The first in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
Joshua Dobbs, Dwayne Haskins, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Joshua Dobbs)
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
In one very significant way, 2020 was the opposite of 2019 for the Steelers in that Ben Roethlisberger played every significant snap of the regular season, where the previous year he played only six quarters before having surgery on his right elbow and going on the injured reserve list.
Roethlisberger started 15 games before being "airmailed" to the playoffs by Coach Mike Tomlin instead of playing in what was a meaningless regular season finale against the Browns in Cleveland, and he finished by completing 65.6 percent of his 608 attempts for 3,803 yards, with 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a rating of 94.1. Also worth noting is that the Steelers won 12 of those 15 games.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger from the 2020 season
Roethlisberger's 6.3 yards per attempt was the lowest of his career with the exception of that truncated 2019 season, and he was sacked only 13 times, also the lowest of his career except for 2019. It's debatable whether Roethlisberger's statistical decline over the course of 2020 was due to defenses figuring out the quick-pass, can't-run offense and the Steelers being unable to adjust to something else, or whether the statistical decline was tied to wear-and-tear on a 38-year-old quarterback.
The Steelers already have weighed in on that issue to some degree by declining to renew offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's contract, but Steelers President Art Rooney II also has said, "We've been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn't have him back under the current contract, and so I think he understands we have some work to do there."
Coming to some resolution with Roethlisberger in terms of whether he will be back for the 2021 season would seem to be the most significant domino to fall on this Steelers offseason, both for the implications on the team's strapped salary cap and because if he isn't back the team would have just one quarterback under contract who has taken a snap in a regular season NFL game for the franchise.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Ben Roethlisberger posted six passer ratings of 100-plus over his first nine starts of the season, but in his last six starts he broke 90 in passer rating only once (against Indianapolis on Dec. 17). Also, six of the 10 interceptions he threw during the 2020 regular season came during those same six starts.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
If Roethlisberger is not back for the 2021 season, the Steelers depth chart at quarterback is going to need some reinforcements. With Joshua Dobbs due to become an unrestricted free agent and Dwayne Haskins signed to a futures contract after being waived by Washington, Mason Rudolph would be the only quarterback under contract to have taken a snap for the Steelers in a regular season NFL game.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers Q Mason Rudolph from the 2020 season
A logical assumption is that Roethlisberger's status will have been determined before the roster bonus called for in his current contract becomes due, which according to reports is the third day of the new league year. If that turns out to be true, the Steelers would have plenty of time to address the position, both in free agency and then during the draft in late April.
But even under such a scenario, the most likely outcome would figure to be opening the 2021 season with Rudolph as the starter, instead of making any attempt to commit significant salary cap space or draft capital to the position in 2021. Rudolph's performance in that regular season finale against the Browns in Cleveland showed improvement over his eight starts in 2019, and the improvement should be enough for the Steelers to give him a chance this summer to show whether he could handle the demands of being a full-time starter. Besides, the Steelers don't have the cap space or the draft capital this offseason to make a big move for a quarterback, and there are too many other holes in their roster to fill to go all-in with resources at a single position.
Under the Roethlisberger decides to retire scenario, the Steelers could try to do some bargain shopping in free agency for a veteran backup to add more experience to the depth chart, and then if Dobbs can be retained at the right price he possibly could be the guy to provide competition for Haskins in the battle for the No. 3 spot on the 53-man roster.
If the Steelers and Roethlisberger are able to come to an arrangement on his contract, he would be brought back to be the starter. But what kind of a player would the Steelers be getting from a physical standpoint?
The automatic assumption is that any question about Roethlisberger's fitness for another full NFL season is directed at his surgically repaired right elbow, but a more significant issue could be his knees. During the 2020 season, there was a report circulating that Roethlisberger had hyperextended a knee during a game, and during his regular scheduled media session on Dec. 16 he addressed a question about that.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm 38 years old," said Roethlisberger. "I've played football for 17 years. I've had multiple surgeries. I saw that report. I don't know where it came from. I think (the report) was the one that said the Steelers were concerned. I would love to know who that was or who told him, because the week before against Washington I was having issues with my knee, landed on it, had something going on, but other than just an old knee and arthritis, my knee actually feels really good this week, especially after playing on an artificial surface. Typically, that is another issue that makes it kind of ache. After last week, it feels pretty good. That report to me is just one of those phony kinds of things that people sometimes want to make up. I actually feel pretty good."
Roethlisberger's admission about "arthritis" might be thought to be benign compared to ligament or cartilage issues, but that's not necessarily accurate. There are knee maladies that can be fixed with surgery, but arthritis isn't one of them. There is currently no cure for arthritis, but there are treatment options that can help alleviate the pain and help slow the progress of the disease. Still, it's only reasonable to expect that arthritis in the knee(s) of a 39-year-old man in his 18th season of professional football will impact his mobility and ease of movement over the course of a five-to-six month NFL season
There is a final issue to consider, whether Roethlisberger is back in 2021 or not, and that's Rudolph's contract status. The 2021 season will be the final one on the contract Rudolph signed as a rookie, and because he wasn't a first-round pick there is no fifth-year option provision available to keep him automatically beyond his fourth NFL season.
And there's not necessarily an easy way to handle the negotiation. For example, if the Steelers want to approach Rudolph this offseason about an extension – even after Roethlisberger's situation has been clarified – would he have any interest in coming to terms on a deal that don't allow for the possibility that he ends up being the starter? And would the Steelers have any interest in negotiating a starter contract not knowing whether Rudolph will attain that status/role with the team?
For so many consecutive seasons, the Steelers' situation at this position was simple and stable. Well, it's not anymore.
NEXT: Outside Linebackers
Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers quarterbacks during the 2020 season