It’s probably safe to say that Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement isn’t yet on the Steelers’ roster. Not exactly a hot take, I know. But Big Ben’s successor is already a hot topic among Steelers fans—one that promises to become white-hot over the course of the next year or so—unless Big Ben defies age and elbow surgery and wins the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020.
Sure, there are more 40-something starters in the NFL these days, and the Steelers seem inclined to roll with Roethlisberger as long as they can. But Big Ben has absorbed a lot of punishment over the course of his career. In fact, Roethlisberger, 38, is the third-most sacked QB of all-time (503 sacks), behind Hall of Famers John Elway (516) and Brett Favre (525).
No doubt Steelers fans are hoping that the end of Roethlisberger’s career is more like Elway’s and less like Favre’s. A strong supporting cast helped Elway win back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons before he rode off into the sunset at age 38. As for Favre, he had an exceptional second-to-last season (posting a career-high 107.2 passer rating and leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship game), but he looked decidedly old and tired during his last go-round. (In 2010 he threw only 11 TD passes against 19 INTs for a 69.9 passer rating, soon after reaching the wrong side of 40.)
Is Big Ben’s Replacement Already in Pittsburgh?
Having used Elway and Favre as end-of-career comparisons let’s assume that Big Ben plays just two more seasons, which coincidentally, is how long Roethlisberger remains under contract. Has anyone on the current roster shown signs of becoming a capable starter, never mind a franchise QB? Mason Rudolph might be that guy, but if you’re like me, you’re not terribly optimistic.
When the Steelers traded up to draft Rudolph in the middle of the third round in 2018 (76th overall), they were looking to improve their backup QB situation … and hoping against hope that he might develop into Roethlisberger’s successor. Yes, the Steelers claimed they had a first-round grade on Rudolph, but that seems doubtful. Nothing about his skill set screams ‘elite’ or first-round talent.
To be fair to Rudolph, there were moments last season where he showed promise—and like third-string QB Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges—he was handicapped by playing with a revolving door of skill-position players, including RBs and WRs claimed off of other teams’ practice squads. Worse yet, Rudolph’s growth was stunted when he was knocked unconscious after a truly frightening hit during a game against the Ravens. And no NFL fan will ever forget him being bopped on the head with his own helmet by the villainous Myles Garrett.
At the same time, there are ominous signs that the Steelers view Rudolph as nothing more than a backup, if that. Recall that Mike Tomlin played the aforementioned Hodges—an undrafted rookie free agent from Samford University—in favor of Rudolph during parts of last season.
As for Hodges, he performed better than anyone had a right to expect, especially when you consider that he signed for a mere $1,000 after a spring tryout. Truth be told, there’s a lot to like about Duck’s game; he plays in rhythm, he has moxie, and I’d say he could develop into a legitimate NFL backup, except his self-evident lack of arm strength leaves him little room to grow. It’s possible he will retain the third-string QB job this season, but I think the Steelers would prefer to find a new developmental quarterback prospect ASAP.
As for the other quarterbacks currently on the roster, there’s Paxton Lynch—a former first-round pick of the Denver Broncos—and first-year player J.T. Barrett. You may not recall, but Lynch was on the Steelers’ practice squad for much of last season yet never supplanted Hodges as the #3 QB, which doesn’t say much for his chances of making an impact in 2020. And despite Barrett’s considerable achievements at Ohio State, it would be a surprise if he’s anything more than the proverbial ‘training camp arm.’
Prediction: Roethlisberger’s Successor Will Be a First-Round Draft Choice
All of this is to say: Pittsburgh has yet to acquire its next long-term starter. But the lessons of history tell us the organization will use a first-round pick in an attempt to do so.
Why? In 1983, shortly before Terry Bradshaw’s career came to an elbow-clutching end, the Steelers passed on University of Pittsburgh standout Dan Marino in favor of Gabriel Rivera (aka Señor Sack), a marauding defensive tackle from Texas Tech. If you watch Rivera’s college highlights on YouTube, you can see why Chuck Noll might have viewed Rivera as the heir apparent to Mean Joe Greene.
It turned out to be a devastating draft-day mistake, however. Rivera was paralyzed in a tragic auto accident in the middle of a promising rookie year while Marino proceeded to have a Hall of Fame career.
Meanwhile, the Steelers went on to wander in the quarterback wilderness for two decades before (finally!) using a first-round pick on an elite prospect in 2004, that being Roethlisberger. In his book “My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” the late Dan Rooney wrote that the sting of passing on Marino played a pivotal role in the decision to draft Big Ben.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect the way we passed on Dan Marino,” wrote Rooney, “so [when it was our turn to pick] I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger.” The lasting success the Steelers have had with Big Ben ought to remain top-of-mind come April 2021 … or 2022.
So who are some of the talented collegians and established pros who could conceivably be added to the Steelers’ roster in the next year or so?
