Steelers

Steelers Draft, Offseason Options to Replace Big Ben

  • 2021 NFL Draft
  • NFL
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
By Daniel Kitchen November 24, 2020 0 Comment
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The 2020 season has been a much happier one for Steeler fans than 2019.

Much of that credit goes to the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose season-ending elbow injury forced 14.5 games out of the duo of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges as starters in 2019 as Pittsburgh went 8-8.

At 10-0, the Steelers are not just the final undefeated team in the NFL and back to being a Super Bowl contender, but are a legitimate front-runner for the Lombardi Trophy. The 38-year-old passer is a big reason for that, and has begun to get some buzz in the MVP conversation as a result, with 2,534 yards and a 24-5 TD-INT ratio through those 10 games.

Roethlisberger has also stated his intent to play multiple more seasons and has one more year remaining on his current deal. But, even if he’s taking snaps for the black and gold through 2021 and beyond, 2019 gave Pittsburgh a dark view into an impending future:

They need to find a replacement for their franchise QB.

It’s a tremendous task for any front office to undertake, and one the Steelers have been fortunate to be able to ignore since taking the Miami (Ohio) star in 2004’s first round. But the bill, which hasn’t come due yet, is beneath some mints on that little black tray and being escorted to the table by a server.

In-House Options

I think if 2019 proved anything — other than that the Steelers’ defense is elite and Mike Tomlin really wants to keep that streak of .500 or better seasons alive — it is that the heir to Roethlisberger does not currently exist on the roster.

Mason Rudolph got his chance to reward the organization’s faith in him. While his starts were interrupted by dirty hits and resulting injuries from the Ravens’ Earl Thomas and Browns’ Myles Garrett, his good moments and games were well overshadowed by the ones where he clearly did not look the part of a franchise gunslinger.

Out of the 32 players to attempt the most passes for their teams last season, Rudolph was 20th in completion percentage (62.2%), 29th in QB rating (82), and last in Total QBR (36.8), and at one point was benched for UDFA Devlin Hodges.

As fun to root for as a player like “Duck” was, his numbers actually fell below Rudolph’s in all three of those categories, which led to the players being swapped again late in the season.

The combined statline of the two — 276-443 for 2,828 yards and 18 TDs to 17 INTs — is not a quarterback who gets counted on to start down the line. Hodges is clinging to a practice squad spot, and Rudolph still somehow has the faith of the organization as an heir apparent. But his deal expires in 2022, and as of now it’s likely Roethlisberger will still be around at that time. He’s not the answer.

Free Agency

Could the Steelers sign a player to be a long-term replacement to Roethlisberger? Not likely, but not impossible. The team did start a free agent, Tommy Maddox, back in 2002-03, and multiple quality back-ups for the organization (Charlie Batch, Michael Vick) in the 2010’s have come off the market.

But the Steelers’ unwillingness to pursue Jameis Winston at bargain-barrel rates this offseason, despite knowing what the aforementioned back-up situation looked like, indicates the likelihood of a passer being brought in that way.

Even if that is reading the room the incorrect way and they do scout the market either of the next couple offseasons, it’s hard to imagine anything getting done. The team is already almost $20 million over the cap for 2021, and whatever space they do end up with is going to be invested in some combination of the team’s large free agency class, which includes Bud Dupree, Juju Smith-Schuster, McDowell, James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva and many others

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

There are some tantalizing options: Jacoby Brissett and Tyrod Taylor could be FAs this offseason. And if they want to go the reclamation project route, Mitchell Trubisky could be on the market.

Trade Market

One of those FA names — Darnold — has already been linked to Pittsburgh in some level of trade speculation this year.

In the last 25 years, the Steelers have traded for a QB exactly once, acquiring Byron Leftwich from Tampa Bay for a seventh-round pick in 2010. But recognizing the need for a life after Roethlisberger, many have mentioned the team not just considering Darnold, but Washington’s Dwayne Haskins Jr., and earlier Miami’s Josh Rosen (prior to his being released).

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets carries the ball during the first half of the game against the Oakland Raiders at MetLife Stadium on November 24, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

All fit the mold of what Pittsburgh would want in a QB: young, have the promise of being a first-round draft pick, and play a similar enough style to Roethlisberger that they could learn a lot from him in their seasons as an understudy. None of the deals happened, though. Could the team revisit that market in the future to find a successor?

