PITTSBURGH — The 2023 NFL Draft went off the rails at pick No. 3, when the Houston Texans shocked everyone by trading back up into the top of the draft to land Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the bigger shock to their plans came just a few picks later, when the Cardinals, after trading down, snapped up Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr. at pick No. 6 — far earlier than he had expected
That set off a run at the position that led to Darnell Wright going to the Chicago Bears at No. 9, Peter Skoronski to the Tennessee Titans at No. 11, and the Pittsburgh Steelers trading up to No. 14 to land Georgia’s Broderick Jones.
“I think everyone that was watching the draft would say there were several moves that were unexpected and surprising,” Steelers general manager Omar Khan said. “We see these moves at pretty much the same time everyone else does. It was an interesting time.”
The Steelers liked Jones, having met with him at the Georgia pro day and then again in a pre-draft visit in Pittsburgh. They probably liked some of the other tackles, too. But there was only one that fell to within the range the team had set aside as a reasonable price to pay to move up.
“We weren’t willing to mortgage anything more than a third-day pick,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It got within range. There had been a run at his position. There were some teams potentially in front of us that may have had an interested in the position. It was a player we coveted. We did what we needed to do to secure the player that we identified.”
With the Steelers in a pinch to get a tackle, they started to make some calls to see where they could make the deal they were looking for.
“Broderick was a player that we had identified could be a great addition to our team,” Khan said. “When we saw how the draft was going and he was still sitting there, we started to make some phone calls to see if there was an opportunity to trade up and get him.”
The Detroit Lions did the Steelers a favor by going off the board for Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs. When the Green Bay Packers eschewed offensive line for defensive line, the Steelers knew they had their deal.
“You just make phone calls and get a feeling for what people are willing to do,” Khan said. “Some clubs are a no, other clubs are a maybe. You just stay close to the phone and stay in contact with the clubs that might be interested. It just so happened that with New England, it worked out.”
The Patriots were apparently not interested in taking a tackle. They landed cornerback Christian Gonzalez at No. 17, and could have taken him at 14. The Steelers reportedly didn’t like Gonzalez after their pre-draft meeting, so that wasn’t an issue.
But in between the Steelers and Pats, the New York Jets sat at pick No. 15, with newly acquired and aging quarterback Aaron Rodgers to protect. The Jets weren’t going to let Jones fall to the Steelers at No. 17. If they wanted a top tackle — the next one was taken at No. 27 by the Jacksonville Jaguars — they needed to make a move to get him.
“We were prepared what we believed the clubs behind us and in front us were interested (in) and what there needs are,” Khan said. “It just sort of worked out. It was more about us really wanting the player. We found somebody that was willing to trade at the value we were comfortable with.”
The Steelers only traded up in the first round three times since 2000 under Kevin Colbert: when they moved up 11 picks to get Troy Polamalu in 2003, seven picks to get Santonio Holmes in 2006 and 10 slots to get Devin Bush in 2019.
So far, it’s a small sample size, but Khan is one for one. It seems clear that wheeling and dealing is going to be a part of Khan’s m.o. as a general manager.
“I don’t if I’d call myself aggressive,” he said. “I’m just trying to win a Super Bowl.”
Tomlin, sitting next to him at the Steelers draft table, corrected him.