Let me state upfront that this exercise might be a fool’s errand. After all, identifying the top prospects in next year’s draft—almost a year away—is tricky. Keep in mind that in 2019, Mel Kiper Jr. projected Joe Burrow to be nothing more than a sixth-round pick. Burrow went on to author what is widely regarded as the greatest college QB season of all-time, walking away with the Heisman Trophy® before being selected first overall by the Bengals.
Complicating matters further is the evolving nature of the quarterback position. Roethlisberger’s success—and the selection of Rudolph—suggest that the Steelers’ brass would prefer to find a big, traditional pocket passer who has at least some mobility. But will the sudden impact of Lamar Jackson and other uber-athletic ‘running’ QBs change their thinking?
Finally, a less-obvious factor is that general manager Kevin Colbert, who admits he’s been contemplating retirement, is now working on a year-to-year basis. So if the Steelers don’t select a QB in the 2021 draft, a brand-new GM—with his own philosophy and preferences—could figure into the decision.
It’s even possible that the team could embrace a stop-gap option if circumstances call for it.
That said, here are four possibilities:
1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson)
The first and most obvious candidate to potentially replace Roethlisberger is Trevor Lawrence. I know what you’re thinking: There’s no chance that the Steelers will be in a position to select Lawrence, who is projected to be drafted first overall in 2021. But who knows? At different times, both Tua Tagovailoa (Miami) and Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers) were considered likely #1 overall picks, yet they were chosen fifth and sixth in the 2020 draft, respectively.
And if it turns out Roethlisberger isn’t able to throw anymore—and the Steelers muddle through this coming season with Rudolph and/or Hodges—they could potentially be selecting high enough to trade up for a top QB prospect.
Of course, Lawrence would seem to have everything NFL teams are looking for. He possesses prototypical size (6-6, 220) and he’s an accurate downfield passer, completing better than 65 percent of his throws in his first two seasons at Clemson. Plus, he’s a proven winner, leading his team to a national championship as a freshman and returning to the national championship game as a sophomore, throwing for 66 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions along the way.
2. Trey Lance (North Dakota State)
A more realistic possibility is Trey Lance, a redshirt sophomore who could be next year’s Carson Wentz, who was picked second overall in 2016 and also hailed from North Dakota State.
Lance (6-3, 224) possesses a quick, relaxed throwing motion that is not unlike that of Roethlisberger’s, and he has been lauded for his deep ball accuracy, which figures to be a priority for a Steelers team that is well-stocked at wide-receiver.
Perhaps Lance enters the draft next year, or maybe he waits until 2022. Either way, it’s hard not to notice how he threw 28 touchdown passes with no interceptions in his first year as a starter, even as he added 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
And if you’re inclined to dismiss Lance because he plays at North Dakota State, don’t look now but NDS seems to be turning into something of a quarterback factory, with Easton Stick selected by the Chargers in the fifth-round last year.
3. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Yet another college QB the Steelers figure to be keeping tabs on is Justin Fields, who attended Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, where he finished third in the country in passer rating, trailing the aforementioned Burrow and 2020 draft pick, Jalen Hurts.
Fields (6-3, 228) has gained a reputation as an exceptional pocket passer, one who can “make all the throws.” In fact, Pro Football Focus rated him as the second-best power-five player in the country last year, ahead of Lawrence.
If Fields continues to ascend, he could challenge Lawrence for the distinction of being the most-prized quarterback prospect in the 2021 draft. And if the Steelers do select a QB next year, it figures to be one with franchise QB potential, either because Roethlisberger’s career is over, or because they are giving said prospect a year to develop while Big Ben is still on the team.
4. Jameis Winston (New Orleans Saints)
Meanwhile, it’s also conceivable that Jameis Winston could sign as a potential Roethlisberger replacement, though it can’t happen until next offseason, as he recently inked a one-year contract with New Orleans, where he will serve as a backup to Drew Brees. This isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. In fact, one media outlet reported that the Steelers recently made Winston a contract offer, which Kevin Colbert denied during an interview with Pittsburgh sports radio station 93.7 The Fan.
Selected first overall in 2015, Winston has the physical tools to be a franchise QB; heck, he threw for more than five-thousand yards last season with the Buccaneers. The primary concern with Winston has been decision-making; he was responsible for 30 INTs last year, an astonishing number in today’s turnover-adverse NFL.
But I’m of the mind that recent vision correction surgery may make a huge difference in, uh, Winston’s ability to see the field. In fact, Winston recently told Sports Illustrated that the eye surgery has made a huge difference. “There’s no blurriness, and I think that’s huge,” he said. “Depth perception has increased tremendously and those are the big things.”
Personally, I’m shocked that Winston didn’t address his vision problems sooner. I can only imagine the challenges of trying to be an NFL quarterback while fighting distance-vision and depth-perception issues. But with suddenly clear vision, Winston might be a worthwhile risk in 2021 if this turns out to be Big Ben’s last year and the Steelers aren’t well-positioned to land a potential franchise QB in the next draft.