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Why the Steelers hold firm to draft-and-develop strategy despite NFL trends

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PITTSBURGH -- Boarding a Super Bowl parade float in Los Angeles earlier this year, Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead wore a T-shirt displaying an image of his face with his organization's unofficial motto of the 2022 season superimposed over it.

“F--- them picks.”

It’s the same phrase former Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill invoked during his first availability in Miami after the Dolphins gave up five draft picks -- including a 2022 first-rounder -- to secure the speedster’s services.

Since the start of 2018, there have been 17 trades that have included at least one first-round pick to acquire a veteran. This offseason alone, there have been four trades in which a team used a first-round pick to nab a veteran: Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Deshaun Watson and Hill. In total, there were seven first-round picks traded for veteran players in March, the most in any single month since the common draft era began in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

But as teams around the league mirror Snead’s future-mortgaging moves in a bid to win now, the Pittsburgh Steelers are holding firm to the draft-first principle that has guided the organization since its inception.

“I think we have a definitive business model that we adhere to,” coach Mike Tomlin said from the NFL owners meetings last month. “We don’t care what the Joneses are doing.”

That philosophy was a driving force behind the Steelers’ aggressive pursuit of free-agent quarterback Mitch Trubisky, with whom they agreed to terms just an hour into the NFL’s early negotiating window.

Not only does Trubisky’s skill set mesh with offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s concepts but he also didn’t cost the Steelers any draft picks -- something Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert brought up in three separate interviews throughout the owners meetings. It’s why Trubisky was a more attractive option than Watson, Wilson or Jimmy Garoppolo. Adding Trubisky, a free agent whose deal cost just $14.25 million over two years, gives Pittsburgh the flexibility to add another quarterback or address other positions of need such as safety, offensive line and defensive line with its seven picks in the NFL draft (Round 1 is April 28 on ESPN, ABC and ESPN App).

“When we went into it, we were trying to hold our draft capital,” Colbert said of the team’s free-agency approach. “We really didn't want to get into the trade-type areas because we felt there's other players we need those picks to secure. So, if we could get into it and get a good young quarterback, a successful quarterback like Mitch Trubisky, it made sense for us to do it when we did it.”

The Steelers have always been a draft-and-develop organization, taking pride in homegrown products such as quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw. And now, while the rest of the league -- and specifically the AFC -- engages in an arms race at the expense of draft picks in all-out efforts to win now, the Steelers are content to stick to their principles.

“I don't think they'll ever shut off a chance or disregard a chance to put themselves in that position to compete for championships,” said Doug Whaley, a Pittsburgh native who spent 11 years as Pittsburgh’s pro scouting coordinator before an eventual stint as the Buffalo Bills’ general manager. “But they also have that balancing act of not acquiescing to moves that may be popular or ones that you think may be a quick fix for right now and sacrifice something in the long term. Because they want stability, not only, which they have, off the field but on the field. One of the ways to do that is through the draft.”

Since 1967, the Steelers have traded their first-round pick just six times, second-fewest behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have been in the league only about half of that time (since 1995).

The Steelers’ philosophy traces back to the 1970s, when they built the backbone of their dynasty on drafted players. In 1974, the organization drafted four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds: wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster. In that same decade, Pittsburgh drafted Bradshaw and defensive back Mel Blount, along with linebacker Jack Ham and running back Franco Harris. The team also selected defensive tackle Joe Greene in the first round of the 1969 draft. With that homegrown foundation, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons.

“It comes back from what started their run as a successful team that consistently competes for championships,” Whaley said. “... And it starts with the Rooneys. The Rooneys aren't a family that bought into football. They live football. That is their business. ... They've grown up in football. So they've seen the passing fads, which this may be, but they know that they've seen the ones that truly consistently compete and put themselves in the conversation are the ones that draft and develop. And they've just had so much success there. If it's not broke, don't try to fix it.”

Since Colbert took over as general manager in 2000, the Steelers have had nine first-round picks selected to multiple Pro Bowls, tied with the Chiefs for the most in the NFL.

Pittsburgh’s ability to select impactful first-rounders is also evident in the volume of second contracts given to those picks. From 2000 to 2017, the organization has given second contracts to 11 of its 18 first-round picks for a hit rate of 61% -- fifth-highest in the NFL over the span after the Panthers, Texans, Cowboys and Eagles, according to ESPN Stats & Info data. The average hit rate, defined by first-round picks signing a second contract with their draft team, across the league in that span is just 43%.

But the Steelers also haven’t played in a Super Bowl in over a decade, and they haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, making their refusal to adapt to the league’s aggressive all-in trend either admirable or ... ill-advised.

“We’re open to learning and growing, don’t misunderstand me there, but in terms of how we acquire talent, our approach to acquiring talent, we have a definitive model,” Tomlin said. “We build our team primarily through the draft, and we supplement in free agency. And that’s just a philosophical approach that we believe in. We want to be a part of their growth and development as young people, not only as players. So you draft them.”

Pittsburgh is showing some signs of modernizing its tactics. Though the Steelers ultimately didn’t execute any blockbuster trades in the first wave of the 2022 offseason, they spent more than $80 million on outside free agents. They also traded away a first-round pick to nab safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins in 2019, and they traded up to select linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 draft. The Fitzpatrick trade was the first time in the common draft era Pittsburgh traded a first-round pick to acquire a veteran.

“It’s the foundation of what they do, but that doesn't mean they're gonna bite their nose off to spite their face,” Whaley said. “They’re always gonna take it on a case-by-case basis, but they're not gonna make a tectonic shift to say, ‘OK now we're gonna trade three first-rounders and three second-rounders away for this one person. Now, if you're giving up one first-rounder to move up and get a guy [in the draft], yeah.”

The organization has an opportunity to pursue a different direction when a new general manager takes over for Colbert in the months after the draft, but with Art Rooney II still installed as the team’s president and Tomlin as the head coach, the Steelers’ core tenets likely won’t change.