at that position and set themselves back for years. The Steelers luckily haven’t had to make that decision in a very long time, and I believe they should continue that streak this year. They would be better off using this draft to fill out the roster and look towards 2023 to find their next franchise guy.

The best-case scenario for the Steelers this season is to remain competitive and use this year as a showcase for players like Mitch Trubisky, Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, and the offensive line as a whole. Find out who deserves to be here long term, give whatever rookies they draft some chances, and prepare to make a run at one of the top quarterbacks next draft.

The bottom line for the Steelers

I don’t see the Steelers sneaking into the playoffs like they did last year, but they have surprised me before. How they approach the draft will say a lot about how competitive they believe they can be. If they draft for need, it’s safe to assume they are hopeful for next season. If they take high-upside guys who may need some time to develop, it likely means they have an eye towards 2023 and beyond.

No matter what happens the rest of the off-season, Steelers fans should brace themselves. It’s hard to imagine, but they could be staring down their first losing season in nearly two decades. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if it happens it may be for the best.

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