THE STANDARD IS THE STANDARD: NOW TO MAINTAIN IT


Jake Bowtell

Washington Post

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 campaign met an inglorious end on Sunday night against a rampant Kansas City Chiefs team at a raucous Arrowhead Stadium. Despite managing to hold the Chiefs scoreless until deep into the 2nd quarter of the game, Pittsburgh’s gritty defensive efforts were ultimately undone by the insipid production of their offensive counterparts. Even after being gifted two turnover possessions and a scoop and score by their defense, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense conspired to grind their gears and allow the Chiefs to slowly but surely find their rhythm. Once Kansas City found their rhythm, it was a pace too rapid for the Steelers to keep time with.

The end of Pittsburgh’s’ season brings a belated curtain down on the near two decade career of their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. With the man they called Big Ben at the controls of the offense, Pittsburgh has enjoyed a remarkable era of consistency that has seen the acquisition of two Lombardi trophies from three Super Bowl appearances. Were it not for the consistent dominance of the evil Patriots Empire in New England, the football team from the Steel City may have celebrated one or two extra parades in the 21st Century.

The Athletic

But just as Roethlisberger’s career has now passed into its winter, so must the Steelers organization plant the seeds for a new spring. With the most important position in the game now vacant in Pittsburgh, the franchise enters a delicate phase of development as they attempt to maintain “the standard” that Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin so often references.

NYPost


The roster in Pittsburgh is not untalented. They maintain a vicious pass rushing ability, and decent talent in the linebacking group and the defensive secondary. The offense, while requiring further development from its young and inexperienced offensive line, has a remarkably exciting array of weapons for a team that struggled to put up points the last two seasons. First round running back Najee Harris is coming off an exemplary rookie season in which he had only one fumble on 395 total touches. The receiving group of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Ray Ray McLoud, and James Washington isn’t without a massive upside of its own, and while unlikely, may even see the retention of pending free agent J.J. Smith-Schuster in 2022. Add rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth (the only TE in NFL history to record a rookie season of more than 60 catches and over 7 touchdowns) to the mix and you have the receiving and running weapons around which a powerful offense can be built.

Under center, though, is a different story. Who will quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team without a losing season under Mike Tomlin, whose reign dates all the way back to 2007, into the 2022 season and beyond? Which player, plucked from the throng of many, currently practising their dropbacks and deep balls and play fakes on fields around America, will be tasked with the heavy task of leading Pittsburgh to another Super Bowl parade in the future?

In the Steel City, “the standard is the standard”. The question now is how to maintain it at the most important single position in sports.

A look in the QB cupboard

Denver Post

Before moving onto more speculative analysis of potential Free Agency, Trade or Draft moves the Pittsburgh Steelers might undertake this offseason at quarterback, it feels appropriate to address the current situation at the position within the organization.

The only quarterback currently under contract with the Steelers in the 2022 season is former Oklahoma State Cowboy Mason Rudolph. Rudolph was Pittsburgh’s 3rd round selection in the 2018 Draft, and has been the go-to backup behind Ben Roethlisberger in the last three seasons. He has started 10 games in that time, with the majority of his starts coming during 2019 after Roethlisberger was ruled out for the season with an elbow injury that required surgery and an extensive period of rehabilitation.

During that 2019 campaign, Rudolph started 8 games, with a win-loss record of 5-3-0, completing 62.2% of his passes for 1,765 yards at 6.2 yards per attempt while throwing 13 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions. His best performance that season came in a 27-3 victory over the Bengals in Week 4, where he completed 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His worst performance of the season came in a Week 11 loss to the Cleveland Browns, a game where he completed just 52.2% of his 44 pass attempts, for 221 yards at 5.0 yards per attempt with 1 touchdown pass and 4 interceptions. That game was also remembered for the ugly spat between him and Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett, who struck Rudolph with his own helmet after an alleged racial slur.

Rudolph has started just two games in the two following seasons, playing in place of Ben Roethlisberger in the Week 17 dead-rubber loss to the Cleveland Browns in 2020, and then throwing 50 passes as the starter in the Week 10 tie with the Lions this season, after Roethlisberger spent time on the NFL’s COVID/Reserve list.

In his four years in the NFL, it has been hard to identify as a viewer any significant improvement in Rudolph’s performances across his 10 starts. Admittedly, it is a small sample-size on which to evaluate a quarterback, but given he struggled to fend off undrafted QB Devlin Hodges for the job in 2019, it’s fair to assume that he hasn’t exactly set the practice field alight either.

