There’s a lot to like about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense heading into the 2020 season. First and foremost, starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears to be well on his way to completing his recovery from elbow surgery. And both RB James Conner and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster are healthy again after injury-plagued 2019 seasons. Plus there’s plenty of young talent with ‘breakout’ potential, including WR Diontae Johnson, who has a chance to emerge as the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver.
But one of the few areas of concern—at least if you ask NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt—is the Steelers’ backup QB situation, which Brandt rates among the ‘biggest NFL roster holes’ entering the 2020 season.
“Scattershot play at [quarterback] is primarily what kept Pittsburgh out of the 2019 postseason,” Brandt begins, before noting that Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges—who were responsible for that scattershot play—are back as Roethlisberger’s backups. That is, unless either Paxton Lynch or J.T. Barrett can beat out Hodges for the third-string QB job.
Returning Rudolph and Hodges “is a gamble,” Brandt continues, “considering Big Ben is 38 and has taken a beating at points during his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Brandt likes Cam Newton as a potential alternative to Rudolph, calling Newton “capable of guiding this squad to the playoffs should he be pressed into service.”
The Search for Ben Roethlisberger’s Successor
Yet there are several reasons why the Steelers are unlikely to sign a free agent QB for 2020, unless it turns out that Roethlisberger isn’t able to play—at all. Even then Pittsburgh is likely to give Rudolph the first shot at taking over the reins.
For one, the Steelers would like to find out more about what they have in Rudolph, and whether he might be Roethlisberger’s eventual successor.
The other issue is that the Steelers have little in the way of salary cap space, in part because they have so much invested in Big Ben. (He counts $23,750,000 against the salary cap this year and $41,250,000 next year.)
Meanwhile both Rudolph and Hodges are inexpensive, with Rudolph counting just $1,069,620 against the cap in 2020, and Hodges a mere $675,000—the same as his salary.
Never mind the fact that the team’s revenue streams will be greatly diminished if games are played to less than sold out stadiums this season, which could also lead to a smaller salary cap number in 2021.
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Other Areas of Concern on the Steelers’ Offense
Meanwhile, there aren’t many other areas of concern on the Steelers’ offense, though age on the offensive line could be an issue, which perhaps helps explain why Maurkice Pouncey was recently referred to as average and overrated. It also helps explain why left tackle Alejandro Villanueva warranted consideration for Pro Football Focus’ ‘All-Average Team,’ as did free agent acquisition Stefen Wisniewski, who is likely to start for the Steelers at left guard in 2020. As it stands, rookie fourth-round draft pick Kevin Dotson is one of the few alternatives at that position.
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