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Seventeen months on, who is winning the Steelers-Broncos draft trade?

Andrew Mason Avatar
September 18, 2020

Deciding who “won” the the 2019 draft-night trade between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers is a fool’s errand, at least right now.

It was a trade made by two teams at different points in their development. The Broncos had myriad needs after finishing the previous two seasons with an 11-21 record. Trading back 10 selections for volume — especially when acquiring the No. 52 overall pick and a third-rounder the next year represented a premium on multiple draft-value charts — was a wise play.

The Steelers had the luxury of making such a deal. You can do that when you have a franchise quarterback, even an aging one like Ben Roethlisberger, who was headed into his 16th pro season at the time.

They wanted Devin Bush. The Broncos had interest in him, too. But the Steelers offered Denver an opportunity to reshape its roster with three picks in the range from which you expect to find starters.

Bush has not disappointed, showing every sign of becoming a dominant and versatile inside linebacker with coverage ability, thump against the run and sideline-to-sideline range. He would have fit well in Vic Fangio’s defense.

But as John Elway said after that first round concluded, “It was too much value to not take.”

Seventeen months later, the Broncos have three starters from the deal, with a subsequent trade with the Bengals allowing the Broncos to turn the No. 52 pick into the 42nd selection that became Drew Lock.

Had the trade been made two years earlier, the Broncos wouldn’t have been in the same position to maximize their haul. But a change in draft emphasis to focus on leadership and character in 2018 has changed the entire complexion of the Broncos’ roster.

Consider this: From 2014 through 2017, the Broncos used three Day 2 picks on pass-catching targets: Cody Latimer, Jeff Heuerman and Carlos Henderson. They spent 10 combined seasons with the Broncos and accumulated 1,123 regular-season receiving yards among them.

Courtland Sutton, a Day 2 pick in 2018, surpassed that total on his own in his first 22 games.

So it should come as no surprise that the Broncos appear to have nailed the first pick they got from the Steelers: tight end Noah Fant. According to pro-football-reference.com, Fant is the first tight end in nearly a quarter-century to have at least 40 receptions, 600 yards, an average of at least 14.0 yards per catch and four or more touchdowns in his first 17 games. That makes Fant the 13th member of a club that includes four Hall of Famers: Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow Sr.

Bush could draw Fant in coverage Sunday at Heinz Field, but the one-game result of the head-to-head matchup shouldn’t dim the fact that both teams appear to have keepers at positions with skill sets that are harder to find.

But the most difficult skill set to find is that of the quarterback, and even with 2020 third-round pick Lloyd Cushenberry III already starting and earning praise at center, Lock is the focal point of the deal for the Broncos.

Lock’s performance will be the primary factor in determining who got the better of the trade, even though the Broncos could not forecast whether he would still be available in the middle of the second round.

But like Fant, he already has some positive indicators on which to build. He is just the 10th quarterback in NFL history to complete at least 63 percent of his passes, throw for at least eight touchdowns and have three or fewer interceptions in his first six starts.

Some of the names on that list include Patrick Mahomes, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Colin Kaepernick and Roethlisberger himself. Then there is Chad Pennington, who battled injuries, but also led teams to the playoffs in which of the four seasons in which he started at least 12 games. He couldn’t stay healthy, but he was good when he was upright.

Then there are the other two names: Mason Rudolph and Trevor Siemian. Rudolph was benched last year after filling in for Roethlisberger. Siemian is now a practice-squad quarterback with the Titans.

Still, that’s seven out of nine quarterbacks in that club before Lock who became bankable starters for their teams. The odds are in Lock’s favor — and the Broncos, because if Lock and Fant continue on their trajectories, Bush would likely need to be a Hall of Famer to match the impact of the Broncos’ haul from this trade.

Time will tell, but the Broncos appear on the path to winning this swap — even though the Steelers are smiling about Bush’s progress. This is the rare trade that leaves both sides smiling.

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