Trading Holmes left the Steelers without a true #1 receiver, particularly with the inevitable demise of Hines Ward. They had to turn to the likes of Mike Wallace, while drafting Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Not high picks, but picks nonetheless.
Aside from the heroic final drive of the 08 SB, not sure I see Holmes as a true WR1. He had moments, some nice clutch moments to be sure, but Ward was the only true WR1 during Ben's tenure. Holmes is in his eight year in the NFL, with exactly 1 season 1000+ yards. Never had double-digit TDs.
I think Antonio Brown has shown that he can be just as clutch. He's in his fourth season and already has gone 1000+ once. I don't see Holmes -> Brown as a dropoff. Where we drop off is not having someone who can be the go-to like Ward was. Sanders is a Brown clone with the drops and some effort issues. Cotchery is a pale imitation of Ward at best.
These were also picks that could have been used to draft, trade for, or trade UP for offensive linemen or defensive linemen, two positions long neglected by the FO/Colbert. But wideouts were a necessity because there was no Holmes.
I see your point, and you could make a 20/20 argument. But really Sanders was a R3 and Brown a R6. The only swapout there would be Sanders.
So, in spite of his antics, Holmes' departure left the FO scrambling to fill a need when many other needs existed. I suppose you could argue that such scrambling led to more desperate picks like Mike Adams in R2, Ziggy Hood, Gilbert, and Heyward. Perhaps not necessary if some other picks could have been used on those positions.
I think there's a certain Colbert-style hubris, that he can replace departed or aging players with day 3 draft picks. I mean, that's what happened at WR. That allows him to follow the rubric of "taking the best guy on the board," even if they are questionable fits for our system (IMO, Hood and Jarvis both were; Heyward hasn't shown much for the faith I had in him; still hoping all 3 can improve). The real scratcher is OL, where they pick guys who are weak and slow in high rounds and pass on bargain round guys (Massie, Bakhtiara, a good dozen others I can't think of right now).
I understand that more teams shifting to 3-4 defenses means NT and DE are in higher demand, and you won't get Aaron Smith or even Brett Keisel in the latter portions of the draft necessarily. But there is such a thing as over-committing to one position, which we did with DE.
Then we FF to the James Harrison/Keenan Lewis Effect. Corner has been oft-ignored in recent drafts, but Keenan Lewis was a solid one. The FO decides to let him go for next to nothing to the Saints, while also deciding not to pay James Harrison. This leads the team to depend on Cortez Allen, a talented but potentially injury-prone corner who can't tackle. It also leads to the drafting of Jarvis Jones that everyone said is a "no-brainer" to help the defense.
Wasn't and am not happy about the Lewis thing - we essentially swapped Lewis for our retread Gay - but I think Cortez is a pretty solid tackler, he's just coming back from injuries and is rusty. Injuries are the ? more than tackling per se. Not so sure releasing Harrison was the wrong move, much as I love Silverback. 4 games, no sacks, 2 tackles, 3 assists: best is past. IIRC, the top prospects left on the board when the Stillers drafted were Deandre Hopkins and X. Rhodes, and I stick by that, though in retro I think I had Rhodes higher and Hopkins looks like he would have impacted here more.
Problem is, Jones looks less than mediocre so far. And that pick could have been used on a much-needed physical WR (Patterson?), an OL, a DL, or a corner--which is now desperately needed because Lewis is gone. Also, the team drafted Worilds to replace Harrison, so you're now giving up on a draft pick by drafting a guy who looks for all the world to be another bad draft pick. And you still don't have the OL, DL, or corner that you need. Also, you have to spend a second-round pick on Leviathon Bell, who is running behind an oline that can't play.
Yeah, the logjam at OLB is weird, and Jones has shown a few flashes but not enough to make me think he's a great fit just yet. Like I said, still hoping. This goes back to Timmons though, drafted as an OLB (FFS) when we all knew he had to be ILB, and Tomlin and Colbert I think got lucky that he was pretty solid at ILB - but they seem locked in on some pipeline of pass rushers that is producing nada.
Could all this have been different if the Steelers had simply put up with Holmes, and paid Lewis and Harrison?
I really don't know. But I'm desperately searching for reasons for a team that was essentially a field goal away from the playoffs last season.
I'm fine with letting Holmes go and Harrison go, but not fine with the draft picks. I could do a revisionist history based on my draft notes from the past few years, but what's the point. The team has no identity and the draft shows it: we draft 4-3 guys for the 3-4, we roll the dice in late rounds on CBs and WRs to luck into starters, we are foolish in choosing OL and miss late round DL values. Another one: TOLD you Ta'amu didn't look like a 3-4 fit. I liked Fangupo better in that draft, but he wasn't elite either. And now who do we have. Well, we apparently have a bunch of NTs without any of them being the next Snack, no run stopping, and Mac gets a nice push on pass rush but QBs get rid of the ball before he impacts.
We're also playing the game from 10 years ago, as noted previously by others in how slow our offense is (Ben's hurry-up vs. Manning's delayed hikes, Brees's time of release). Our CBs can't cover, and the DL isn't what it used to be, so the OLBs can't get to the target in time. Not to mention that Woodley's on the Bettis diet, he was a turd last year and he's getting trucked by waifs this year again. There is so much fail here it's compounding and rolling downhill fast.