The same question marks over Rudolph from the time he first entered the NFL still remain. He has enough arm strength to function as a competent NFL quarterback, but seems to struggle with happy feet in the pocket, and fails to identify reads quickly and distribute the ball in a rapid and efficient manner. His performance against the Detroit Lions this season, a game in which he was pressured on just 0.0% of dropbacks and completed just 30 of 50 pass attempts for 277 yards at 4.8 yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Passing stats) hardly inspired confidence.

NFL

Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs are both quarterbacks who were contracted with the Steelers through 2021 who could be re-signed as Free Agents if the Steelers liked what they saw across the season. But while Dobbs has been on and off the Steelers roster for a number of years, it is Haskins who presents the only real competition against Rudolph if the Steelers decide to head into the season with a room made up entirely of quarterbacks they have already had in-house during 2022. Asked whether he felt the team had an everyday starter already on the roster in Rudolph or Haskins, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin replied that both quarterbacks “…had their moments, but they’ll have to prove that. And not only in the team development process, but through playing itself”.

While the Haskins signing seemed to serve as an experiment in kicking the tires on a value-degraded former first-rounder, the Tomlin feedback is hardly a rousing vote of confidence for a guy like Mason Rudolph who has now been rostered in the NFL for four seasons and been unable to solidify his future as a starter despite gaining 10 regular season opportunities to do so.

I would place the likelihood of the Steelers heading into 2022 with Rudolph or Haskins as their preferred starter as highly doubtful.

Trades & Free Agency

PFT

As we delve into assessing the trade and free agency options for Pittsburgh at the quarterback position in 2022, it’s important to outline the Steelers’ cap situation ahead of a new season.

Without a franchise quarterback on their roster, Pittsburgh enters the campaign with $42.7M in available cap space. While there are significant players on the roster at positions other than quarterback about to hit free agency, including CB Joe Haden and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers still find themselves in a far more favorable cap surplus than at any time in recent memory. With that said, it’s important to look at the historical context of Pittsburgh’s previous moves in the trade and free agent quarterback markets.

In the Super Bowl era, the only quarterbacks to have been brought to Pittsburgh via trade or free agency and start significant numbers of games for the black and gold are Dick Shiner (20 starts from 1968-1969), Mike Tomzcak (27 starts from 1993-1999), and Tommy Maddox (32 starts from 2001-2005). All other quarterbacks to start a relevant number of games for the Steelers since Shiner in 1968 have been drafted and developed by the organization.

However, with the amount of talent they currently possess at key positions on both sides of the ball, and with a void at quarterback not experienced at the franchise for almost two decades, it’s worth taking the time to do a little reckless speculation about the possibility of Pittsburgh entering the trade and free agency market for an instant plug and play QB talent in 2022.

Twitter


In terms of trade, the names at the top of everyone’s minds going into the offseason are the once disgruntled Aaron Rodgers, the option-exploring Russell Wilson, and the oft maligned Derek Carr. While some readers may ask about the Houston Texans’ one-time sensation Deshaun Watson, given the circumstances surrounding his legal situation at this time I have decided to abstain from any speculation about him for this position. The thought of him starting at the Steelers for me is subjectively too distasteful, while objectively it feels too difficult to roll the bones and make predictions on his future with any sort of accuracy. I implore you, dear reader, to set him aside in this conversation, at this time.

Despite some winking interplay from Rodgers to Tomlin during the Steelers’ Week 4 clash with the Packers, I find it difficult to imagine the Green Bay legend making his way to the Steel City.

The primary reason for my skepticism is because I believe that significant effort has been made by the Green Bay front office, and in particular their GM Brian Gutekunst, to hose down the bridges that were until recently being burned. It seems that sense finally reigned supreme in Wisconsin, with another year of opulent regular season success for the Packers serving to smooth over some of the thornier elements of the relationship between organization and player. A realisation perhaps reached too, that the grass is not always greener, for either party involved. The love for Rodgers from the Green Bay faithful and community is electric and tangible, while the Love holding the clipboard behind the Packers’ longtime starter appears raw, and unready, at best. I don’t believe Rodgers is going anywhere in 2022, least of all Pittsburgh.

