Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of the most talent players in the NFL, and has already won a league MVP in his time with Baltimore. Taken with the final pick of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, almost every team passed on a shot at Jackson and more than one GM probably kicked himself for having done so in the time since.
But should the Steelers be one of those teams lamenting not taking Jackson? That’s the topic of our sports debate, as Chris Carter and Alan Saunders debate whether or not taking Jackson was the Steelers biggest draft miss of the last five years.
CHRIS CARTER, ARGUING FOR:
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ greatest draft fault over the past five years has been passing over Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Yes, at the time, Ben Roethlisberger was coming off a strong 2017 season and would lead the NFL in touchdown passes in 2018. Jackson would not have been an immediate starter on the team and the safety position would have still gone unaddressed with Terrell Edmunds not being selected.
While the pick wouldn’t have been a win-now move, it would have still put the Steelers in the playoffs in a 2018 season when they beat the New England Patriots and went toe-to-toe with the New Orleans Saints in a road environment few teams stood a chance against.
But how would they have been in the playoffs had Jackson been selected if he would’ve been riding the bench?
Because it would’ve taken away the biggest factor for the Ravens’ resurgence that season. Remember, the Steelers’ best chance for the playoffs was to win the AFC North and the Ravens were fading away mid-season.
Not only did they look like a team that would miss the playoffs, but it was also all but public knowledge that if the season continued that way, John Harbaugh and the team would part ways after the Ravens had already missed the playoffs for three straight years.
Had the Ravens lost just one more game, the Steelers would’ve won the division with a 9-6-1 record. That most likely happens with Joe Flacco still at quarterback, and Roethlisberger gets to take Antonio Brown, a young Juju Smith-Schuster, and a more balanced defense with Joe Haden running the secondary, into the playoffs.
ALAN SAUNDERS, ARGUING AGAINST:
The Pittsburgh Steelers certainly have made draft mistakes during the last five years under Kevin Colbert, but my colleague Chris Carter’s assertion that failing to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2018 is the greatest of the them is incorrect.
It’s easy to look at the player that Jackson is now — our consensus top AFC North quarterback — and think that if the Steelers could have taken him instead of strong safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, that was a mistake.
No one is going to argue that Jackson is a better player than Edmunds. But would he have been a better fit for the Steelers at the time? I don’t think so.
It’s easy to forget where the Steelers were coming out of the 2017 season. The club had a fantastic offense with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown leading the way, and promising young players like James Conner, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster already in the fold.
In 2017, Roethlisberger threw for 4,251 yards, 28 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions and maintained a 93.4 passer rating. Yes, he was 35 and good times don’t last forever, but Roethlisberger’s cohorts, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, all played well into their 40s. There was no reason to think the end was near.
The same can be said for the rest of Pittsburgh’s dominant offense of the era. Was it to be predicted that from the 2018 NFL Draft to the beginning of the 2019 season, not even a year and a half later, Bryant would smoke himself out of the league, Bell would refuse to re-sign in Pittsburgh, Brown would let the fame go to his head in such a way as to torpedo his entire career and Roethlisberger would blow out his elbow and never be the same player again? That seems unreasonable.
The other aspect of this draft blunder is the long term impact. Even beyond Jackson’s impact on the 2018 season, him not being on the Ravens AND being on the Steelers could’ve flipped the entire 2019 season.
Without Jackson, Harbaugh is most likely fired and the Ravens go into a full rebuild, making them not be contenders for the 2019 AFC North, which the Steelers, again, came behind the Ravens in second place.
But consider how much better the Steelers would have been with Jackson in 2019 instead of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges when Roethlisberger was out for the season. He might not replicate his MVP performance of 36 passing touchdowns and 7 rushing touchdowns with only 6 interceptions, but he would’ve been a lot better than the play the Steelers got from their backups.
Not only does Jackson take over for Roethlisberger in 2019, but he derails the biggest obstacle the Steelers had to make the playoffs in the past 8 seasons. That would’ve put the Steelers on the longest active playoff streak in the NFL (8 years), just beating out the Kansas City Chiefs’ current streak of 7 seasons.
