Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Wants, Needs and Prospects at Offensive Tackle (as of January 12), Center (January 15), Guard (January 19), Running Back (January 16), and Tight End (January 21).
We all know the situation. Ben Roethlisberger has entered the final chapter of his storied career, and the combination of age, wear, and tear is beginning to show. He may retire now, though next year seems more likely. Lasting to 2023 would be amazing since it would probably require winning #7 and believing he could get #8. But Big Ben is going to depart, and all too soon from our point of view. So what happens then?
Will we be looking at another two decades of mediocrity such as the team endured after Bradshaw retired? A season terrible enough to go after a Top 10-ish prospect? Or will the team pull one of those miracle succession plans that sometimes happen when a hot prospect falls in the draft (Rodgers) or a later round pick turns out to be gold (Wilson, Brady, etc.)?
I fear the first two, pray for the latter, and suspect it will be somewhere in the middle. But let’s start with the current roster.
- Big Ben Roethlisberger (6’5”, 241 lbs.) will be 39 during this season, and finishing up the final year of his megadeal. His 2021 salary is $19 Million. That $40 Million cap you read about includes $22.5 Million in dead money from all the times he’s agreed to restructure his contract to create cap room in earlier years. Yes, he may extend his deal again and yes, that would put off the day of cap-reckoning for another year or two. But the bottom line is this: when Ben retires, this team will endure a cap hell year of major proportions.
- Mason Rudolph (6’5”, 236 lbs.) is the Heir Presumptive. 2021 will be the final year of his rookie contract. The Steelers brass has shown nothing but trust in this young man, in both word and deed, and even his detractors admit that he looked like a professional in his one 2020 game against Cleveland. Not a world beater, but a professional. So that is reassuring. But those who’ve been at this for a time will tell you that Mason Rudolph is, at bottom, still a work in progress.
Insiders used to constantly remind us that no one could really judge an NFL Quarterback until he had 3-4 years of NFL training, with 2-3 seasons of actual play. Fans never liked that to begin with, and hate the idea even more today when running QB’s so often see some early success. Mason Rudolph does not have those wheels, and profiles perfectly as an old school, drop back player. Thus he remains an “undecided” in my personal book because he is only now getting close to the required level of experience.
For those who forget, Mason Rudolph was a 3rd-round pick in 2018 who’d received a lot of late-1st buzz among the draft community. He checked all the physical boxes – height, weight, arm strength, accuracy, winning, comebacks, etc. – but he’d done it in a wide open, Oklahoma State offense against Big 12 defenses that were a national laughing stock. And he did it with his arm, not his feet, which removed the “escape clause” that more mobile QB’s use to turn learning experiences into temporary triumphs. Thus Rudolph carried all the normal question marks that follow any college QB, combined with the need for a bigger mental jump than most, and no way to succeed unless and until he finishes that jump and emerges as a mature professional. That is why he fell to Round 3, and why I insist he still deserves a grade of “incomplete.”
- Dwayne Haskins (6’3”, 218 lbs.) was Washington’s 2018 Round 1 pick in the draft, at #15 overall. He has every athletic asset you’d expect from that high a pick, which means an all-star, franchise-QB ceiling if he can ever manage to reach it. At this point that’s a very big “if.” Haskins’ lack of a high level football IQ caused him to be a turnover machine when Washington started him early, largely because of mental blunders that led to misreading coverage or failing to recognize defenses and situations. That, combined with the new coaching regime and some startling immaturity, caused the team to abandon its investment after only two years. Pittsburgh picked him up cheap as a potential reclamation project.
Your humble author has some pretty firm opinions on the Haskins situation. Failure can be hard to deal with. We all know that. Success can be even harder. Just look at Young Ben in his time of troubles. Dwayne Haskins put up some notable failures, but it was his inability to deal with the fame, money, and adulation of being a Round 1 idol that really brought him down.
Thus I strongly believe that all Haskins’ promise and talents are going to end up meaning nothing, and he will never be a functioning NFL Quarterback, unless and until he matures to become a fully functioning young man able to withstand the perils of sucess. He needs at least one, and probably a few years under the tutelage of a wise, mature, and demanding mentor (maybe someone like Mike Tomlin?) who understands that basic truth.
A situation like that requires the young man to spend 2021 in a hermetically sealed football bubble, hidden away from all the distractions and temptations that brought him down in D.C. You and I are part of those distractions. Want to dream about what might be if Haskins makes his breakthrough? Of course you do. So do I. Want to him get there? If so, ignore his presence. Dwayne Haskins is a ghost, should be a ghost, and deserves to be a ghost until something changes to bring him back to life. His odds are steep enough without Steeler Nation peering in through the public microscope. Harrumph.
- Josh Dobbs (6’3”, 216 lbs.) was traded to the Jaguars in 2019, and then reclaimed by the Steelers when the Jaguars waived him in 2020. We all root for the young man and he has the wheels that Mason Rudolph does not, but he does not seem to have the required touch on his passes to succeed as a starter for any length of time. He is a free agent in 2021 and there is no way to know if he will be resigned.
