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Steelers-by-position: QBs

The first in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Joshua Dobbs, Dwayne Haskins, Mason Rudolph
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Joshua Dobbs; 1 restricted – Dwayne Haskins; Retired – Ben Roethlisberger)

In a lot of ways, the 2021 season unfolded according to plan for the Steelers in terms of the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger accepted a pay cut that helped the team manage its salary cap situation, and then he was available for 17 of the 18 games on the schedule with his only absence coming on Nov. 14 against Detroit when he tested positive for Covid-19 just a little more than 24 hours before kickoff.

Roethlisberger's play during his 18th NFL season may not have reached the heights of so many of the previous 17, but he did rally the Steelers from a tie or deficit in the fourth quarter seven times in 2021 at the age of 39. Those seven comeback victories were the most by any quarterback in 2021 and it tied for the second-most in single-season NFL history. And in the end, Roethlisberger saved two of those comeback victories for the final two games of the regular season – vs. AFC North rivals Cleveland and Baltimore – to push the Steelers into the playoffs.

Roethlisberger announced his retirement on Thursday, Jan. 27, and that served to mark the official beginning of the team's task of finding a replacement.

Also according to the plan, in fact, according to every team's plan at quarterback for every season, is to have to utilize the other quarterbacks on the depth chart as little as possible during the regular season.

Backup Mason Rudolph's only start was in that game against the Lions, and he completed 30-of-50 for 242 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, and a rating of 70.6 in what ended up being a 16-16 tie. Rudolph also got a few snaps during garbage time of a 36-10 regular season loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City when he completed 5-of-8 for 36 yards, with no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 72.4.

No. 3 quarterback Dwayne Haskins was inactive for all but one game in 2021 – the one vs. Detroit when he served as Rudolph's backup – but he didn't get off the sideline that afternoon.

Roethlisberger retired with 92 career victories at Heinz Field, which ranks third in NFL history at one venue behind Tom Brady, who had 116 at Gillette Stadium, and John Elway, who had 95 at Mile High Stadium.

The primary focus of this offseason at this position is deciding on a replacement for Roethlisberger, and initially it appears as though the Steelers are open to all possibilities even though some already are presenting themselves as more realistic than others.

The Steelers figure to enter this offseason with a decent amount of salary cap space, which is a pleasant change from last year's purge made necessary by an 8 percent drop in the cap on the heels of a season ravaged by Covid-19 that had many teams playing games in empty stadiums. As always, there will be Steelers unrestricted free agents who leave for better offers or better opportunities with other teams, but it seems unlikely the team will have to cut players this year simply to get in compliance with the expected $208.2 million cap per team.

Naturally, some fans would prefer to see the Steelers make a move on one of the established NFL quarterbacks, such as Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, who, based on some national media reports, are dissatisfied with their current situations with their original teams, but those kinds of moves seem unlikely because of the dual cost of absorbing their existing mega-contracts along with coming up with the draft/trade capital to satisfy the Packers and the Seahawks, respectively. And that's assuming Green Bay and Seattle even would pull the trigger on such a move in the first place, because there have been subsequent media reports about Rodgers' and Wilson's moods softening.

Another potential route could have the Steelers sifting through the group of young veteran quarterbacks who originally came into the NFL with varying degrees of fanfare only to have been traded, or released, or demoted from the role they once seemed likely to assume with their original teams. These also include players who lost a starting job either through being benched, or via competition with another player. Picking through this category theoretically could allow the Steelers to add a still-on-the-rise veteran type to compete with Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins for the top spot on the depth chart, or at the very least strengthen the overall depth chart with the addition of another quarterback with some NFL regular season game experience.

Another avenue toward a solution for this situation would be the one the Steelers typically prefer: identifying and then drafting a prospect and grooming him in-house from the start of his professional career. If the predictions of the strengths and weaknesses of this draft class are to be believed, this coming April's version isn't stocked with a lot of what the Steelers would be seeking to fill this particular hole. But there are times when luck plays a role, too, as it did in 2004 when a division rival fell in love with a tight end and picked him, which left the Hall-of-Fame-quarterback-to-be still on the board when the Steelers made their selection five picks later.

No matter how the team navigates the process of adding quarterback prospect(s) to the depth chart beginning with the start of free agency on March 16 and running through the 2022 NFL Draft, the most likely scenario would involve the eventual starter at the beginning of the 2022 regular season being the player who secured that job by proving himself consistently during the competition to be held through training camp and into the preseason. It just doesn't seem likely, or wise, to proclaim someone the starting quarterback as opposed to having that designation be something earned through an all-inclusive competition, from on-the-field performance to the level of professionalism required to handle the pressure of the job, to the requirements of the role within the team structure.

What we know for sure about that scenario right now is Rudolph and Haskins have invitations to the competition. Rudolph is signed through the 2022 season at a reasonable cap number; while Haskins is a restricted free agent, there typically isn't a lot of movement at that level of free agency, and starting over with a third team likely isn't the best path for a former 15th overall pick who will turn 25 in early May. What we also know for sure is the Steelers will take at least three quarterbacks – but more likely, four – to training camp.

Then the rest will be figured out on the field, in meeting rooms, and in locker rooms when the offseason program cranks up in earnest once OTAs are scheduled to begin.
NEXT: Defensive line