If the Steelers also make the playoffs in 2018, it most likely delays the implosion of Antonio Brown. Him with Jackson would be an interesting combination.
The trickle-down impact of the pick is definitely real, but there’s a more obvious one that you’re missing. While quarterback was not a need, the very real issue that was threatening the Steelers in 2018 was the team’s defense. After the tragic injury to inside linebacker Ryan Shazier in December 2017, the Pittsburgh defense, which had allowed 24 points or more just twice in the season’s first 12 games, did it in four of their final five, including a 45-42 home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Edmunds was a reasonable pick, but not a true replacement for Shazier. But that player was still on the board. Darius Leonard went to the Indianapolis Colts eight picks later. After Jackson, he is the second-most valuable player from the 2018 NFL Draft by Pro Football Reference’s weighted approximate value, and unlike Jackson, he was at a position of dire need for the Steelers. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and has been an All-Pro selection in all four seasons.
There was also a trickle-down impact of not addressing inside linebacker in 2018. In the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers, then knowing a good deal of what they didn’t about their awesome offense a year previous, felt the need at inside linebacker was so dire they had to trade a first, second and third-round pick to Denver to move up to get Devin Bush, which turned out to be an even bigger mistake than missing on Jackson.
With Leonard in the fold, that would have never happened, and the list of players that the Steelers could have had with those picks instead is truly incredible to think about.
2019 first: Noah Fant, Josh Jacobs, Hollywood Brown, Montez Sweat
2019 second: Miles Sanders, Max Scharping, Mecole Hardman, D.K. Metcalf
2020 third: Lloyd Cushenberry, Julian Blackmon, Zack Moss, Cam Dantzler
CHRIS CARTER, CLOSING ARGUMENT
If you look at the Steelers as they are constructed now, they are a defensive powerhouse with multiple defensive stars who’ve each made multiple All-Pros. T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick are one of the best, if not the best, three-man defensive core in the NFL.
Combine that with an experienced Lamar Jackson on an offense with weapons like Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens. Jackson’s mobility would mitigate the Steelers’ rebuilding offensive line.
The Steelers may not finish a season with the No. 1 scoring offense like the Ravens did with Jackson in 2019, but they would be a unit with many playmakers and talented quarterback already used to the team’s system instead of hoping for either of two new quarterbacks to figure it out.
That makes the Steelers serious Super Bowl contenders. And that could’ve been the case during the athletic prime of Jackson, Watt, Fitzpatrick, and Harris.
No other draft miss over the past decade would have made that kind of impact had the Steelers made the right decision. As much as Steelers fans may criticize Jackson for being a running quarterback, they would have happily cheered for his MVP-level playmaking skills in the black and gold.
ALAN SAUNDERS, CLOSING ARGUMENT
Lamar Jackson is better than Edmunds, clearly, and even better than Leonard. But when a team has an obvious hole, doesn’t fill that hole and then creates another, probably greater mistake in trading up to get Bush in a later attempt to fill that hole, to me that adds up to a bigger mistake than passing on a great player that didn’t happen to be a position of need at the time.
Jackson would have helped the Steelers in 2019 and probably would have been better than Roethlisberger over the last two seasons. But the Steelers couldn’t know that their offensive juggernaut was on the verge of collapse.
The most pervasive of Carter’s arguments is that drafting Jackson would have kept him away from the Ravens. But even that is pure hindsight. The Ravens had already made their first-round pick three picks earlier, grabbing tight end Hayden Hurst. They traded up 20 spots to get Jackson, something that the Steelers could never have foreseen.
Not getting Jackson looks bad now, but taken through the lens of draft day, drafting a quarterback would not have made sense at the time.
YOU PICK THE WINNER
Who Made the Better Argument?
- Saunders: Drafting Jackson Only Looks Reasonable in Hindsight (66%, 19 Votes)
- Carter: Not Drafting Jackson Was Greatest Steelers Mistake (34%, 10 Votes)
Total Voters: 29