The idea of Seattle’s Russell Wilson arriving in the Steel City seems even more fanciful than Rodgers. After months of trade speculation last offseason, Wilson remained a Seahawk in 2021 and performed well below his own lofty standards, continuing something of a form slump that began in the second half of the previous year. Despite denying he would waive the No Trade Clause in his current contract to pursue the possibility of a landing spot with the Giants, Broncos or Saints as recently as December, Wilson is now reported by NFL Insider Ian Rapoport to be willing to “explore his options” this off-season. The headache of Wilson’s grating off-field persona seems tedious enough to deal with, though stellar on-field performance often smoothes over such issues. But the real sticking point to me seems that in all of the many rumors and leaks over Mr Unlimited’s preferred destinations outside of Seattle, Pittsburgh has yet to feature. If we want to get into the non-football weeds, it also seems unlikely that the dazzling superstar stylings of Wilson and wife Ciara would find much of a fit in Pittsburgh.

Also on the market, potentially, is Derek Carr, a man who said in June that he’d “probably quit football” if he had to play for a team other than the Raiders. Carr’s popularity among Vegas fans seems divided, with the followers of the black and silver torn between unfiltered love, or unfettered hatred, for their starting quarterback of the past eight seasons. Carr is something of a confounding riddle, capable on one play of painting the sky with some of the more gorgeous rainbow throws you will ever see from an NFL quarterback, while on the next operating as if deaf and blind to pressure as he is karate chopped for yet another fumble while holding onto the ball as his pocket collapses around him. His career passing numbers far exceed his win-loss record as a starter, but while it is blasphemy to say that he resides in the lower third of starters in the league, it is equally impossible to place him within the upper echelon of players at his position. He resides somewhere in the middle of quarterback America, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending, at times predictably with the situation, and other times with concerning and inexplicable immediacy. While perhaps attainable, Carr offers more of a stable floor than a soaring ceiling for a Steelers organization looking to rally from the middle of the pack in order to ascend once more to the mountain top.

The only free agent quarterback who intrigues me for Pittsburgh is the one who, if not for injury, would have been the clear starter for New Orleans in the 2021 campaign. Jameis Winston got the Saints off to a solid start this season, leading the team to a 5-2 record through seven games, completing 59% of his passes for 1,170 yards with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Because of his injury, it has perhaps flown under the radar the sort of improvements Winston seemed to be making as he adjusted to his Lasik improved eye-sight and consistent reps as a starter. Should the Saints opt to go in a different direction at quarterback and not re-sign Winston, I think this could be a fascinating opportunity for the Steelers to bring in an experienced player whose value should be extremely cap-friendly in the wake of an injury-interrupted season. The Steelers and Winston have been linked by rumor before, though the presence of entrenched starter Ben Roethlisberger no doubt prevented any serious pursuit. With Roethlisberger trotting into retirement, now could be the perfect opportunity for Pittsburgh to bring Winston into the organization on a short-term deal.

The Draft

SI

As mentioned earlier, the NFL Draft is the way the Pittsburgh Steelers have built the majority of their considerable success at the quarterback position during the Super Bowl era. From four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw in 1970, to two time Lombardi trophy-winner Roethlisberger in 2004, there have been a flurry of names who have served as the Pittsburgh starter after being drafted and developed by the organization. Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, all were on a Steelers’ draft card prior to donning the black and gold as the starting quarterback.

If draft and development has been the tried and true method for the team from the Steel City for over half a century at the quarterback position, which players from the next crop of pro football hopefuls provide the best targets for Pittsburgh in the 2022 Draft?

While not a particularly deep quarterback class when compared to some of those from recent years, 2022 still offers several interesting prospects for consideration. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they currently hold the 20th pick in the 1st round, which means that barring an aggressive move up the board, they are on the outside looking in at the more broadly fancied names in this year’s class.

