The first of a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
Joshua Dobbs, Brogan Roback, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
(Free Agent Scorecard: none)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
For the fourth time in a career that began in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger started every game of the regular season, and with the exception of one play in Baltimore and 19 in Oakland while waiting for a pain-killing injection to take effect he played every meaningful snap for the team. He finished up the regular season as the NFL leader in attempts (675), completions (452), and passing yards (5,129), which allowed him to become one of only seven quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards in a regular season.
Second-year pro Joshua Dobbs put together the best preseason of any of the quarterbacks on the roster at the time, and his performance earned him the No. 2 job behind Roethlisberger in place of veteran Landry Jones. During his preseason run to a roster spot, Dobbs completed 67.4 percent for 434 yards, with four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rating of 111.9. Dobbs also was third on the team in rushing with 64 yards on 10 carries, with another touchdown on the ground.
Because the Steelers had a veteran backup in Jones and had just used a fourth-round pick on Dobbs in 2017, it seemed unlikely the team would draft a quarterback in 2018, but when the Steelers got a third-round pick from Oakland for Martavis Bryant and Mason Rudolph still was on the board in that third round, the team pulled the trigger and added a player General Manager Kevin Colbert subsequently would say had as high a grade as the quarterbacks who ended up being picked in the first round. Rudolph was inactive for every regular season game, but his passer rating for the preseason was a respectable 90.6.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
After Roethlisberger finished the 2018 season with a league best 5,129 passing yards, it marked the second time he finished a regular season atop the NFL in that statistic. In 2014, Roethlisberger led the league with 4,952 passing yards.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2019
On two separate occasions in 2019 already, Steelers President Art Rooney II has made it clear the team's plan is to extend Ben Roethlisberger's contract this offseason, and because that move also figures to result in a salary cap savings for the team it would be beneficial to get negotiations wrapped up by the start of free agency on March 13.
"Ben has one more year left on his existing contract. We've already started talking to him and his representatives about extending that contract," Rooney said to Steelers Nation Unite members during a conference call in January. "I think that Ben has some good years left. He's still, I would say, close to being in the prime of his career. Now that we see quarterbacks around the league playing into their 40s, I'm not sure why Ben can't play for several more years, so we're looking forward to that."
When it comes to Roethlisberger's on-field performance in 2018, the one issue to be addressed is turning the ball over. His 16 interceptions were the most in the league, and he also lost two fumbles to finish the season with 18 turnovers. While his 2018 interception percentage of 2.4 was the second-lowest of his career in any season in which he started all 16 games (in 2014 when he led the league with 4,952 passing yards his interception percentage was 1.5), 18 turnovers still is a lot. If the way to reduce Roethlisberger's interception total is by cutting back on his attempts and utilizing the running game more often, so be it, but on a Steelers team where taking the ball away has been a constant struggle of late, cutting back on turnovers by any means necessary is a must.
It could be argued that the 2018 offseason was the most critical time of Dobbs' professional life because it required him to unseat a proven veteran backup to win a spot on the roster, but this 2019 offseason is an important one for him as well. If Rudolph is to turn out as advertised, it would be reasonable to expect a significant level of improvement from him, maybe even to the extent that he makes a run at replacing Dobbs as Roethlisberger's backup.
During the offseason program, at training camp, and then during the preseason, as Roethlisberger eases his 37-year-old arm into a 16th NFL season, the competition between Dobbs and Rudolph should prove interesting enough to captivate fans and media alike. And how that competition turns out could end up defining the future for each of those young players.
Already the team has signed a fourth quarterback – Brogan Roback – who is known to all who watched last season's episodes of "Hard Knocks" on HBO, and while he came across well on the show and even had his moments on the field, it wouldn't seem likely that he could unseat either Dobbs or Rudolph. Then again it was assumed Dobbs had little chance to unseat Landry Jones last summer, but if Roback beats out one of the two young quarterbacks the team drafted over the previous couple of years, that would make a strong case that those picks should've been used on other players/positions.
Based on the Steelers' commitment to Roethlisberger and his interest in continuing his playing career, plus the recent draft capital invested in Dobbs and Rudolph, plus the signing of Roback who has shown himself to be a competent No. 4 for the offseason's 90-man roster, there seems to be little chance the team would have any interest in this position, either during free agency or through the three days of the 2019 NFL Draft.