Finding Big Ben's successor: The case for the Steelers drafting a QB

PITTSBURGH — With the final cap number in flux and free agency and the NFL draft still ahead of them, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a long way from finalizing their 2021 roster.

But one thing is certain: They will add another quarterback to the room.

The future of Ben Roethlisberger, who will be 39 next month, still has to be sorted out, but that isn’t stopping the organization from exploring options to add more quarterbacks to the roster. With contracts expiring for Devlin Hodges and Josh Dobbs, the Steelers signed Dwayne Haskins to a futures deal in January to evaluate his potential, similar to their exploration of 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch during the 2019 season. Mason Rudolph is also under contract for one more season.

But team owner and CEO Art Rooney II acknowledged that the current slate isn’t enough.

“I think when you look at our room, we obviously are going to have to add somebody to the room here this offseason, and so we’ll look at all the opportunities we have to do that,” Rooney said last month.

Though the salary cap can’t drop below $ 180 million, Pittsburgh is still facing tight constraints that could make it difficult to sign even a midlevel veteran to compete with Rudolph for the starting job should the team part with Roethlisberger.

“When Ben was a younger player, we always wanted that veteran presence behind him,” general manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week. “As he crossed over into that veteran status, we always tried to have a younger player behind him that may be on the rise. A player like Mason Rudolph or Joshua Dobbs, now that Joshua is back with us last year. A player like Dwayne Haskins, a very talented player that was drafted very high by Washington.

“It didn’t work out for him. There was a change in regimes, he was cut, and it was a no-risk pickup for us. He is a talented player, and we will find out more about him once we get him in here and get him out on the field. So does that mean we can’t continue to add to that position? Absolutely not. Nothing we will do in this free-agency period will preclude us from continuing to look at that and add a player at that position.”

That leaves the NFL draft.

The Steelers haven’t selected a quarterback since taking Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 draft. A year before that, they picked up Dobbs in the fourth round. That reticence could change this year.

The 2021 quarterback draft class has quality and quantity, with more than 10 available and the potential for five to be taken in the first round. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t expect the 2022 class to be as deep, making this the year for the Steelers to draft a quarterback — especially if the organization maintains that it’s in a win-now mode.

“This group is better,” Kiper said, comparing the 2021 quarterbacks to the 2022 class. “This group, [BYU’s] Zach Wilson had a great year. If [Trey] Lance [of North Dakota State] would’ve gone back — which I think he should’ve gone back, gone to Ohio State or Texas and played one year — but he didn’t. He’s coming out. But had he done that, he would’ve been a guy who could’ve gone No. 1 next year ahead of those guys. These guys are all better than next year’s group.”

With the No. 24 pick, the Steelers, who rarely trade up in the first, are out of the sweepstakes for the top tier that includes Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones. Lance, a 20-year-old who played in just one game during the 2020 season, could fall because of his limited experience and his age.

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With a later first-round pick and a bevy of needs at offensive line and running back, Pittsburgh won’t get good value selecting a quarterback in the first.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look to use a third- or fourth-round pick — 87 and 128 overall — on a gunslinger. The Steelers could also gain a fourth-round compensatory pick at No. 141 that could be used on a quarterback.

Players such as Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Georgia’s Jamie Newman could be possible fits in that range, but Kiper believes one wild card from the midtier quarterback group stands out: Newman.

“Once you know you have the guy, you’re set for a long, long time,” Kiper said. “You’re ahead of everybody else in the league. Look at all the teams that are changing. If you can find that guy, you’re in really good shape.

“If I’m looking at the quarterbacks this year for the Steelers, if I can’t get one of those five — I’m not really in a position to trade up to get one, unless Trey Lance drops down — then I would think Newman. Newman would be an interesting guy for them in maybe late second, third round.”

Newman, an athletic prospect with a strong arm, last took the field at Wake Forest in 2019, throwing for 2,868 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his final season before transferring to Georgia. He also rushed for 574 yards and five touchdowns.

But instead of testing his fortitude against SEC defenses, Newman, 23, opted out of the season due to COVID-19. With a lack of recent tape, 17 career starts and a significantly curtailed NFL combine, evaluating Newman is tricky. There’s plenty of risk associated with drafting him, but there could also be a high reward, Kiper said.

“He goes to the Senior Bowl practice and he was all over the place — he was all over the place with throws, he’s inconsistent — but he was rusty,” Kiper said. “Here’s a kid with talent. Didn’t play this year. He would be the kind of guy you roll the dice on, Jamie Newman.

“Thinking that ‘Hey, this is a guy we’re getting at a bargain point in the draft, maybe third, fourth round, who didn’t play, and if he played well at Georgia probably would’ve been a first- or second-round pick.'”

The Steelers need to add another quarterback even if Roethlisberger returns. The new QB doesn’t have to make the 53-man roster if Roethlisberger holds off on retirement for one more season, but Pittsburgh needs to keep auditioning quarterbacks for the future.

Rudolph is in the mix, and Haskins could be, too. Ideally, the Steelers could bring in a midlevel veteran such as Tyrod Taylor to compete with Rudolph for the backup or starting job, but they might not have the cap flexibility to do that.

That leaves building through the draft, a method Pittsburgh often prefers. The post-Roethlisberger era isn’t here yet — but it could be just around the corner. The Steelers need to prepare.

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