The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Does second-year Reserve/Future quarterback Dustin Vaughan stand a legitimate chance of competing for a roster spot?
If you ask me, the group of backup quarterbacks that the Steelers are bringing with them into training camp this season that are projected to make the 53-man roster pair as the least inspiring reserves that I can remember since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004.
I have run down the list of previous quarterbacks who have served in that backup role over the past decade-plus, but the 2016 incarnations of Landry Jones and Bruce Gradkowski are not names that inspire in me a great deal of confidence should Roethlisberger miss a few hundred snaps, as he very nearly did last season.
While Jones obviously made significant strides last season, it is important to frame that in the consideration that the Steelers thought so little of the prospects of him backing up Roethlisberger during the preseason that when Gradkowski was injured, they went out and signed Mike Vick in mid-August to serve as the backup, a player notorious for being slow to adjust to offenses and acknowledging in the past that he didn’t prepare as a starter when he was a backup.
Consider the fact that of Jones’ 524 total passing yards last season, 286 of those yards came after the catch, with only 238 yards being accounted for through the air. Of course, 80 of those YAC yards came on a game-clinching 88-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Martavis Bryant in Jones’ debut. Another 53 YAC yards came on a four-yard pass to Antonio Brown against the Raiders. His yards per attempt figure is inflated by these plays disproportionately due to the small sample size, and doesn’t account for the extent to which the legwork of his statistics were the product of his players making plays. He, himself, threw three touchdowns, including that 88-yarder, all to Bryant, while throwing five interceptions including the playoffs and fumbling once.
As for Gradkowski, the 33-year-old has hardly played in years, was not re-signed this offseason until about a month ago, and is coming off of shoulder and thumb surgeries. Much of his reputation as Roethlisberger’s backup in 2013 and 2014 was based off speculation, since he hardly ever had to play.
Because of this group of quarterbacks, that would suggest that a player like Dustin Vaughan could at least have a chance of unseating somebody, with the elder Gradkowski being the more likely of the two at this point. A former undrafted free agent, Vaughan made the Cowboys’ 53-man roster as a third quarterback in his rookie year in 2014, but Dallas chose not to carry three in 2015.
The 6’5”, 240-pound quarterback has received a bit of positive attention thus far during spring drills, but, of course, it will be up to what he does in training camp and the preseason, assuming he even gets a chance to play in a game, whether or not his opportunity to unseat another quarterback is legitimate.