The first in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
J.T. Barrett, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
(Free Agent Scorecard: none)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
In strict terms of quarterback play, the 2019 season couldn't end soon enough for the Steelers. Six quarters in, Ben Roethlisberger was on the sideline with an elbow injury that would require surgery and land him on injured reserve. Mason Rudolph, who won the backup job by completing 64.1 percent with four touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 113.3 during the preseason, initially took over as the starter.
Another complicating issue was that because the Steelers had secured Roethlisberger's services with a contract extension during the offseason that bound him to the team through the 2021 season, and because Rudolph had been convincing in winning the backup job in his competition with Joshua Dobbs during the summer, the team felt comfortable trading Dobbs to the Jaguars for a fifth-round draft pick in a move consummated on Sept. 9. Once Dobbs was sent to Jacksonville, the Steelers got back in touch with Devlin Hodges and put him on their practice squad, apparently confident that Roethlisberger and Rudolph could handle things on the active roster.
But then Roethlisberger was injured and landed on IR, and so Hodges was promoted from the practice squad and added to the 53-man roster as an emergency option. The hope was that he could spend the year watching Rudolph from the sideline, and things appeared to be progressing along those lines. Rudolph came on and was seemingly growing into the job until he was concussed on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Ravens safety Earl Thomas in what ended up being an overtime loss on Oct. 6.
From there, it was a revolving door, and it started with Hodges operating a version of the offense in a win on the road vs. the Chargers that had a set of training wheels firmly attached. Then Rudolph returned after clearing the protocol, and even though the Steelers went 3-0 in his next three starts, those victories were more a result of the defense dominating games while the offense seemed to be capable of little more than trying hard not to mess it up.
The next week, Rudolph was assaulted by Myles Garrett late in a loss in Cleveland on a Thursday night in which he threw four interceptions, and then the next week he had to be relieved early in the second half of the Nov. 24 win in Cincinnati. After that it was Hodges starting and Rudolph in the role of relief, and just when it seemed as though he was going to save the season by coming off the bench and pulling out the Dec. 22 game against the Jets in New Jersey, he was forced out after being driven into the ground on a broken play. The Steelers ended up losing that game, and Rudolph ended up on injured reserve.
Looking back on 2019, the outside expectations for Rudolph were unrealistic from the outset, particularly for a player who spent his entire rookie season in 2018 as No. 3 on the roster and inactive on game days. Once the 2018 regular season started, his opportunities for meaningful repetitions in practice had evaporated, and then as a second-year pro, his offseason, training camp, and preseason all were dedicated to the competition with Dobbs for the backup job. Statistically, Rudolph wasn't all that different in his first eight NFL starts than Tom Brady was in his first eight NFL starts, and complicating Rudolph's situation was working with a corps of young, largely inexperienced wide receivers whose position coach died suddenly during training camp, plus the fact No. 1 running back James Conner missed six full games because of injury and was able to carry the ball 20-plus times in only one of the 10 in which he played.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
For the second time in the last five seasons, the Steelers started three different quarterbacks: Mason Rudolph was 5-3 as the starter; Devlin Hodges was 3-3 as the starter; and Ben Roethlisberger was 0-2 as the starter.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2020
As of today, the Steelers have five quarterbacks under contract on their 90-man roster: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, and J.T. Barrett. And to the consternation of many of the team's fans, it's highly, highly likely those are the ones the team will take to training camp at Saint Vincent College, and then three of them will be the ones who make the 53-man roster for the start of the 2020 regular season.
At the conclusion of the 2019 regular season, Coach Mike Tomlin said he was comfortable with Rudolph as the backup going into 2020, and on two different occasions since then, Steelers President Art Rooney II has expressed the same thing. At this point, and based on what Tomlin and Rooney said and understanding that General Manager Kevin Colbert sees the situation the same way, Steelers fans would be best served by swallowing hard and accepting that reality.
Beyond the fact Rudolph acquitted himself fairly well in what was his first taste of professional football – 62.2 completion percentage, 13-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 82.0 passer rating – the Steelers simply don't have either the draft capital or the salary cap space to explore the addition of a veteran backup quarterback who has NFL starting experience. When the Steelers signed Roethlisberger to that three-year contract a year ago, the team and player committed to each other for better or for worse during that span. Much like a marriage.
Typically, the Steelers would take four quarterbacks to training camp, but because of the unique situation created by Roethlisberger's elbow surgery, this summer seems like a time to go to Latrobe with five. Unlike 2019 when neither Lynch nor Barrett had the benefit of an offseason program or training camp to learn the offense and become familiar with their teammates while giving the coaching staff a chance to become familiar with them without the pressure of preparing for a regular season game each week, both of them will get real opportunities to state their case for a roster spot.
While without a dedicated quarterbacks coach in 2019, the Steelers hired Matt Canada shortly after the regular season ended. When it comes to the fundamentals of the position, Canada, 48, likely will spend much of his time working on that with the younger quarterbacks, and his experience as an offensive coordinator at Indiana, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Pitt, LSU, and Maryland should prove to be an asset to Randy Fichtner.
When it comes to the Steelers with respect to this position in 2020, the team is all-in with Roethlisberger and Rudolph at the top of the depth chart, and the combined allotment of salary cap space and draft capital to them mean it realistically cannot be any other way. According to a recent report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Roethlisberger will meet with his doctors on Feb. 21 with the hope of getting clearance to begin throwing light objects, such as a tennis ball. If everything goes according to schedule, Roethlisberger's plan is to be available for OTAs, which typically begin in the days immediately after Memorial Day.
NEXT: Outside Linebackers