Sure, and with the ever-changing fluctuation of what players are available, the right deal may come along at any point. But the odds are not in favor of it happening.

Consider what a player would cost. Take, for example, Darnold; you’re looking at at least a second-round pick, a pretty high cost for a player whose QB rating and Total QBR aren’t much better than Rudolph’s as a pro, but not a price I would entirely rule out paying.

Similarly, If Haskins, could go for a third-round pick (or worse), I wouldn’t rule out paying it.

Cap space, too, is a prohibitive factor in any transaction. Darnold carries a cap number of $8.3 million this season, and $9.7 million next year, with a decision looming on a fifth-year option that will only increase it further. For a team that is already going to be letting stars leave because of a cap crunch, that’s not a feasible number to bring in, meaning New York would need to be willing to eat a lion’s share of those figures.

Haskins is a little more palatable, never breaking $4.5 million prior to his fifth-year option. But again, there is already no room to work with moving into 2021 for Pittsburgh to finagle his cap hit into its books.

Talented cap magicians, Pittsburgh could make a run at making the numbers work, or look for a cheaper option to deal for. But there are few other names below the age of 30 that offer enough upside as a starter to make a trade worth it, and whose teams would even consider a deal.

Buffalo’s Jake Fromm and Indianapolis’ Jacob Eason have appeal, both of whom got a little rub as first-round picks last draft, but neither is likely to be moved just one year after being selected. Similar storylines surround other young passers around the league—New England’s Jarrett Stidham, Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew II and Carolina’s P.J. Walker.

However, none of those names have been the subject of any kind of trade speculation, proving just how small the trade market is for QBs.

Making a big swing for Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019 (going without a first-round pick for the first time since 1967 as a result) and dealing for Avery Williamson at this year’s deadline show a loosening of the team’s hesitance to wheel and deal.

Yet, with few options available on the market and not much money available to absorb a contract should a deal be had, a swap probably isn’t where the next long-term Steeler QB is coming from, barring an unexpected development over the next couple seasons.

Steelers’ 2021 NFL Draft

Consider this year’s class the price of success for the Steelers. Because while fans certainly enjoy their team being 10-0 and pacing the NFL field in success this season, those wins and an expected playoff run have pushed Pittsburgh out of range for a potential pipe dream this coming April.

As fun as it is to imagine Trevor Lawrence in a Pittsburgh uniform, that was never a reality for a generational QB prospect who almost assuredly will go first overall, and for a team whose floor has been 8-8 for going on two decades. But a non-zero chance did exist that with another middling season, Justin Fields or Trey Lance could have been a target for the team via a trade up.

The undefeated start has probably ruled that out. If Pittsburgh loses games down the stretch and drops its first playoff game, they would pick somewhere between 19-24, and probably at the back end of that range. With a playoff win (or by holding onto the first-round bye, which they currently lead Kansas City for by one game), and then a loss in the second round, Pittsburgh would pick between 25-28.

Since 2000, only one team picking 19th or later has jumped into the Top 10 to pick a QB: Kansas City, who jumped from 27 to 10 in 2017 to select Patrick Mahomes II. A lot can change in the draft process and lead-up to April, but right now, it is likely all three QBs are off the board by that juncture.

As of now, the first-round order places the Jets, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Dallas, Washington, L.A. Chargers, Giants, Miami, Atlanta, and Carolina as the first 10 teams selecting. The Jets and Washington are virtual locks to go QB if they retain their spots in the top five, and Jacksonville would have a hard time passing up Lance or Fields if they stick in second. Carolina, Atlanta, and the Giants can’t be entirely ruled out of going for a QB if they end up in the Top 10, either, and throw Dallas into the fray if Dak Prescott ends up elsewhere this offseason.

That’s a lot of teams to jump for one of the big three quarterbacks. At this flashpoint in time, two names have entered or are on the fringe of being taken in the first: BYU’s Zach Wilson and Florida’s Kyle Trask.

Wilson is close to locking himself into the top half of the first round for the foreseeable future after a 2,724-yard, 26-TD start to the season that sees him fourth in the country in QB rating, with only two interceptions thrown, and leading BYU to an 9-0 record and the No. 8 spot in the latest AP poll. The schedule he has faced is weak, but a big bowl game or by good fortune a spot in the playoffs could give him a chance to prove he is legit and worth the Steelers taking a hard look at him.