- Duck Hodges has migrated to the L.A. Rams. Fare thee well young man. You did a quackerjack job, and I hope you enjoyed your stay.
So… It’s not a disaster, but it’s not exactly comfortable. You can make the analogy between Ben and an aging Favre easily enough. Mason Rudolph to Aaron Rodgers? Not so much. But Mason Rudolph to a solid, mid-level starter in the league? That isn’t all that hard. He isn’t there yet, but I choose to believe the odds are in his favor after another few years of growth. He may well be the sort of player who can win a Super Bowl for a team with talent all around him. It’s only safe to say that he hasn’t shown what it takes to put the team on his shoulders when the other parts fail.
So what does that mean for Pittsburgh draftniks? The bottom line seems to be this: our Steelers would probably pull the trigger on a bargain prospect who fell into the team’s grasp, but the team is emphatically not going to reach for someone just because he plays the position.
This year’s QB pool divides pretty neatly into three tiers: four prospects who could be irresistible in Round 1 and almost certainly will not fall to #24; those who could be irresistible in Round 3 a la Mason Rudolph; and those who will fall to Day 3 with no apparent spot they could fill on the team.
THE BIG-4 QB’S
- QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson. (Junior). 6’6”, 220 lbs. Don’t be silly. It will be a shock if he fails to be picked at #1 overall.
- QB Justin Fields, Ohio St. (Junior). 6’3”, 223 lbs. He’s got some growing to do but the sheer amount of talent is too dazzling to imagine how he could fall outside the Top 5. Ain’t Gonna Happen.
- QB Zach Wilson, BYU (Junior). 6’2”, 210 lbs. The QB3 who’s pushing to be QB2 because he is so advanced compared to Justin Fields; which means it Ain’t Gonna Happen any more than it would for the first two. But what the heck. Here’s a summary in case you missed the story. Zach Wilson looked better than sliced bread as a young prospect in 2018, but his shoulder dissolved in the process. That led to reconstructive shoulder surgery before 2019 even began. This, and a broken thumb, led to distinctly average production. So… explanation or excuse? Fast forward to 2020, and… WOW. Zach Wilson lit up the world last year, completing close to 80% of his passes. Eighty friggin’ percent! The rest of the package seems to be there too: an arm good enough to make all the throws, Annie Oakley accuracy, a build that can take the pounding, an obvious football IQ, nifty feet for extending a play, the ability to make any throw from any angle, and – the cherry on top – an amazing knack for turning lemons into lemonade. Here is a very brief scouting profile from back in October. This goes to a longer and more interesting, gif-supported October scouting profile from The Draft Network. The bottom is, it Ain’t Gonna Happen.
- QB Trey Lance, N. Dak. St. (RS Sophomore). 6’3”, 224 lbs. The #4 QB in the draft has Top 10-15 talent and shouldn’t fall to 1:24, but stranger things have happened and this is where the Rudolph haters should focus their hopes. Trey Lance showed every tool you could ask for in 2019. That season left the draftnik world waiting on pins and needles to see what would happen in 2020. Hardened reviewers seemed just about ready to compose sonnets to wonderful arm, perfect release, tight spiral, and accuracy to every part of the field. Hymns were prepared about his ability to extend plays, foot speed to gain essential yards, and above all his remarkable football IQ and engaging personality. Tomes were drafted in advance to explain how N.D. State, Carson Wentz’s alma mater, runs a modified pro system, meaning this young prospect has some nowadays-rare experience playing under center, making line calls, and adjusting plays on the fly. Half field reads, true enough, but still enough to put him mentally ahead of prospects at larger schools. Plus he’s got good size, and experience playing outside in the cold! A wee, tiny bit of buzz, no? ROFL. Fast forward to 2020 and… [crickets]. N.D. State played only one game due to COVID, and Trey Lance had a distinctly average performance (especially in the first half). Those two problems – the small school issue and the ‘what have you done for me lately’ concern – are the only reasons he’s now considered a step behind the first three.
Just to be clear, I do not expect any of those four players to be available when Pittsburgh goes on the clock at 1:24. It isn’t just that QB’s go fast, and that all of these are pretty high quality prospects. There is also a lack of first tier talent at other positions. The 2021 draft doesn’t have an abundance of Colbert Specials with enough talent at other positions to push aside the merely-terrific QB’s.
That said, this is a weird year. We’ve seen a disease no one ever heard of kill more Americans in the past 12 months than we lost soldiers in all of WWII, and it’s likely to kill more than both of the World Wars combined before see spring training. Who knows what might happen in a world like that?
So dream your QB dreams if you must. No one will blame. Just don’t think they’re likely, and don’t expect the team to trade up when all signs point toward the F.O. seeing Mason Rudolph as good enough for the short to midterm future.
