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Labriola on revisiting the Minkah trade

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Two of the top three picks. Three of the top seven. Four of the top 10. Five were selected in the first round, and seven were among the top 108 picks.

• The 2018 NFL Draft was said to have one of the best groups of quarterbacks in a long time, with some of the breathless optimism going so far as to compare the group favorably to the one that entered the NFL together in 1983. For the memory impaired that group included six first-round picks, with John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino being the quarterbacks from 1983 who have busts in Canton, Ohio.

• Anyway, back to the class of 2018. The following is part of a story that appeared on ESPN.com on Jan. 18, 2018, some three months before the draft: “This year's quarterback draft class is the talk of the NFL town. It has been since last offseason. Seriously, at the Combine (in 2017), teams would moan about the quality of the quarterbacks in the draft and say, ‘But next year …’”

• When it got to the actual picking, the quarterbacks came off the board in the following order: Baker Mayfield, No. 1 overall, to Cleveland; Sam Darnold, No. 3 overall to the New York Jets; Josh Allen, No. 7 overall to the Buffalo Bills; and Josh Rosen, No. 10 overall, to the Arizona Cardinals.

• Any of those guys thrill you? Make you envious of the teams that picked them? Are you convinced any of them ever will be holding a Lombardi Trophy aloft with their fingerprints all over their team’s victory in that game?

• For a team to have had a guaranteed chance even to pick one of those quarterbacks, all of whom to this point in their respective professional careers have been underwhelming one way or another, it would have had to finish the previous season, 2017, with a 5-11 record or worse. And it’s 5-11 and not 6-10, because even though 6-10 teams had the No. 9 and No. 10 overall picks (San Francisco and Oakland), a third 6-10 finisher (Miami) was just out of the top 10 with the No. 11 overall pick.

• That has some relevance today, because the Steelers traded their No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick, and with Ben Roethlisberger out for the rest of the season after having had surgery on his right elbow, there is a faction contending the team should’ve kept the pick to be able to use it on a quarterback.

• But that opinion doesn’t align with how the Steelers see themselves today and in the immediate future. It should be remembered the team committed real money just months ago to bind Roethlisberger to the team through the 2021 season, and all throughout that process President Art Rooney II had said he thought his 37-year-old quarterback was playing some of his best football and had hopes that would continue for the next few years. Besides, with the first round of the NFL Draft to be conducted on Thursday, April 23, it’s highly unlikely the Steelers would know definitively by then that the surgery wasn’t going to fix the elbow to the degree where Rooney’s expectations couldn’t be met and therefore made it time to commit to moving on from Roethlisberger.

• And besides, Mason Rudolph has shown consistent improvement as he has progressed from a rookie season where he was inactive for every game to a second season when he won the backup job and then became the starter after Roethlisberger’s injury.

• By the way, when compared to all of those quarterbacks – Mayfield, Darnold, Allen, Rosen, and Lamar Jackson – picked in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, which is the same draft when the Steelers made Rudolph a third-round selection (76th overall), Rudolph came into this season with less experience than all of them, but today he has a higher passer rating than all of them.

• Which makes it even less likely the Steelers would’ve used next year’s No. 1 pick on a quarterback.

• So OK, if not a quarterback, then what about an outside pass rusher? Someone to replace Bud Dupree, who’s certainly going to leave for a big-money contract on the open market as an unrestricted free agent, right?

• I have to admit, that’s a line of thinking I find almost comical, because it’s usually offered by the same people who have been flying the “Bud Dupree Stinks” flag for at least a couple of years now and just months ago were ripping General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin for exercising the fifth-year option on Dupree’s rookie contract to keep him here for this 2019 season.

• But since the Steelers flip-flopped sides with Dupree and T.J. Watt, and when that combined with Dupree remaining mostly injury free through an entire season, it has become clear why the Steelers made him a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and on Sunday when the Colts visit Heinz Field he will be going for a sack in his fourth home game in a row.

