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Why the Steelers traded up for Troy Polamalu: Redrafting 2003

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Why the Steelers traded up for Troy Polamalu: Redrafting 2003

In this retrospective series, we’ll use 20/20 hindsight to play General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers to review past drafts – focusing primarily on top 2-3 selections – and personnel decisions year-by-year and redraft or implement trades based on the Steelers roster at the time.

General rule:  Any “redrafted” pick will generally fall within a 15-pick range and trade propositions being realistic and attainable.


Steelers situation and needs: 

  • The 2002 season ended in bitter disappointment as the Pittsburgh Steelers finally found a passing game, but the pass defense could not stop any QB.
  • The Kordell Stewart run came to an end as Tommy Maddox came off the bench with less than 4 minutes to go vs. the Cleveland Browns, led the Steelers to a comeback win and finished the season with the 2nd most passing yards in Steelers history.
  • Teams at times did not even hide the fact they were not going to run, just continuously spreading out the Steelers secondary and picked them apart.
  • The Steelers had a bizarre season in 2002. They lost a game to the expansion Houston Texans 24-6 despite outgaining the Texans 422 total yards to 47 total yards (in fact the Texans only had net 10 passing yards).
  • After a grueling overtime 34-34 tie in which Plaxico Burress (9 catches, 253 yards, 2 TDs) caught a Hail Mary pass less than a yard from the end zone as time expired, K Todd Peterson (who was 57.1% on FGs on the year and missed 2 FGs and 1 extra point) “suddenly” ended up with cracked ribs and was out for the season.
  • They picked up a rookie named Jeff Reed to be kicker after that and he didn’t do too bad.
  • Jason Gildon set the Steelers all-time franchise sack record during the season.



Kevin Colbert makes Steelers History in the 1st round.

Reviewing 2003: 1st Round – #16 Overall; 2nd Round – #59 Overall

The Steelers were a 20-yard perfectly thrown pass from Tommy Maddox to Plaxico Burress that arguably would have sealed the Steelers into a 2nd straight AFC Championship.  But when Burress failed to pull it in, the Steelers defense let the Tennessee Titans right back down the field and on the way to the AFCCG – aided by a horrendous call when Titans Kicker Joe Nedney “flopped” to draw a penalty after missing a 31-yard FG in OT.

Nonetheless, when the Cleveland Browns have a QB controversy believing that Kelly Holcomb is the future of their team at QB because of one playoff performance vs. arguably the worst pass defense in the league (in a loss), there is a bigger problem.

The Steelers had the #27 pick in the 1st round and for the first time in franchise history, Colbert moved the Steelers up in the draft, throwing in a 3rd round pick (#92) and a 6th round pick (#200) to move up to #16 and draft Troy Polamalu.

The Steelers knew the Lee Flowers/Brent Alexander tandem needed an upgrade and they had hoped that hamstring injuries to Troy Polamalu might lead to his slipping to their pick at #27.  However, those hopes were blown out of the water after his Pro Day and Polamalu was not a secret that was going to be kept.  Despite concerns over a concussion history, Troy just showed athleticism that was off the charts.

Marvin Demoff, Polamalu’s agent per ESPN Jeremy Folwer:

“I remember [then-USC coach] Pete Carroll telling me ‘I could wake up Troy at 3 a.m. and he’d wake up and run a 4.3 and jump 42 inches’, so I think the Steelers saw he was different than the people playing safety at the time. They believed in their eye.”

Demoff didn’t think the Steelers were truly targeting Polamalu (he actually believed the Steelers were high on RB Larry Johnson) but then again, neither did anyone else.  The Steelers had never traded up in the draft and when Colbert instructed then Steelers Director of Pro Personnel Doug Whaley to begin calling teams, it was met with disbelief.

The Kansas City Chiefs were high on taking Larry Johnson and were confident that he would be there at #27.  Thus, with the ground work laid by Whaley, the Steelers top brass consisting of Art Rooney II in his first season as team President, along with Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Colbert laid out their strategy to Lamar Hunt, Carl Peterson and Dick Vermeil that worked out for everyone.

Larry Johnson had a great 7-year run for the Chiefs, 2x topping 1,750 yards rushing and seasons of 17 & 20 TDs.

Troy Polamalu turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime generational talent: 8x Pro Bowler, 4x 1st Team All-Pro, 2x 2nd Team All-Pro, NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, 2010 Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Ballot Hall of Fame Inductee.  There is no question he was the best defensive player on the best defensive team of the decade. The Steelers would finish in the top 10 in defense every season from 2000-2012, and finished #1 5x (2004, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012) and #2 1x (2010).  The Steelers would not have won two Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008 without him and he directly altered the outcome of five games — the biggest of which was his 4th quarter strip sack on Joe Flacco that led to the Steelers winning the AFC North and #2 seed.  It was on a bittersweet pick-6 the following week when Troy hurt his Achilles and wasn’t the same the rest of the season/playoffs.

The trade did not come without criticism as it left the Steelers with only five draft picks and with Troy struggling as a rookie.  The word bust was brought up often and many cynics pointed out how the Steelers were forced to reach for a prospect CB in round 4 because of the trade.  While it was true Troy struggled as a rookie, the script was flipped in 2004 upon the arrival of Dick LeBeau. The rest is history.

