Let's get to it:
GARY KOPPERMAN FROM MECHANICSBURG, PA: I always have been amazed at the way fans seem to think they can predict a player's future after he plays a half season of football. Mason Rudolph was considered a first-round talent by some scouts and he seems to have the qualities of an NFL quarterback but lacks experience. Terry Bradshaw's first couple of years were horrible by most standards, and Ben Roethlisberger looked bad against the Patriots in the 2019 opener and then the next week against Seattle before he was injured. To what standard would you hold Mason to after eight games as a starter? Do we compare Mason to Ben vs. the Patriots in opener, or do you compare him to Bradshaw's first couple of years and give him time to develop and hone his skills?
ANSWER: I cannot even imagine how Terry Bradshaw's early NFL career would've been judged by today's hot-take culture. As a rookie, Bradshaw started eight games and played in 13, and he finished that season by completing 38.1 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns, 24 interceptions, a rating of 31.3, and he was the first overall pick of the 1970 NFL Draft. In his second season, Bradshaw started 13 of the 14 regular season games, and his completion percentage rose to 54.4 to go along with 13 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, and a rating of 59.7. In 1972, his third season, Bradshaw completed 47.7 percent, with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions; in 1973, he completed 49.4 percent, with 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions; and in 1974, the team's first Super Bowl season, he was benched for a time and ended up completing 45.3 percent with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. Bradshaw is in the Hall of Fame on merit, he was a four-time Super Bowl winning starting quarterback, and a back-to-back Super Bowl MVP winner, but he finished his career with 212 touchdown passes and 210 interceptions. And in the games in which he was voted Super Bowl MVP he did it by throwing a combined six touchdown passes and four interceptions.
Since you asked me how I would judge Rudolph, I would compare him to himself. By that I mean the way to judge performance is by seeing if it improves from one game to the next, or one season to the next. In terms of Rudolph in 2019, I would suggest the possibility that his last game – on the road vs. the Jets on Dec. 22 – would have turned out to be his best game had he not been injured and sidelined in the second half. That day Rudolph came off the bench in the second quarter with the Steelers trailing, 10-0, and in three series he brought the team to a tie and finished by completing 70 percent of his passes for 129 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 104.0. In 2020, Rudolph should be compared to his 2019 self and his progress or lack thereof determined based on that.
MICHAEL ROBERTS FROM CECILIA, KY: Other than the obvious of getting Ben Roethlisberger healthy, in your view what is the Steelers' No. 1 priority in 2020? Additionally, which young guys do think need to make a big step for us to be successful next year?
ANSWER: After living through last season, I would say the Steelers' No. 1 priority for 2020 besides getting Ben Roethlisberger healthy is keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy. And I type that without a hint of sarcasm. The 2019 season showed how different the team is without its franchise quarterback, and so a priority for 2020 is to make it through all 16 regular season games with him in the lineup. As to the second part of your question, there are a rather large number of young players who need to take a big step forward for the Steelers to be contenders. On offense, a partial list would include the top three receivers – Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and even JuJu Smith-Schuster, who will be going into his fourth NFL season but still can be considered a young player because he won't be 24 until mid-November. Add to this list James Conner and Benny Snell at running back, Zach Gentry at tight end, Devin Bush at inside linebacker, Ola Adeniyi at outside linebacker, and Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety. Offensive tackles Zach Banner and Chuks Okorafor. And there are others. The Steelers have a lot of young players occupying, or who will be expected to occupy, important roles in 2020, and every one of them will need to improve for the team to end up where it wants to end up this coming season.
JOHN MATTHEWS FROM GLEN ALLEN, VA: Did the Steelers hire a wide receivers coach?
ANSWER: There have been a couple of erroneous reports circulating that a final decision had been made on a wide receivers coach, but as of yet a final decision hasn't been made.
EVAN HAYDEN FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: What do you see as a bigger necessity this offseason for the Steelers: running back or tight end?
