Lack of Public Support for Mason Rudolph a ‘Trouble Spot’: Ex-Steelers Lineman

Mason Rudolph and Najee Harris

Emilee Chinn/Getty Images Mason Rudolph of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands the ball off to Najee Harris on November 14, 2021.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Trai Essex won two Super Bowl rings during the seven seasons he blocked for Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention a handful of different backup quarterbacks. So he has rare perspective on what it’s like to play with Roethlisberger—and then make the transition to playing with lesser QBs, if only temporarily. Appearing with Adam Crowley on 105.9 The X (Pittsburgh) on February 18, Essex was asked how he views Mason Rudolph in terms of his potential to take over for Big Ben as the Steelers’ starter in 2022.

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Trai Essex: Mason Rudolph’s ‘Ceiling’ is Backup QB

“I think he’s a backup quarterback,” said Essex unequivocally, before raising an issue that could be problematic going forward: Several of Rudolph’s most-talented teammates have failed to express confidence that he can be the starter.

“If you don’t have your main guys in the locker room going to bat for you—like emphatically—going into the season, that’s a trouble spot,” he added.

Essex is referring to the fact that All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt and No. 1 running back Najee Harris have both failed to come out in support of Rudolph.

“I trust the guys upstairs to be able to bring in a guy who can win us some games,” said Watt, shortly after winning the 2021 AP Defensive Player of the Year award.

Meanwhile, when Harris was asked who he’d like to see as the next Steelers quarterback, he mentioned a trio of names—Deshaun Watson (Texans), Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers)—but didn’t reference Rudolph, not to mention former Washington first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, who is likely to remain in a Steelers uniform in 2022.

Even Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward hasn’t come out in support of Rudolph as the next man up.

“Starting next year, we’ll see. That’s the front office. I know we’ve got great scouting, so we’ll see what happens,” said Heyward, shortly after the 2021 season came to an end.

“It tells you a lot about where (Rudolph) stands as far as the locker room is concerned,” said Essex, though it should be noted that the Steelers’ No. 1 wide receiver has praised Rudolph, who has a 5-4-1 record as a starter and a career passer rating of 80.9.

Diontae Johnson: ‘I’m Pulling For’ Mason Rudolph

“Mason’s a great player, a great quarterback,” said Diontae Johnson in January. “He’s smart. Playing with him my rookie year, he’s shown that he can win us games. In those tough moments, he can make plays. He’s relaxed. When he was on the sideline this year, he was always on it, telling us what to look for, what coverages [defenses] mostly were in. Just throwing out plays where we could beat certain coverages.

“(Rudolph’s) a great player,” concluded Johnson. “I’m sure he’s going to work his tail off to compete for the starting job. I’m pulling for him.”

Mason Rudolph ‘Looking Forward’ to the Quarterback Competition

Never mind that Rudolph has said that he views the one-year contract extension he signed in March 2021 as “vote of confidence” on the part of the organization. He has also said that he is “looking forward to competition” for the job, whether that’s coming from the aforementioned Haskins, a rookie like Malik Willis, a free agent like former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, or even a potential trade acquisition like Garoppolo, who is Pittsburgh’s best option, at least in the mind of former Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.

Anyway, it’s perhaps unfair to Rudolph to expect him to be a long-term starter. Outgoing general manager Kevin Colbert once said that the Steelers had a first-round grade on Rudolph—and I suppose it’s possible the organization had him rated as its 31st- or 32nd-rated player in the 2018 NFL Draft—but the reality is that he was selected No. 76 overall to be an upgrade over then-backup Landry Jones. If he turned out to be something more then that could be considered a bonus.

Four years later, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“I don’t think that he is what the Steelers are looking for as far as long-term,” concluded Essex, who has expressed a strong preference for signing former No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky to be the starter in 2022.

“We’re picking from a trash heap—for lack of a better term—right now,” Essex told Crowley, being perhaps a bit hyperbolic. “I just think (Trubisky) showed me the most upside of anyone that would be available to us without us sacrificing the draft picks or drafting (a QB) this year.”

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