Throwing against air in street clothes doesn’t mean much at this point in the offseason. Being labeled a loser after organized team activities and minicamp doesn’t mean much either. Unless you’re the first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers’ offseason kicked off May 16 with three rookie minicamp practices, six OTAs and three mandatory minicamp sessions. Mark Kaboly, Steelers insider for The Athletic, witnessed it all and penned a review of the quarterback battle that’s underway in Pittsburgh.
Kaboly’s informed take is that rookie Kenny Pickett came out on the losing end of the competing trio of him, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph in the early portion of the offseason.
“Pickett: Loser … with a huge caveat that maybe we were expecting to see Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett emerge in the spring,” Kaboly wrote.
The reason for the loser label is simple: The pace of the pros, even in practice, is that much faster than the collegiate level.
“If you are going to nitpick, you can make an argument that the ball didn’t come out of Pickett’s hands as cleanly at times as Trubisky and Rudolph, but that’s something that could go along with getting the ball out of his hands a lot quicker than he did in college.”
ALL the latest Steelers news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Steelers newsletter here!
Too Early to Call
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has said very little to this point about the three-way race. And it’s because, from his perspective, there’s not much to be said.
“Nobody is going to win a job or lose a job out here in shorts,” Tomlin said of the quarterback competition in a May press conference. “So, pardon me if I don’t give you what you’re looking for.”
The NFL says the purpose of the offseason workout programs is to “provide training, teaching and physical conditioning for players.” It’s a precursor to the nitty-gritty of training camp, which begins in earnest in late July. That is when the real battles begin.
So, the fact that Kenny Pickett was deemed the “loser” of the quarterback group in his primal weeks with Pittsburgh should come as no surprise. The internal expectations were not for Pickett to run away with the job this early in his career. That’s part of the reason the Steelers signed Mitch Trubisky to a two-year deal: If the desired signal-caller (ahem, Pickett) was available for them to select at No. 20, he would need time to learn how to be a pro.
And the club clearly wasn’t comfortable with Rudolph being the guy to learn how to be a pro from.
Detailed Plan for QB Competition
Mike Tomlin is heading into his 16th season as head coach of the Steelers, so it’s hard to believe this is his first time with a true quarterback competition on his hands.
As a detail-oriented leader, Tomlin will likely be reflected in the team’s framework of determining the Week 1 starter at quarterback. Ultimately, though, it’s simple: Whoever displays the best on-field production throughout training camp will get the job.
As it played out in offseason workouts, Mitch Trubisky got first-team reps, followed by Steelers veteran Mason Rudolph and Pickett.
“I think Coach [Tomlin] has been very clear that Mitch is No. 1, working with the ones and doing a really good job with that. Mason is No. 2, and Kenny is No. 3 and we are working that way based on experience, based on résumé,” Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada told the media on June 8. “We have been clear that this has been a laid-out plan of how we are going to evolve and who our quarterback is going to be for the 2022 season.”
“The plan is so clear that right now, we are just getting better and putting in our offense and putting in a lot of parts of our offense, and we are going to try to evolve and find who does this well, who does that well, who has this intangible thing, who has this tangible thing.”
Rudolph Knows Nothing
If you take Rudolph’s word for it, exactly what Tomlin’s plan for the three-way competition entails hasn’t been divulged.
“I know nothing about that process of what they are looking for as much as you,” Rudolph told reporters on June 1.
If what Rudolph says is true, the approach is likely by design. Vying for the starting gig is arduous enough without letting the process get to your head. Tomlin simply wants the guys to “be their best selves” and it’ll all fall naturally into place.
As Kaboly noted in his assessment of the quarterback battle, part of the plan early in the offseason is for Pickett to familiarize himself with the playbook and learn how to be a pro.
“The more comfortable Pickett gets with the scheme, responsibilities and nuances of the playbook now, the better chance there will be to have actual competition in training camp,” Kaboly wrote.
Though the Steelers insider labeled him a spring practices “loser,” Pickett could win if he utilizes everything he soaked up these past several weeks to his advantage when the competition ramps up at camp.
“Going through a practice, going through some weeks here, learning how to be a professional and watching these guys and taking things from them and trying to be the best pro I can be, so I think it was a 100 percent successful spring,” he said.
Sounds like a winner to me. Only time will tell.