• But the numbers simply don’t support the contention that a high No. 1 pick would be necessary to replace what Dupree has been contributing to the Steelers’ defense. In 2017 when the Steelers led the NFL with 56 sacks, Dupree had 5.5, and in 2018 when the Steelers tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks, Dupree had six. In the first seven games of 2019, Dupree has four sacks through seven games, which puts him on a pace for around nine over the course of a 16-game regular season.

• What happens with Dupree through the rest of 2019 is complete speculation at this point, but it’s clear he will be seen as more of an asset than the liability he had been labeled for the past few seasons.

• If Dupree leaves as an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers will need to find a replacement, but it should be understood that the replacement only has to be Robin because T.J. Watt is, and will continue to be, Batman among the outside linebackers. The presence of Devin Bush has given the unit and the defense as a whole another playmaker, and so in assessing the team needs heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, it’s certainly no lock that the biggest hole to fill would be an outside pass rusher.

• So OK, if not a quarterback and not an outside pass rusher, where would the 2020 Steelers have been looking when their turn came in the first round of that draft? Not an offensive lineman, certainly not with a top-10 pick, not a running back, not a wide receiver, no way a tight end.

• Which brings us to …

• A playmaking defensive back to give the secondary the kind of difference-maker the team added by trading up 10 spots in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to add Bush. In both 2017 and 2018, the Steelers defense either led the NFL in sacks or was close to leading the league in sacks, but neither of those units had what was necessary to support a team trying to contend for a championship.

• Why? Not enough takeaways.

• In 2017, the Steelers finished the season at plus-2 in turnover ratio, which was right around the middle of the pack, but in 2018 they finished minus-11 in turnover ratio, which was a significant factor in finishing out of the playoffs with a 9-6-1 record.

• As the Steelers continued to rebuild and strengthen their defense over the previous few seasons for the demands NFL offenses were placing on it, the additions of cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, the drafting of Watt and Bush at linebacker and the signing of Mark Barron all were positive steps. But what still was lacking, and glaringly so, at the start of 2019 was a ballhawk in the secondary. Someone who could make opposing quarterbacks pay the ultimate price for being too aggressive with the football down the field.

• In other words, the Steelers were looking for the kind of player they got from Miami, the kind of player they would’ve prioritized in the 2020 NFL Draft. They would’ve been looking for a Minkah Fitzpatrick.

• The best thing about getting their playmaking defensive back the way they did is the level of certainty they had with Fitzpatrick that they wouldn’t have had with a player they picked in 2020. With Fitzpatrick, there already was video of him playing in an NFL defense against NFL offensive personnel, which allowed for a more accurate evaluation than they would’ve been able to make with a college player just declaring for the draft.

• And the results are better and quicker than the team would’ve been able to expect from a rookie. In his first five games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick has three interceptions and a forced fumble that the Steelers recovered, which means he has had a hand in four takeaways in five games.

• From the business side, Fitzpatrick is under the Steelers’ control through the 2022 season assuming the team exercises the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, and speaking of his rookie contract acquiring Fitzpatrick instead of using a high pick on a playmaking defensive back saved the Steelers the $10 million signing bonus the Dolphins paid him as the 11th overall pick of the 2018 draft.

• It’s no coincidence the Steelers, since adding Bush via the draft and Fitzpatrick via a trade, are second in the NFL with 19 takeaways, with the two newcomers accounting for four of the team’s 10 interceptions, one of the seven forced fumbles, and four of the nine fumble recoveries. And if the defense continues to play as it has, the Steelers will win more than five-to-six games and disqualify themselves from being in the top 10 in the 2020 NFL Draft.

• Nobody is arguing that Bush wasn’t worth the draft capital the Steelers paid to add him to the team, and nobody should be arguing that Fitzpatrick wasn’t worth a No. 1 pick in 2020. If they are, they’re just wrong.

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