The Pittsburgh Steelers follow a conservative code when it comes to executing trades and signings. The franchise doesn’t take many risks and rarely chases top players either in the draft or on the trade market. However, Pittsburgh didn’t win six Super Bowls by sitting entirely idle. The team executed several franchise-altering moves over the years.
I almost included the trade that brought Bobby Layne to the Steel City in 1958, but the Hall of Famer spent most of his prime in Detroit. Instead, the trades in this article created much larger ripples throughout Steelers history, with the notable exception of the lowest ranking selection.
5. Acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami
Is it too soon to put Pittsburgh’s oddly timed 2019 acquisition on a top-five list? Perhaps, but Fitzpatrick elevated Pittsburgh’s defense to another level this past season. Even if he’s only two years into his career and 14 games into his tenure with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick is a special player.
The Dolphins drafted Fitzpatrick with the 11th overall pick in 2018, hoping he could become a defensive cornerstone alongside Xavien Howard. However, the former Chuck Bednarik Award winner had other plans.
Fitzpatrick told Miami he wanted out early in the 2019 season. The Dolphins granted his request to seek a trade. Several teams emerged as potential trade candidates, but the Steelers came out on top. Pittsburgh sent its 2020 first-round pick, a conditional 2020 fifth-round pick, and a conditional 2021 sixth-round selection to Miami. In exchange, Mike Tomlin’s team received Fitzpatrick, a 2020 fourth-rounder, and a 2021 seventh-rounder.
Pittsburgh’s decision to chase a young safety came at an odd time. The Steelers already knew Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t returning for the final 14 weeks. So, finally acquiring a worthwhile safety when the team needed one for years made some fans upset. After years of contending with no defense, the Steelers addressed their defense as soon as the offense fell apart.
However, Pittsburgh still finished the year 8-8 and narrowly missed the playoffs. Roethlisberger is healthy and throwing again. With Fitzpatrick in the fold for at most three more seasons, the Steelers could possess one of the NFL’s best defenses for several years.
4. Steelers trade back in 2001 for Casey Hampton
Pittsburgh’s first trade with General Manager Kevin Colbert produced a centerpiece for the defensive unit that led the team to three Super Bowls and won two.
In the 2001 NFL Draft, the New York Jets wanted to jump up several spots in the first round. Pittsburgh didn’t mind the swap. In exchange for moving from 16th to 19th overall, the Steelers also received a fourth and a sixth-round selection. Neither of those picks turned into franchise icons, but the 19th selection produced a fantastic nose tackle.
Pittsburgh drafted Hampton out of the University of Texas. At 6-1, 325 pounds, Hampton wasn’t going to chase down quarterbacks. He didn’t have to. The Steelers turned him loose in the middle of the defensive line, and the results were astounding. Pittsburgh’s defense regularly clogged opponents’ running games and put together another iconic defensive unit.
Hampton made five Pro Bowls during his 12-year career. He appeared in 173 games, amassing nine sacks and 398 tackles.
As for the Jets, they selected Santana Moss at 16th overall. It wasn’t a bad selection, but Moss only spent four seasons with New York before finishing his 14-year career with Washington.
3. The Antonio Brown saga
The Steelers underpaid in the move they made to get the pick that eventually turned into Brown. Almost a decade later, the Oakland Raiders overpaid for the superstar receiver, although no one knew it at the time.
In 2010, Colbert dealt a fifth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round selection. McFadden, who spent the first four years of his career in Pittsburgh, played two more seasons in the Steel City before his NFL journey ended. The real prize was pick No. 195.
When the Steelers selected Brown in the sixth round, they had no idea he’d become the most productive receiver during the 2010s. The Central Michigan product made the Pro Bowl in his second season and eventually made six more consecutively. He even earned four consecutive First-Team All-Pro selections.
Unfortunately, poor decision making and drama derailed Brown’s career in Pittsburgh. After 2018, the superstar made it clear he wanted out of the Steel City. Colbert complied, sending Brown to Oakland for a third and a fifth-round pick. At the time, the deal seemed like highway robbery in favor of Oakland. The tides shifted when Brown became a walking headache for Jon Gruden’s team.
Brown never played a game in Oakland, and the team eventually released him. He played in one game last season, and the NFL recently suspended him eight games for all of the mayhem he caused over the past year and a half.
Pittsburgh turned the two picks they received from the Raiders into Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry. Turns out, the Steelers robbed the Raiders, not the other way around.
2. Steelers steal Jerome Bettis from the St. Louis Rams
The Los Angeles Rams drafted Bettis with the tenth overall pick in 1993. The Notre Dame product amassed 2,454 rushing yards during his first two seasons, but newly signed Head Coach Rich Brooks altered the offense in 1995. Brooks made the offense more pass-orientated, and Bettis only ran for 637 yards that season.
Sensing an opportunity to snag an underutilized back, Steelers General Manager Tom Donahoe put together a package for Bettis. Pittsburgh traded a 1996 second-round pick and a 1997 fourth-round selection for Bettis and a 1996 third-rounder.
After not fitting in Brooks’ system, Bettis flourished in Pittsburgh. He won the 1996 Comeback Player of the Year award and ran for 10,571 yards and 78 touchdowns during his ten years with the Steelers. In his first six years with Pittsburgh, The Bus ran for an astonishing 7,785 yards.
Bettis famously won the only Super Bowl of his career during his final season and retired as a champion. With six Pro Bowls and two First-Team All-Pro selections to his name, Bettis entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
1. Pittsburgh pegs Troy Polamalu as a future star
Getting Hampton in 2001 was important, but landing Polamalu in 2003 took Pittsburgh’s defense to another level. The Steelers traded the 27th overall pick plus third and sixth-round selections from the same year to Kansas City so that Pittsburgh could move up 11 spots. With the 16th overall pick, Pittsburgh drafted a future Hall of Fame safety from USC.
The Steelers rarely make risky draft day moves. Trading up in the first round isn’t a usual occurrence, but 2003 was an exception. Credit Colbert, Head Coach Bill Cowher, and Pittsburgh’s scouting department for picking up on Polamalu.
During his 12-year career, Polamalu won two Super Bowls with the Steelers. He went to eight Pro Bowls, received four First-Team All-Pro selections, and won the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest safeties of all-time.
Pittsburgh recently traded up in the first-round again for another defensive starter. The Steelers moved up ten spots to draft Michigan’s Devin Bush Jr. Hopefully, the young linebacker follows the same path as Polamalu.