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Steelers Position Reviews: Quarterbacks

Here is the final in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2023 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 13.

Quarterbacks (3): Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph, *Mitch Trubisky


A Last Look at 2023

The 2023 season marked Kenny Pickett's second season as the starting quarterback for the Steelers – though it was the first time he exited training camp as the unquestioned No. 1.

And after a preseason in which he completed 13 of 15 passes for 199 yards, posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating, it looked as if Pickett was poised to make a big jump in his second NFL season.

As it turned out, Pickett's second season looked a lot like his first – some good, some bad and a healthy dose of late-game heroics.

Pickett completed 62.0 percent of his passes for 2,070 yards with 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 12 games in 2023, posting a passer rating of 81.4. He led three fourth quarter comebacks and posted three game-winning drives.

The Steelers went 7-5 in Pickett's 12 starts, giving them a 14-10 record in two seasons in his 24 career starts, but he left three of those games early with injuries, with the Steelers losing all three. In games started and finished by Pickett, the Steelers went 7-2.

His interception percentage of 1.2 percent was second only to Houston's C.J. Stroud among quarterbacks who threw more than 200 passes. Conversely, however, his touchdown percentage of 1.9 percent was the lowest in the NFL among qualified passers.

"I'm extremely confident in him. I feel stronger about some of the intangible things than I did obviously when we first started doing business with him because I have evidence of it," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Pickett. "He's highly competitive and professional. He doesn't run from challenges. He runs to challenges. I think that's evident in the way he plays, particularly at the end of close football games. He's got a good framework to work with and for a young guy he's mature beyond his years. I'm excited about him."

That being said, the Steelers want to see Pickett take a big step forward in his third season.

"It's a big year for him," said Tomlin. "We acknowledge that. It is a huge year for him. But I'm also excited about just watching him wear that component of it because I just, I know how he's wired and built and I'm excited about watching him attack it."

Pickett suffered an ankle injury late in the season that caused him to miss the team's final five games. Mitch Trubisky started two of those, losing both, before giving way to Mason Rudolph for the final three games.

Rudolph played well enough that Tomlin chose to stick with him when Pickett was deemed healthy enough to return for a Week 18 game at Baltimore and then for the team's postseason loss at Buffalo.

Rudolph completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 719 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions, posting a passer rating of 118.0 while leading the Steelers to a 3-0 record in those regular season starts.

"I don't think that any of us can deny what we've seen over the last month or so," Tomlin said of Rudolph's performance down the stretch. "I cannot underscore how impressive it is to be ready. That preparedness showed. We're less speculative about his capabilities because there's evidence of it. And evidence of it in tough circumstances."

All told, the Steelers produced a 63.8 percent completion percentage for 3,421 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, posting a passer rating of 84.6. That was one more touchdown pass than they had in 2022, but five fewer interceptions.

Trubisky was released last week.

One Stat That Stood Out

The Steelers averaged 18.4 points in games started and finished by Pickett, 15.5 points in Trubisky's two starts, and 24.5 points in games started by Rudolph, including the postseason loss to the Bills.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Looking Ahead to 2024

Despite being passed over once healthy at the end of the season in favor of Rudolph, Pickett will enter the offseason as the Steelers' No. 1 quarterback.

The 2022 first-round draft pick will get an opportunity to reclaim his starting position this offseason, though the Steelers will provide him with competition for that job.

"There will be competition. There's always competition in this thing," Tomlin said. "We don't anoint anyone. I'm appreciative of his efforts and where he is and excited about continuing to work with him. But certainly, he will be challenged from a competition perspective moving forward. Competition brings the best out in all of us."

That could come from Rudolph or someone else, though Rudolph is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers have expressed an interest in re-signing the 2018 third-round draft pick, as they did a year ago. 

"We still feel good about Kenny, where he can go. Obviously, he does need to take another step," said team president Art Rooney II at his season-ending press conference. "With that being said, can't discount what Mason did, can't discount the fact that having competition will be good for everybody. I think Mike feels that way. We all feel that way. I'd say there's still more to come to see who's in the room, the quarterback room, when we start camp this summer."

Whomever is battling Pickett for the starting job will be on equal footing. Tomlin made a midseason change at offensive coordinator, then hired Arthur Smith as the team's new coordinator for 2024. There will be a learning curve across the board in 2024 as the team installs a new offense.

"There's a relationship that's got to be built between me and Kenny," Smith said in an interview with Missi Matthews on "There's a trust that's got to be built daily and (that) goes both ways. I've got to earn Kenny's trust and vice versa as we build this offense and all of the things we want to work on and we want him to work on."

The idea is creating an environment in which all of the team's offense weapons thrive under the direction of a more complete passing game.

That's something the Steelers felt Rudolph did over the final month of the season, which is a big reason why they would like him to return as competition for Pickett in 2024.

"Mason did show what we're capable of on offense with the personnel we have here right now. That's encouraging in terms of Mason's ceiling," Rooney said. "I don't know if we've seen his ceiling yet. We drafted him high for a reason. Felt like he had a lot of ability. I think we saw that. He's probably going to have some options. It's going to be a question of whether he wants to come back, whether we can make the deal to get him back. That being said, (we) still feel good about Kenny and his ability to evolve as well."