Overreactions from Steelers Nation: “Fleecing” for the future

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

One of the things that will make me roll my eyes into the back of my head more than anything is talking about winning the offseason. Paper champions are often made during the early weeks of the new NFL calendar year, but seldom are those visions of dream teams or can’t-miss acquisitions fully realized once the Super Bowl is over.

I’ve been guilty of being both overly positive and overly negative when the Pittsburgh Steelers wheel and deal this time of the year. The conjecture about team improvements is fun, if not entertaining, but oftentimes that’s where we as fans should draw the line.

In the grand scheme of things, most of the players who are available in free agency are unwanted by their previous team for one reason or another. In the salary cap era, it could be that a successful team can no longer afford to keep their stars.

Other scenarios where individuals become available include older players nearing the end of their career, players who are coming off of a major injury – and are risky to ink to multimillion-dollar deals – or, those players who didn’t fulfill high expectations when drafted. It’s important to remember that Father Time is undefeated, injuries can reoccur, and oftentimes, young players don’t transition well from college football to the professional game.

It’s within this context that I find it annoying to read about teams getting off-season grades. Furthermore, within the context of recent moves made by Omar Khan and the Pittsburgh Steelers, it can be grating to see people believe that a team fleeced another when making trades.

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During the first week of the free agency period, Khan shipped WR Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for CB Donte Jackson and a swap of draft picks. Critics jumped quickly to panning Khan’s move. Yet, we don’t know how this might work out in the future. Johnson had no touchdown receptions in 2022 and was infamous for dropped passes or backward runs in key moments.

He was outspoken about the team’s quarterback situation, and in the final year of his contract with the Steelers, the team opted to move. Rather than deal with any commotion of a “sit in” while negotiating an extension or other distractions, Pittsburgh filled a need in a cornerback room that saw Patrick Peterson, Levi Wallace, Chandon Sullivan, and James Pierre all leave overnight.

Khan filled the gaps with a veteran player, and also quietly reworked Jackson’s deal to reduce his cap hit by $4.5 million: $4 million lower than what Johnson’s would’ve been had he remained on the roster.

That wasn’t the only fleecing that was spoken of over the last week. Of course, adding former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson for shy of one million dollars is another example, but it’s the addition of quarterback Justin Fields that has the media really talking about fleecing most recently.

With the number one overall pick in the upcoming 2024 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears are in a position to draft a generational quarterback. However, they already spent a lot of time and capital on their previous one, Fields, who would became a lame duck this season if retained.

That led to many rumors about which teams would reach out to Bears GM Ryan Poles about acquiring Fields, with the QB-needy Steelers in the middle of the speculation. Once fleecing talks cooled down following the Steelers trade of last year’s starting quarterback Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh pulled the trigger on Fields.

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The result is a 2025 sixth-round draft pick being sent to the Bears, leading many to believe that Poles got fleeced by Khan, yet again, as they expected a larger return for the former first-rounder.

You see, Khan was able to orchestrate a genius trade the previous year in which the Steelers shipped WR Chase Claypool to Chicago in exchange for a second-round selection. That pick turned into the 32nd overall choice which led to the Steelers drafting CB Joey Porter Jr. In light of that trade, many believe Khan is abusing the Bears GM with low-risk, high-reward transactions.

But did the so-called “Khan Artist” strike again?

Fans are jumping quickly to call Fields the future in Pittsburgh, but are largely unaware of the circumstances surrounding such a statement. Currently in the final year of his rookie contract, Fields could be optioned for a fifth year under the league’s rules for first-round picks. This would pay Fields between an estimated $20-25 million dollars guaranteed for the 2025 season.

That decision must be made this offseason, which seems highly unlikely with the say the Steelers front office is now being run, making Fields an unrestricted free agent next offseason.

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We can speculate as to whether or not Fields would re-sign with the Steelers. Khan could also negotiate an extension over the next year. But what if Russell Wilson has a good, or great, 2024 season? Wilson too is under a one-year deal and is looking to prove he has several years left to play.

If Wilson signs long-term, would Fields be willing to sit for an additional one, two, or three seasons behind the veteran quarterback? That puts Fields in a similar situation to the one Mason Rudolph was previously in, waiting for his opportunity while backing up Ben Roethlisberger.

With the ability to sign anywhere, Fields could leave Pittsburgh without ever taking a snap in a game. Then, who got fleeced? Was it Poles, or was it Khan?

What if Fields does play, and meets the criteria for the conditional sixth-round pick to escalate to a fourth-round choice? It’s probably fleecing if Fields performs well, but it reverses into the stinker the Claypool trade was for Chicago if Fields plays and fails. And of course, if Wilson stumbles out of the gate and isn’t around next season either, did Khan fleece anyone with the league minimum contract signing?

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Also, imagine if Jalen Hurts gets injured and Kenny Pickett steps in to take Philadelphia to the playoffs – and wins. The Steelers front office immediately becomes patsies if their moves produce less than the alternatives.

That’s why I’ll reserve judgment on who won or lost a trade until we have time to properly evaluate the outcomes. It may take several years to even know who was fleeced or not in these transactions. And in the end, it may not matter whatsoever, making talks of fleecing anyone a moot point as the best-laid plans for the future have to be reconstructed yet again.

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