There will be a few notable training camp competitions to watch later in the summer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with varying degrees of predetermined certainty to them. Left tackle is one of them. Punter is another. There are three positions nominally open in the secondary. And then there is the backup quarterback position, wherein the Steelers return two players whose last healthy experience with the team has been as the backup.
The current incumbent in fourth-year quarterback Landry Jones, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013. He spent his first two seasons in the league inactive for every game as the third-string quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski. Because Roethlisberger stayed healthy, he never had to dress.
And he frankly never posed much of a threat during his first two seasons to Gradkowski’s position, a fact that he actually seems to be aware of. But that fact changed last year, with Jones telling reporters during OTAs this week that “I felt like during camp last year things started clicking for me”, as Teresa Varley quotes for the team’s website.
It is uncertain what might have happened last August had things gone differently. Gradkowski, who was signed as a 31-year-old veteran free agent to serve as Roethlisberger’s backup under Jones was ready to take over that role, was already dealing with a shoulder issue that caused him to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
But he claimed to feel great after being activated from the list, and he resumed his position in the pecking order, until a costly botched snap from novice center Chris Hubbard resulted in him not only aggravating his shoulder, but also injuring his thumb. But injuries required surgical intervention that landed him on injured reserve.
Not quite ready to trust Jones just yet, the Steelers first turned to Mike Vick, which proved to be a dismal failure. But it did set up Jones for a fairly dramatic NFL debut, entering in the second half against the Cardinals, who represented the NFC in the conference championship game, down a couple of scores. Jones was able to come in and command an offense that put up two touchdowns courtesy of some impressive plays from Martavis Bryant.
Speaking about that experience, which he described as “surreal”, Jones said that “you draw confidence” from moments like that. But he added that “you learn from other games, too, the mistakes that you made. It’s still football though, and the things that got you here are the things that keep you here.
While his performance when he finally got an opportunity to play came to many as a pleasant surprise, his game certainly was not without error, having thrown four interceptions on 55 pass attempts and losing a fumble to seal a loss in the first and so far only game that he has played from start to finish.
What he has going for him is that he has a level of comfort and command in the offense, adding that he “started trusting” himself, “not worrying about the future so much”. Gradkowski shares those same qualities, yet he has never been asked to play a significant role in a game in years.
Both players will enter training camp having a fair claim on the job, but there is no disputing that Jones is currently the incumbent, even if that might not mean as much as it typically does. He acknowledges that he made mistakes last year, but added, “as long as I keep building upon it I think I will be okay”. And that is exactly what the Steelers are looking for. It’s why they drafted him in the first place. If they needed a token third quarterback, they have Dustin Vaughan.