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Kevin Gorman: Steelers’ best move is one they didn’t make

November 23, 2018

Just hours before the NFL trade deadline, Mike Tomlin was asked about whether he expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to make any moves.

“I haven’t thought a lot about it, to be honest with you,” Tomlin said, stern and stiff-lipped. “I’m sure the phone will ring. We’ll see what happens. But more than anything, I’ve just been focused on Baltimore.”

Over the next three hours, a handful of deals were completed around the league: The Texans traded for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Eagles for wide receiver Golden Tate, the Rams for defensive end Dante Fowler, the Redskins for safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and even the Ravens for running back Ty Montgomery.

The Steelers stood pat.

Like it or not, that’s business as usual for the Steelers in October. Their wheeling and dealing has been done around the NFL Draft and before the start of the season, not at the trade deadline.

The best move is the one they didn’t make.

Le’Veon Bell didn’t sign his franchise tag tender, so the Steelers couldn’t trade the All-Pro running back who has boycotted the offseason and the first seven games. Perhaps this was his plan all along, to wait until after the trade deadline to report so he couldn’t be dealt.

Like him or not, Bell is better than any player who was traded Tuesday and would provide the Steelers the best boost if he ever decides to show up and play. He has until Nov. 14 to report, but it’s a crapshoot to say if and when he will arrive at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Bell just doesn’t play cornerback, the position of need.

The Steelers were smart not to press the panic button, refusing to overreact to the concerns at the corner opposite Joe Haden. Perhaps that will come back to bite them if Artie Burns keeps showing up late to the Saturday walk-through, if Coty Sensabaugh’s toe injury is worse than anticipated and if Cameron Sutton can’t cut it as a cover corner.

Telling from Tomlin was how he answered a question about why the Steelers put a premium on protecting draft picks, instead of playing fantasy football and using them to acquire players with pedigree.

“We believe in homegrown talent,” Tomlin said. “We invest time and resources into the development of players. Players buy into what we’re selling and work their tails off to improve and be reasons why we’re successful. I think it’s difficult to walk away from relationships when people are invested. We’re invested. The players are invested.”

The Steelers saw an investment pay off when they sent Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a fifth-rounder they traded to the Cardinals for Bryant McFadden and a sixth-rounder, which ultimately produced Antonio Brown in the 2010 draft.

On that one, they hit the jackpot.

The Steelers also have treated a draft pick like a ping-pong ball in the lottery, only to come up empty. They traded their 2018 sixth-round pick to Cleveland for cornerback Justin Gilbert two years ago and reacquired it when they sent receiver Sammie Coates to the Browns last fall, only to deal it to Tampa Bay for safety J.J. Wilcox.

Draft picks can be developed. Players who are traded often come with baggage and can become a problem. Rarely are they the solution, especially with midseason moves.

The asking prices on the trade market were high for players with contracts with control, especially after the Oakland Raiders got a first-round pick from the Dallas Cowboys in return for receiver Amari Cooper, or deals that involved impending free agents.

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson demanded a trade but backed off. That left either a high-priced veteran such as the New York Giants’ Janoris Jenkins, who is due $11.25 million each of the next two seasons, or affordable young corners such as the Raiders’ Gareon Conley and Denver Broncos’ Bradley Roby who would have required the Steelers to part with high draft picks.

Maybe it would have been worth the gamble, but there’s something to be said for developing a championship culture from within instead of always looking to outside organizations for the quick fix.

The Steelers invested a first-round pick in Burns and a third-rounder in Sutton. It’s too early in their careers to give up on them, despite Super Bowl-or-bust standards and expectations.

So Tomlin focused on the Ravens. Baltimore has long boasted one of the NFL’s best defenses, even as it transitioned from the leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to that of C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle.

That continuity is good, Tomlin said, provided it’s positive.

“When it’s not, you’ve got to make changes, obviously,” Tomlin said. “So I don’t think a lot about continuity. I think a lot about being competent and competitive and good. Continuity is just kind of borne out of those things if you’re just continuously focused on those things.”

The Steelers focused on the future instead of the ringing phone.

Whether that was the smart play will depend on whether Bell shows up, Burns bounces back and they win the Super Bowl. It’s all a crapshoot, but the Steelers bet on their own championship culture instead of finding a quick fix from a team outside the playoff picture.

We’ll see what happens with that investment.

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