ANSWER: I actually see it as a dead heat, because if Vance McDonald is able to stay healthy for the 2020 season, then the need to add a tight end to come in and contribute immediately is lessened, and the same thing can be said about running back if James Conner is able to stay healthy for the 2020 season. And based on the players' respective injury histories, I don't know that you can predict accurately which one, or both, or neither, will be available for all or most of the regular season. I see both McDonald and Conner as being the kinds of players who can give the Steelers what they need as starters at their respective positions when healthy, and I don't currently see players behind them on the depth chart able to pick up the slack. There are complementary types at both positions behind the starters, but there is only one No. 1 tight end and one No. 1 running back on the roster currently.
JAMES ROUSE FROM SYRACUSE, NY: With Bud Dupree most likely to demand a salary in the range of $16-plus million per year after putting up only a single season of great statistics, would it be wise to look at cheaper alternatives? I like Dupree, but we need to save money for T.J. Watt for next year and more importantly this year.
ANSWER: Look for cheaper alternatives? Where? The Steelers have no No. 1 pick. There is no such thing as a tree that grows productive 3-4 outside linebackers who can be picked from it like peaches, and why would you want to mess with one of the key ingredients on a defense that's evolving into one of the best in the league? T.J. Watt cannot become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and as I've written many, many times in this space, don't make decisions until it's necessary. That doesn't mean you make no attempt to get something done with Watt, but the urgency this offseason isn't at the same level as it is with Dupree. I would want to keep them both, and it's a job you do one at a time. Keeping Dupree for 2020 won't have any negative impact on the Steelers keeping Watt when the time comes.
KEN WILSON FROM MILTON, FL: Any thoughts on how much attention Paxton Lynch will get this upcoming season? He was a first-round draft pick by Denver, and the Broncos have proven through the years that they can't coach quarterbacks. The only good quarterback they have had recently is Peyton Manning, and he came to them as a finished product. With proper coaching do you think Lynch can become a viable quarterback?
ANSWER: Paxton Lynch is exactly the kind of player who should benefit from working with new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, and it wouldn't surprise me if Lynch doesn't work on some fundamentals with a private coach before the Steelers offseason program is allowed to begin by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This is going to be a spring and summer where Lynch should expect to get many opportunities to showcase the abilities that went into him being a first-round pick coming out of college, and it's going to come down to more than just proper coaching. Lynch is going to have to display the proper professionalism and approach necessary to win an NFL roster spot, because he is running out of chances. It's not just Denver's fault that Lynch failed there. The player has to bear some of that responsibility as well.
ROBERT GARDNER FROM NEPTUNE, NJ: With Ben Roethlisberger's elbow injury and recovery, at this point in his career do you think the Steelers would consider drafting an impact running back in second round to stress the running game based on the success of the Titans and the 49ers had this past season?
ANSWER: Running the football is important in today's NFL, as it always has been, and Steelers President Art Rooney II has said publicly he would like to see the team run the ball more effectively and efficiently. But before you get too carried away with this notion, here are two facts to understand: Ben Roethlisberger isn't getting paid all that money to be a mailman, and neither the 49ers nor the Titans won the Super Bowl. Winning a championship requires a balanced offense, not a one-dimensional offense.
JAMES SNOWDEN FROM LATROBE, PA: Any chance the Steelers look at Cardale Jones at quarterback?
ANSWER: The Steelers are already looking at him, because the team monitors all professional football leagues. But the Steelers already have five quarterbacks under contract on their 90-man roster, and one of them is J.T. Barrett. Jones and Barrett were teammates at Ohio State for the 2014-15 seasons, when Jones was a sophomore and junior, and Barrett was a freshman and sophomore. During those seasons, Jones appeared in 20 total games and completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 2,319 yards, with 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and what would be a 100.7 rating if calculated by NFL standards. Barrett appeared in 23 games and completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards, with 45 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a 110.1 rating by NFL standards. I'd say the Steelers have the right guy under contract, and the right guy is in the XFL.