CBS

The first of those candidates is the big-armed scrambler from Ole Miss, Matt Corral. Corral has served as the primary starter for the last two seasons with the Rebels, after being used in more of a rotational arrangement in 2018 and 2019. His arm strength is undoubted, with the ability to launch deep strikes at will, even after the departure of some of his premium receiving weapons ahead of the 2021 campaign. That steady stream of production, in spite of a changing support cast around him, should do well to boost Corral’s stocks, unlike fellow draft hopeful Sam Howell at UNC, whose numbers regressed after the departure of his key weapons in 2021. Corral also cleaned up some of his turnover issues this season, throwing just 5 interceptions after chucking 14 in 2020, and while his passing touchdown count regressed from 29 in his Sophomore season to 20 in his Senior year, the threat of his legs became far more evident in his final college appearances. Corral was responsible for 614 yards rushing and 11 scores on the ground in 2021, both career highs. While Corral would provide the requisite arm strength, and the mobility Mike Tomlin referenced as being of high value in the modern game during his postseason press conference, the Ole Miss Rebel’s stocks would have to drop significantly in order for him to be available to the Steelers at Pick 20.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Up next is local product Kenny Pickett from the Pitt Panthers. I haven’t been able to watch an absolute ton of full Kenny Pickett games the last few years, but I’ve watched some bits here and there and this is what I’ve gleaned. Pickett went through his first four seasons at the college level completing around 60% of his passes, hovering between 6.4 and 7.7 yards per attempt on average per season, while throwing a combined 39 touchdowns and 25 interceptions from 2017-2020. Nothing particularly eye-catching. But those numbers were blown to smithereens in his 2021 campaign as the Pitt QB completed 67.2% of his passes for 4,319 yards at a career-high 8.7 yards per attempt with 42 touchdown passes and just 7 interceptions. A hell of a bump, right? 


Even from the small sample-size I’ve seen, Pickett possesses enough arm strength to make it at the pro level, and enough athleticism and mobility to make plays with his legs in the ground game. Across his career he managed 801 yards on 417 carries, with 20 rushing touchdowns. More Joe Burrow than Lamar Jackson, but that’s plenty mobile enough to dance and evade in the pocket or roll out on a bootleg, and more than enough reason to be excited about the local lad. Pickett has playmaking ability inside and outside of the scheduled offense, and that’s something Steelers fans have enjoyed for decades with Big Ben. While Pickett should be absolutely commended for producing such a massive spike in production during his Senior season this past year, it is fair to ask whether the 3 middling years as a starter that preceded it are more indicative of the product over the long term. Time will tell on that. Regardless of Pickett’s true quality, the Steelers will have to be aggressive to get after the Pitt product. He may have played his college ball within Pittsburgh’s geography, but that counts for nothing in the NFL. This isn’t a recruitment pitch, its a draft. I imagine the Steelers would have to get move up the board significantly if they’re to pluck Kenny Pickett up over a number of other teams who will be fantasising heavily after the insane 2021 he produced. 

Fox News

Speaking of mobility, and a big arm, Liberty’s Malik Willis is a name that has been linked through rumor to the Steelers in 2022. Willis spent two seasons at Auburn in the SEC as a backup, before ascending to the role of starter for Liberty in 2020. Across his final two seasons of college football, Willis threw for 5,107 yards at a completion percentage of 62.4% with 47 passing touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The threat he brings with his legs is far more potent even than Matt Corral, with Willis rushing for 1,822 yards on the ground at 5.4 yards per carry in his two seasons at Liberty, with 27 scores.


The upside of Willis is obvious. A cannon of an arm, an ability to make video-game passing plays on the move, while providing an elite running threat in the ground game. But as with all players, Willis has his weaknesses. His ball carrying technique is prone to providing turnover opportunity, and at times he would do well to throw the ball away instead of into danger. As with other gifted running quarterbacks, Willis would need to learn the delicate balance of knowing when to trust his pocket and when to escape in the NFL. Too many top athletes at the position in college become too reliant on their legs to bail out broken plays, and fail to maximize their throwing potential by simply trusting the pocket around them. Willis would provide an exceptionally high ceiling for the team that drafts him, but an exceptionally low floor as well. The variance between his best and worst still remains relatively vast.

247Sports

Bailey Zappe of Western Kentucky blasted into the record books in the 2021 season, after transferring from Houston Baptist following a shortened 2020 campaign. Zappe completed a soaring 69.3% of his 687 pass attempts, throwing for 5,967 yards at 8.7 yards per attempt and a staggering 62 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. With just 17 yards rushing on the season, Zappe does not bring the same level of explosive athleticism to the ground game as Corral or Willis, though he is mobile enough for the purpose of evasion in the pocket. However, mobility is not the reason to draft the young Hilltopper. The key trait with Zappe is his natural accuracy, and his ability to make throws at all levels of the field, with both power and touch. While not possessing a Josh Allen flame-thrower of an arm, Zappe seems to have more than enough arm strength to make a go of it at the pro level. He certainly has the ability to throw with the requisite touch and timing of an NFL quarterback.