Trask is further out, but is leading the nation in TD passes by a five-score margin, and has led Florida to No. 6 in the AP poll. Like Wilson, a big game late (possibly against LSU, which was delayed due to COVID-19) in the season would convince a lot of people, myself included, that he should be considered higher than the second.

If either, or another riser who makes the climb up boards these next few months, gets Pittsburgh to fall in love with them, it will still likely involve a trade, with teams outside the Top 10 like Detroit (currently drafting 11th), New England (12th), Minnesota (13th), San Francisco (14th), and Chicago (16th) all in the market for answers if a player is available. Such a deal would cost the Steelers some extra picks, potentially ones that negate the value of making a deal to begin with.

Examples since 2000 of teams jumping up from the mid-to-late 20s to make a selection are rare. In addition to Kansas City in 2017 (who gave up a third and their next first-rounder), there was Houston that same draft (moving from 25 to 12, giving up its next first) for Deshaun Watson, Cleveland in 2014 (moving from 26 to 22 to draft Johnny Manziel, paying a third), and Baltimore in 2008 (paying a third and a sixth to jump from 26 to 18 and select Joe Flacco).

With the number of players who will need replacing from the next couple Steeler free agency classes, I don’t think the team would be willing to spend an additional first-rounder to select a QB in the first round this coming draft. If the price is only a couple Day 2 or 3 picks, and a player like Wilson makes it through that gauntlet of teams needing QBs picks 10-19, that’s the kind of unexpected circumstance that could yield the next franchise QB.

One other variable bears mentioning here: Mason Rudolph. When the Steelers traded up to take him in the third round of 2018, they did so to groom him to be the next starter, stating they had a first-round grade on him. While many have been able to discern that is probably not the way this story plays out, the organization has shown they retain plenty of faith in his becoming more than a back-up.

And that faith may dissuade Pittsburgh from pulling the trigger on a draft-day move if one is available.

Looking Ahead to the 2022 NFL Draft

Out of all the possible ways the next long-term starter for the Steelers could arrive, this is the one I believe has the highest chance of realization. Many of the team’s biggest offseason decisions on who to resign and let leave will be come and gone, and if Roethlisberger is still playing, it will be at age 40 and with only a short time left to mentor a young QB before retirement.

While absent a prospect like Lawrence or Fields who you can state so far out will be a lock for the early first round, there are plenty of names who can be looked at as potential targets in a year’s time as the 2022 draft approaches.

Sam Howell from North Carolina and Kedon Slovis from USC and two such names—both of whom threw for 30+ plus touchdowns and 3,500 yards as freshmen with passer efficiency ratings north of 160. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler has shown promise in his first year starting for the Sooners, and Lincoln Riley has put together an incredible resume in such a short time for molding players into elite QB prospects at the school.

Bo Nix at Auburn, Jayden Daniels at Arizona State, and Spencer Sanders at Oklahoma State are three others who could easily break out and move up boards this season and next, and Taulia Tagovailoa at Maryland can get his name out there in talks if his electric play for the Terrapins this season can continue into next fall.

And that’s not even considering the potential for some quarterbacks eligible for this year’s class to elect to return to school for another season. Depending on where they feel they may be drafted and the status of their draft stock, how competitive the QB class is to be selected high, or how many teams are rumored to be in the market for a QB in the draft, Wilson, Alabama’s Mac Jones, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, or even one of the three biggest names could choose to return to campus and take another run at being a first-rounder in 2022 instead of this coming April.

The 2022 class is entirely fluid for now, and will not begin to take a loose shape until the college season ends and we approach the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine. Regardless of whether it looks like a strong or weak year, the Steelers will likely be in a similar position drafting next season.

The roster is talented enough to be considered a likely playoff team once again, putting them at a pick no higher than 18 (if the NFL uses a seven-team playoff again) or 20 (if they revert to a six-team postseason). For a top name, Pittsburgh will have to trade up, potentially forfeiting an additional first round selection to do so.

For a team that is so synonymous with annual success and consistently fielding a winning team despite players needing replaced every season, it is a price Pittsburgh will have to pay at one point or another if they want a seamless transition to the post-Roethlisberger era that does not involve a sub-.500 season.

 


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Here to discuss and examine all things NFL Draft. Occasionally sarcastic. Life is better with more scrambling QBs.

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