It’s been treated as a foregone conclusion this offseason that pending free agent quarterback Mason Rudolph would not be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2023.
However, TribLive’s Tim Benz reported on February 23 that a return to Pittsburgh for Rudolph is not out of the question.
“According to a text exchange Wednesday with a source close to the situation, Rudolph’s primary goal is to explore his options outside of Pittsburgh,” Benz wrote. “However, he wouldn’t ‘close the door unnecessarily’ on another contract with the Steelers.”
That report differs quite a bit from another report from The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly who wrote on February 1 that Rudolph has “zero interest in returning” to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers drafted Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
He received the opportunity to start 8 games in 2019 while Ben Roethlisberger was out nearly the entire season with an elbow injury. But since then, he’s made only 2 starts, including none since the Steelers signed Mitch Trubisky and drafted Kenny Pickett last year.
The One Scenario Where Rudolph Could Return to Steelers
While maybe Rudolph doesn’t hold as much resentment toward the Steelers as he appeared to express in a December comment, he’s not going to return to the team that drafted him to be the No. 3 quarterback again.
Obviously, Kenny Pickett isn’t going anywhere. So, seemingly the only way Rudolph returns to the Steelers is if they part ways with backup Mitch Trubisky.
Rumors have swirled this offseason that that’s possible or even likely.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac speculated that the Steelers could get a third or fourth-round pick for Trubisky if they tried to trade him. Or they could simply release Trubisky, which is what Kaboly has suggested this offseason.
Parting with Trubisky would save the Steelers $8 million in cap space. Benz proposed in that scenario the team could then re-sign Rudolph for about $5 million and have an additional $3 million to spend on other free agents.
The Chicago Bears drafted Trubisky at No. 2 overall in 2017. He is 31-24 as an NFL starter including his 2-3 mark with the Steelers during 2022.
In addition to the Steelers and Bears, Trubisky also played for the Buffalo Bills.
Does Rudolph ‘Want’ to Return to Pittsburgh?
Although it’s a positive for the Steelers to have as many backup quarterback options as possible this offseason, there’s a difference between Rudolph “wanting” to return and “not ruling” it out.
Benz’s report placed Rudolph far more toward the latter.
“That sure sounded to me like Rudolph doesn’t want to burn a bridge and would come back if there is nowhere else to go,” Benz wrote. “But he wants to test the waters just about anywhere else first to see if he has a better shot to fight for a starting job.
“The sense I got was that if it came down to a 50-50 choice between equal offers from “Team X” as the No. 2 quarterback and the Steelers as the No. 2 quarterback, Rudolph would likely lean toward Team X for a fresh start.”
The Steelers could wait to cut Trubisky until re-signing Rudolph if the team has its heart set on one of them returning for 2023. But if Rudolph takes his time in free agency as Benz suggested he will, then the Steelers won’t be able to take full advantage of the cap savings from cutting Trubisky.
Rudolph also may not open negotiations with the Steelers until it’s a guarantee he would be the backup signal caller.
Cutting Trubisky may be the only way to bring back Rudolph. But if Rudolph then signs with another team, the Steelers will have to look elsewhere for a backup quarterback.
Rudolph owns a 5-4-1 record as an NFL starter. He last won a game in 2019.
In 17 NFL appearances, he’s completed 61.5% of his passes for an average of 6.2 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.