Steelers’ Future at QB: ‘All-In’ With a Rookie? Big-Name Vet?

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph

Todd Olszewski/Getty Images Quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger #7 and Mason Rudolph #2of the Pittsburgh Steelers before a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 1, 2020.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-1-1 in their last six games amidst something of a resurgence on the part of longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. After four games this year, the Steelers were 1-3 and Roethlisberger had completed 109 of 170 passes for 1,033 yards (4 TDs, 4 INTs) and a passer rating of 78.9. “It’s not gonna get better,” said Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk, before wondering aloud whether it was “fair” to the rest of the team to continue playing Big Ben.

But eight weeks later, things have gotten better. In his last five starts, Roethlisberger is 115 of 173 for 1,226 yards (9 TDs, 0 INTs), good enough to raise his passer rating to 91.7, not far from his career average of 93.9. Now some NFL observers are wondering whether Roethlisberger, 39, might get another contract and play beyond this season.

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Roethlisberger and Rudolph in ’22?

Asked if the Steelers should draft a rookie quarterback next year or sign/trade for a big-name veteran like Aaron Rodgers, Steve Weissman of NFL Network told “I don’t know that they necessarily do either one, because if you take a look at their record with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers (are) 17-8 since 2019…. He’s got a .688 win percentage over the last five seasons, that’s the fifth highest among active starting quarterbacks over that span.”

In that scenario, the Steelers roll into 2022 with the same starter-backup combo as 2021, easy to do as Mason Rudolph is already under contract through the end of next season, having signed the deal with an eye toward getting the chance to compete for the starting job in Pittsburgh.

Now, in a perfect world, the Steelers would have the opportunity to select a potential franchise quarterback in the next draft or two, much like they did in 2004 when they drafted Roethlisberger No. 11 overall in the wake of a 6-10 campaign.

But that might require suffering through a losing season, plus a certain amount of good fortune. In 2004, there were three potential franchise QB’s in the draft: Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, and only two teams ahead of them—the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers—with a clear need at quarterback.

Trading Up to Draft a Quarterback?

The alternative is to trade up in the first round for a quarterback, which is a high-risk endeavor, as noted by Weissman.

“Looking back, the Jets did it for Sam Darnold in 2018. Not worth it,” he began. “Cardinals did it for Josh Rosen in 2018. Not worth it. Bears did it for Mitchell Trubisky in 2017. Uh uh. Rams did it for Jared Goff in 2016. That didn’t work out. Washington did it for RG3 (Robert Griffin III) back in 2012. That didn’t work. That was three first round picks. The Jags did it for Blaine Gabbert in 2011. Not worth it. I got more. The Eagles did it for Carson Wentz in 2016. That didn’t work out….

Weissman recalls only two recent examples in which trading up to get a potential franchise quarterback was a winning strategy, namely Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) in 2017 and Josh Allen (Bills) in 2018. But there are “a lot more instances where it didn’t work out,” he concluded, hence the possibility of the Steelers continuing to roll with Roethlisberger and Rudolph for at least one more year.

Roethlisberger has been Pittsburgh’s starter since early in the 2004 season. Rudolph was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma State after the Steelers traded up to grab him No. 76 overall. He has a 5-4-1 record as a starter and a career passer rating of 81.1.

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