With pick #59 in round 2, it went the opposite direction.  OLB Alonzo Jackson would be the first bust of the Colbert era. The Steelers had a history of drafting undersized DEs in college and transitioning them to pass rushing OLBs in their scheme.  They had utilized the same strategy when drafting both Jason Gildon and Joey Porter to great success.  Cowher envisioned that Jackson could be a great pass rusher and eventually take over for the 31-year old Gildon.  Jackson was not able to replicate that success with the transition and perhaps frustration got the better of him as he ultimately felt like he was not as good a fit as a 255 pound OLB as he would have been a 285 pound DE.

Alonzo Jackson, Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The DecadesRon Lippock:

“I’ll be honest. I was super frustrated, it was a tough situation.  I played defensive end, defensive tackle, and nose tackle in high school and college.  I always had my hands on the ground at Florida State as a defensive end.  Then in Pittsburgh, I’m guarding wide receivers!

It was something that was doable.  But the odds are stacked against guys who have to switch from the only position they knew to something entirely new, at the highest level of the game. And more, the expectations in Pittsburgh are super high.  You want to do well for the legacy of Pittsburgh, for all of the coaches and fans waving the Terrible Towels.

It was Keith Butler’s first year there.  I think he was more or less trying to figure out the guys he had.  We had Joey, Larry, Gildon, Haggans – and Harrison was on the practice squad too.  He was just trying to figure everybody out.  He didn’t have a lot of time to teach and develop guys.  In the second year he got into teaching more.  But that first year I was watching and learning.  I didn’t get a lot of snaps. That was frustrating.”

Ed Bouchette reported the Steelers entertained offers for the 2nd round pick, including some offering picks in the 2004 draft.  Keep in mind that Bouchette also was a critic of the Polamalu trade and thought the Steelers should have upped their offer to Jackson and stood pat in the draft.

Ed Bouchette, reviewing the Steelers 2003 DraftPittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Had the Steelers signed Jackson, they could have remained at No. 27 in the first round and drafted a cornerback they wanted, Oklahoma’s Andre Woolfolk, taken by Tennessee at No. 28.

Instead of having no pick in the third round, they would have had their choice of several good players such as safety Julian Battle, linebacker Angelo Crowell, quarterback Chris Simms or cornerback Dennis Weathersby.

If they had gotten Woolfolk, they would not have had to reach for an unproven cornerback in the fourth round, Ike Taylor of Louisiana-Lafayette.”

Draft Grade A+

  • Despite the Jackson miss, the Steelers went for a 6’2″, 195 lb cornerback with 4.25 speed and had played only one year at the position at a small school in Louisiana.  Ike Taylor would not become the next Rod Woodson with his game changing ability, but he would evolve into one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL by 2005 and would routinely shut down the oppositions best WR throughout the entire decade.  He was also much better than Andre Woolfork. I would argue that had Taylor played at a bigger college, with his size and speed, he would not have lasted till the 4th round.

Free Agency: The luckiest break was that it didn’t happen.

Colbert had filled two big holes with free agency the previous two years and had a verbal agreement for a 5-year, $12.25M that included a $2.75M signing bonus with Super Bowl MVP SS Dexter Jackson.  Reportedly the Steelers were high on drafting Larry Johnson feeling that they filled their need at safety.  But fate intervened, Jackson received a call from the Arizona Cardinals (reportedly while in the Steelers facility) in which they added additional $2M to the 5-year, $14M package to make Jackson the highest paid safety in the NFL at the time.  Bill Cowher was furious at Jackson’s agent Peter Schaffer for misleading him and creating a bidding war.

 Peter Schaffer, Agent for Dexter Jackson on his decision to sign with Arizona – ESPN John Clayton:

“Dexter was all set to go to Pittsburgh, but you have to credit the Cardinals for showing the desire to get better as a team. The Cardinals stepped up and impressed Dexter with what they are trying to do as an organization.”

Curiously, there was no such comment by Schaffer as Jackson was released by the Cardinals after one season and a bulging disc in his back.  The Cardinals took a $2.8M cap hit, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers resigned Jackson to a 1-year deal for $500K, and Steeler Nation blew a collective sigh of relief as they dodged a bullet.

  • Jay Riemersma was signed for depth at TE after a successful run with the Buffalo Bills, starting 7 games.
  • QB Charlie Batch was not highly sought after as free agent, but the Steelers picked up the QB in leu of the departure of Kordell Stewart to the Chicago Bears in free agency and Batch performed the role of backup QB very well, especially as an extra pair of veteran QB eyes from the sideline.

Charlie Batch, Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The DecadesRon Lippock:

“My role was as a backup – that’s why I was brought on the team and I embraced it. I knew my role ahead of time. I knew what the team was thinking when they made an offer and I decided to accept that role. The team needs to make it clear what your role is as a player. That’s how they build that trust. And Pittsburgh did a great job of teaching players their roles on the team.”

Free Agency Grade: C

Overall Offseason Grade: A+



Redrafting 2003: What to do in the 2nd round?

The Steelers came out of the draft with half of the starting secondary that nearly won three Super Bowls, one lockdown CB and arguably the greatest SS in NFL history.

The Steelers did not know it yet, but they had no glaring weakness at LB when they drafted Alonzo Jackson.  Kendrell Bell‘s body had yet to betray him at this point as well, so it’s really 20/20 hindsight, but the best LB on the board was easily Lance Briggs (#68), who went onto 7 Pro Bowls and a 3x 1st team All-Pros.

But I would take the selection of Jason Witten (#69), as the Steelers were in need of a TE (2003 was the final year for TE Mark Bruener) and the 11x Pro Bowler is very likely a future Hall of Famer would have really added another dimension to the Steelers offense.


Who would you have taken?  Leave a comment below.


PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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