While it’s fair to question the level of competition he played against within Conference USA, it is worth noting that his numbers hardly took a backward step against Michigan State, completing 46 of 64 passes for 488 yards with 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a Spartan team ranked 9th nationally by season’s end.
The one trait I disliked watching some Zappe film in 2021 was his propensity to chuck the ball into 50/50 (or worse) situations when the blitz got in his face. It wasn’t a frequent problem, but would be a concerning one if it were to become a prevailing habit at the next level. Fortunately, with 687 pass attempts on film from this season alone, the Steelers have plenty of tape to chew when evaluating the Western Kentucky product ahead of the Draft.

Mountain West Wire


Lastly, I’ll throw the name of a true dark-horse into the mix, by naming Carson Strong of Nevada. Strong is not a guy I’ve watched a ton of game film on, although I plan on doing so, but he is a name that has been on the tip of a few tongues for the last couple of seasons. He’s been remarkably consistent in 21 games across the last couple of years, completing a tick over 70% of his 878 pass attempts, for 7,044 yards at 8.0 yards per attempt with 63 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
He adds no running threat in the ground game, having rushed for -305 yards in his college career with 0 touchdowns. But it’s not Carson Strong’s mobility I’m interested in. It’s his ability to take care of the football, having thrown multiple interceptions in just 4 of his 32 starts in college, and his high level of efficiency in the passing game over a high volume of attempts. There is also something intangible that I just like about Strong. He seems charmingly long-armed and gangly, wears an enormous set of protective padding around his midriff, and at times sports a wispy goatee. It is an unusual physicality that the Nevada QB possesses, he does not seem cut from the perfect quarterback cloth that so many NFL draft prospects are.


Strong has not played for, or been pursued by, the usual fancy traditional power schools. 247Sports lists no other information on his recruitment profile outside of his commitment, signing, and enrollment at the Nevada Wolfpack. There are reports of injury problems with his knee, dating back as far as high school. While I wouldn’t advise drafting an injury-prone quarterback, I’ve written previously on this website about how I personally value the athlete who has faced mental and physical adversity early on in their career and fought to overcome it. Only a team’s medical staff will be able to accurately evaluate whether Strong’s physical health is a concern at the pro-level. That caper is far above this writer’s pay grade. Of course I will watch more tape and undertake more study on all of these Draft quarterbacks, but for some unknown reason in my gut, there is something that fascinates me about the idea of Carson Strong. Out of the four quarterbacks mentioned above, he would certainly seem the most easily available to the Steelers at Pick 20.

In conclusion

Tribune Review


The standard is the standard in Pittsburgh, and this offseason provides a crucial opportunity for the Steelers to maintain it. While multi-year backup Mason Rudolph headlines a relatively bare quarterback room headed into the 2022 offseason, I refuse to believe that there are not already maneuvers being plotted to make significant additions to the position ahead of a new campaign.

While there are gratuitously attractive players like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson potentially on the move in the trade market, I don’t see the Steelers being massive players in that space. A blockbuster trade isn’t congruent with the approach the franchise has taken for more than fifty years at the position, so unless Kevin Colbert decides to let everything hang loose as he heads out the door, a big swing of that nature feels highly unlikely. Free agent Jameis Winston from the Saints would make a lot of sense for a short-term exploratory acquisition for Pittsburgh, particularly if they forego the idea of drafting a rookie this year in favor of setting up a competition between a veteran and Rudolph.

Given the organization’s history of draft and development at the quarterback spot over the last half century, this avenue seems the most obvious route as things stand. While the Steelers don’t possess a Draft pick as high as might be desirable to go and get one of the top two or three prospects in the class, that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had at Pick No. 20, or even a few spots higher if they’re inclined to move up a little. Corral seems too shiny to last, but there may be the potential for Pittsburgh to make a play at Willis, Zappe, Strong or some other young player determined to etch their mark into the story of the franchise.

Whatever the case may be, I would urge fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers to bathe in this moment of uncertainty and excitement, a kind of nervous anticipation that the franchise hasn’t felt in nearly two decades. When it comes to crucial quarterback decisions since the late 1970s, the track record in the Steel City has been remarkable.

After all, the standard is the standard. Now let’s sit back and trust the process.

Jake Bowtell is a sports podcaster and writer with a particular obsession with American Football. You can listen to him on The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience, The Chaps Chat Cats, and read him on A Football World, and his Patreon page “The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience”. He resides in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, and is stared at oddly by locals when he wears his NFL jerseys down the street.

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