The first in a position-by-position series examining the Steelers roster in advance of the start of free agency on March 9:
QUARTERBACKS – (5)
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones)
There comes a time in a player's career where the ability to stay healthy trumps all other abilities, and Gradkowski, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Jan. 27, might be at that point. After spending most of the 2015 offseason program as a spectator because of a right shoulder injury, Gradkowski opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list. He was activated off PUP on Aug. 16, and then he saw his only preseason action on Aug. 23 vs. Green Bay when he completed 3-of-5 passes for 25 yards and lost a fumble. On Aug. 25, Gradkowski was placed on injured reserve and Mike Vick was signed. There came a time during the careers of both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch when Coach Mike Tomlin lost confidence in their ability to stay healthy, and once that happens it's pretty much over for a backup quarterback because he's supposed to be the guy always ready to step in and bail the team out in the event of an injury to the starter. If Tomlin has reached that point with Gradkowski, it makes no sense for the Steelers to bring him back. At least not as a player.
A five-game preseason, Bruce Gradkowski's injury situation, and an understanding of how foolish it would be to waste Ben Roethlisberger in August all combined to allow Landry Jones to play more football this summer than he has since he was in college at Oklahoma. The repetitions maybe honed the physical parts of his game, but some believe it was the signing of Mike Vick on Aug. 25 that provided the mental jolt. Maybe Jones perceived it as being passed over, but he responded with the kind of mental toughness the Steelers could not have been certain he possessed. As happens with all inexperienced quarterbacks, Jones had his moments, both good and bad, with the rescue job he authored against the Cardinals at Heinz Field being a highlight. Without any dynamic physical attributes, Jones will have to succeed in the NFL by making quick, correct decisions on where to go with the football and then being accurate with his throws. It's somewhat amusing to hear Steelers fans demand their favorite team "get a better backup quarterback" as if one could be ordered via Amazon. Ask the Dallas Cowboys how easy that isn't. Salary cap friendly, Jones would seem to have another year to show enough improvement to make the backup job his own.
The best photos of QB Ben Roethlisberger from the 2015 season.
How many more seasons will the Steelers have him? "I don't think we are starting down that road of who is next after Ben," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "Obviously we have some work to do in terms of who are the backups. We will have some evaluation to do there. As far as I am concerned, Ben didn't show much sign of falling off this year. So I am looking forward to at least several more years with Ben as our quarterback." There's your answer on the issue of whether the Steelers will go shopping for a successor this offseason.
Vaughan, 25, is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and was signed to a futures contract by the Steelers after a 2014 season on the Cowboys roster as a No. 3 quarterback and then some time on the Buffalo practice squad in 2015. As a senior at West Texas A&M, Vaughan was the Lone Star Conference Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Harlon Hill Trophy, given to the country's top NCAA Division II player. He passed for 5,401 yards and 53 touchdowns, after which he signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. When his 2015 preseason was awful – Vaughan completed 35-of-67 (52.2 percent) for 343 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 54.5 rating – he was waived. Maybe Vaughan has a chance to compete for the No. 3 job with the Steelers. Right now, his goal should be to make it to Latrobe.
It was a somewhat controversial move at the time, but Mike Vick turned out to be a solid addition to the roster, given the time of year he was signed and what else was available in the category of "experienced NFL quarterbacks." Vick was a good teammate, he respected the team's hierarchy both on the field and in the locker room, and he came through for them in a big Monday night victory in San Diego, without which the Steelers don't make the playoffs. But Vick just didn't seem to be a good fit for the Steelers' style of offense, and because he will be 36 before training camps open again it makes no sense to try to build packages to utilize him as he once was utilized. Vick was a good stopgap option, but the plan for the Steelers should be to get out of this offseason without again needing a stopgap option at quarterback.