One of the most critical decisions the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has faced in two decades is about to be made.
For the first time since 2004, the Steelers are without their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who retired after 18 seasons in January.
Quarterbacks make the NFL go-’round and teams succeed or fail based on their strength. If Pittsburgh aims to catch up with the Cincinnati Bengals and take back the AFC North, it must choose wisely.
Only solid, veteran quarterbacks that instantly fit into a club’s scheme don’t grow on trees, nor do franchise quarterbacks. Giving up too much draft capital or salary for an experienced, recognizable name could set a club back years. Drafting a quarterback just because you need one doesn’t guarantee a 15-plus-year starter.
And so the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a bind because they waited until after Ben Roethlisberger retired to do anything about it. General manager Kevin Colbert botched the succession plan for Roethlisberger, and they over-drafted Mason Rudolph.
ALL the latest Steelers news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Steelers newsletter here!
In the Steelers’ Cards
So far, that succession plan is a weak one.
“We have confidence with Mason Rudolph,” said Colbert in a February 21 press conference. “If we were to start a season today — that’s Coach Tomlin’s decision — but if we started a season today, Mason would be our starter, and we’re excited to see where that can go.”
Strong words from the Steelers general manager, but the key word here is “if.” Thankfully, the season doesn’t start today. It’s only February, and with free agency and the NFL draft on the horizon, there’s plenty of meat on the offseason bones.
And they’ll not want to bite off more than they can chew.
There’s a ton of work ahead if the Steelers ultimately decide to move forward with Mason Rudolph as their guy. In the 10 games Rudolph has been forced to start since 2018, the Steelers are 5-4-1. His last start resulted in a Week 10 tie with the winless Detroit Lions after Roethlisberger landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
But the Steelers have no idea at this juncture who their starter will be come September. Dwayne Haskins, who Colbert said they plan to tender, is one of four quarterbacks the team will head into training camp with.
“Dwayne Haskins came in and did some nice things throughout the season as a scout team quarterback. He played some in the preseason, and we’re excited to see what Dwayne can provide either from competition or maybe he evolves as a starter.”
“None of us know at this point,” Colbert added. “I think it’ll be a great training camp for [Rudolph, Haskins], and for whatever player we’re able to add in that mix.”
A Bleak Time to Need a Quarterback
Also in that mix could be a rookie quarterback, whether they take a flier on one early or wait for one to fall.
“… There’s good quality available,” Colbert said about the 2022 quarterback draft class. “Probably not as many as there have been in recent years, but it is what it is, and we had a great look at a lot of the top quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl.”
If you read between the lines, none of the “top” quarterbacks in this draft class is bowling Colbert and the Steelers over. Colbert won’t come out and say — because he’s in the thick of things — that guys like Kenny Pickett and Mailk Willis aren’t top 20 in a typical quarterback draft class. But Doug Whaley, XFL senior vice president and former Steelers pro personnel director, tells it like it is.
“If you take the top three quarterbacks this year and put them in last year’s draft, they’re gonna be second or third-rounders,” Whaley told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan. “If you look ahead and you put ’em in next year’s draft, they’re gonna be late first-rounders, second-rounders at best.”
Will the Steelers mortgage the farm for a stop-gap veteran, risk over-drafting a rookie or roll with in-house talent? Two out of three answers will be answered in the coming weeks.