In recent weeks, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Logan Mankins, two supremely gifted players both in the primes of their careers, have expressed dissatisfaction with their current teams. This isn't a San Diego or a Boston blog, so I won't go into great detail about their situations, but here's the quick and dirty.
Neither restricted free agent has signed their tender. Jackson is looking for a long-term deal with the Bolts, and Mankins is upset with New England ownership, claiming they promised him a contract extension, then failed to follow through.
Right now, this is about principle with me and keeping your word and how you treat people. This is what I thought the foundation of the Patriots was built on. Apparently, I was wrong. Growing up, I was taught a man's word is his bond. Obviously this isn't the case with the Patriots.
Not exactly the words of a man who sounds like he's backing down. By the same token, reports out of San Diego say that Jackson has hired a private financial manager in preparation to hold out through Week 10, if necessary.
All signs point to Jackson and Mankins wearing different colors this season.
Let me clear about something before I go on: I don't think the Steelers will land either of these guys. Pittsburgh has always built through the draft, letting aging players go when they want too much money and coaching up their young guys, occasionally making shrewd, cheap moves in free agency. Mewelde Moore, Ryan Clark, Willie Parker - not exactly household names when they were acquired.
But they don't need to be. Pittsburgh understands that you buy low. In short, the Steelers are smart.
In this case, however, paying for the brand name could make a lot of sense. Why not make a move for Jackson or Mankins, if it's possible?
Jackson is exactly what Ben Roethlisberger has been vocal about wanting ever since the departure of Plaxico Burress after the 2004 season: a towering, physical wideout. The Steelers have fared well without an enormous target like Jackson - even with the Limas Sweed experiment looking more and more like a failure - but the departure of Santonio Holmes in the offseason leaves Pittsburgh thin behind ancient veteran Hines Ward and the exciting but unproven second-year man Mike Wallace. Adding Jackson to an already stellar offense would be a boon for the Steelers, who could use Wallace or Ward in the slot while running three-receiver sets and run effectively out of bunch formation with Heath Miller in the fold, as well.
The same can be said of Mankins, one of the most underrated guards in the league. He's a more than capable run-blocker, but where he really excels is pass protection; Mankins was a key part of the unit that kept Tom Brady upright for preposterous amounts of time during the quarterback's historic 2007 season. With Mankins and Chris Kemoeatu at guard and Maurkice Pouncey at center, Pittsburgh's interior offensive line would instantly become one of the league's most effective. And of course, offensive line depth is all the more crucial for the Steelers after losing right tackle Willie Colon for the year to an Achilles injury.
Oh, one more thing: Mankins is 28 and Jackson is 27. These are two very fine players who still have many productive years ahead of them. There's no reason Mankins can't continue to be one of the league's best guards for three or four more seasons, and even if Jackson loses a step as he ages (he has great speed for such a big receiver), he should still be a pretty special player even when he's 31 or 32, given the rest of his skill set.
So the question is not whether or not Jackson or Mankins would be good for Pittsburgh, but if such an unlikely marriage could ever actually happen.
Well, it's going to take a lot, even though Jackson will serve a three-game suspension at the beginning of the season for his DUI conviction. But I should say that based on what we know, trading for Jackson doesn't seem like it'd be replacing one distraction at wide receiver (Santonio Holmes) with another; the DUI was a mistake, and it was Jackson's second, but otherwise, he hasn't shown signs of being a negative presence in the locker room. His recent three-game suspension could really provide an opportunity to pay fifty cents on the dollar.
First of all, San Diego and New England (both intelligent franchises in their own right) are going to have to decide that shipping their disgruntled stars for some draft picks is the best way to go. Then, the Steelers are going to have to be willing to give something up. So how much do you give away for a guy like Jackson or Mankins?
Jackson probably wouldn't come cheap - remember, the trade that sent Brandon Marshall to the Dolphins pretty much set the market for elite wide receivers at at least two second-round picks. And as much as it would make my stomach turn to give the Patriots ammunition in the draft, I could live with sacrificing a second- and third-round pick to acquire Mankins.
Will the Steelers really do better than Jackson holding onto their draft picks? The value is there and Jackson could step in and contribute right away. The same goes for Mankins if the Steelers could somehow package a couple of lower round picks.
For once, it makes sense for the Steelers to pay for the brand name, rather than go for the speculative fruit of the draft. Many of Pittsburgh's defensive stars are aging, but there's a very real window in the next two or three seasons to make another run (or two!) at the Lombardi trophy. An uncharacteristically aggressive move by Pittsburgh to acquire either of these players would only help their chances.