THE SECOND TIER QB’S
- QB Mac Jones, Alabama. (RS Junior). 6’2”, 205 lbs. Can there be a high floor, low ceiling QB prospect? If so, it’s Mr. Jones. A smart game manager who understands the position and can deliver the ball consistently, accurately, on time, and with touch until you get to those throws that test his only-average arm strength. Jones gets knocked, in large part, because he played with enough talent to make a half blind, knock kneed chimp look brilliant. How hard can it be when you have a Heisman winning WR, the best OL in college football, Najee Harris as your RB, and the best coaching around? Jones also lacks the superior size we’ve gotten used to in both Big Ben and Mason Rudolph, along with the pure, off-field charisma of his predecessor, Tua Tagovailoa. Not that those are powerful concerns. He’s bigger than some very successful NFL players, and numerous accounts exist to establish his quality as a human being and a leader. It’s a matter of fading by comparison more than having shown a flaw.
- QB Kyle Trask, Florida (RS Senior). 6’5”, 239 lbs. We saw real flashes in 2019, and video game domination in 2020, so why isn’t he on everyone’s lips as a top-of-the-1st prospect? It goes back to the years before that, when he couldn’t earn his way onto the field. Trask was a backup in High School for heaven’s sake (to an all time, record-setting high school phenom, but still). Then he was a backup in college even as a true Junior. At which point he finally go his chance, and impressed all who watched in 2019. Size, poise, accuracy, and NFL-average arm strength (or at least close enough). Enter 2020 and a year when came darned close to bringing home a Heisman trophy! So the first question is, how could a man with that many assets stay buried for all of those years? Then there are more. How much of the credit goes to a great set of receiving weapons? How hard a ceiling gets set by an NFL-average deep ball and mobility? Steeler fans should also remember that Mason Rudolph put up amazing college numbers as well. Has Rudolph disappointed, or just progressed in that slow and steady way we all predicted in 2018 and then chose to forget when he donned the black and gold? If the latter, what does Trask-the-college-QB offer Rudolph-the-college-QB did not? Lots of questions equals a somewhat hesitant grade. This goes to a good article from December.
Bottom line: Trask seems to have no more than an “NFL average” grade when it comes to arm strength and mobility. Neither asset is poor, but they limit his ceiling. That and the history are what keep him out of the top tier. That said, I think this prospect deserves a little more attention before moving on.
First a note to keep in mind as you take in the ‘damned by faint praise’ tone in much the current draft discussions. That does not come from hard evaluations of his play. It’s pure backlash to the oversell we heard during the season. Trask put up numbers so gaudy broadcasters started to use adjectives bordering on the outrageous. Bordering, hell. They leaped into the pool of overkill and wallowed like hogs in the slop! That led, naturally enough, to all the draft watchers saying, “He ain’t all of that!” True enough, but as I write this the seesaw has tipped in the other direction.
I confidently predict that Kyle Trask’s grade will end up somewhere in between those two extremes. He really did put up historic numbers in 2020. He did it as a college QB with great weapons, but that still deserves some credit. At the same time, Steeler fans in particular need to remember that Mason Rudolph also put up some gaudy college numbers, and really was viewed as a fringe-1st talent back in 2018. Does Trask-the-prospect offer more than what the team picked just a few years back? If they’re more or less equal, we have to conclude that both will be treated much the same. Round 1-2 native grade on Pittsburgh’s board, but discounted down to Round 3 or 4 when it comes to pulling the trigger.
THE BEST OF THE DAY 3 TIER
- QB Jamie Newman, Georgia by way of Wake Forest. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 230 lbs. Will be 24 on draft day. Opted out for 2020. Newman has a lot of fans in the draftnik community, in part because his intangibles suggest the Right Stuff for finding his way onto a roster by hook or by crook. But in what role? His 2019 throwing mechanics were better than the mess of 2018, but still needed a huge amount of work. The results were erratic at best, and well below the NFL line. Have they improved? There’s no way to know. But beyond that he is a complete package, with tremendous size and running ability that’s been compared to Cam Newton, plus all those intangibles. A player likely to rise or fall pretty notably as the process moves forward. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- QB K.J. Costello, Miss. St. by way of Stanford. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 222 lbs. A classic pocket passer with good mobility inside the pocket but no real ability to gain actual yardage with his feet. Really good arm talent and mechanics, but questions exist about the occasional Doh! moments when he’ll take totally uncalled for risks. Pretty decent ceiling but it is likely to take him 3-4 years of hard study before the football IQ gets good enough to offset his inability to create when things go wrong. He doesn’t seem to have that knack of making a bad play call right by out-athleting the opposing defense. ROUND 4-6 GRADE
- QB Sam Ehlinger, Texas. (Senior). 6’3”, 230 lbs. Get Ready To Rummmmbllllle! Sam Ehlinger causes genuine fights in the draft community. On the one hand, he is as good a leader of college men as you’re ever going to see. Your humble author is among those who give that a lot of weight. Hard working, lead-by-example types tend to overachieve. Ehlinger also has NFL size, toughness, a lovely release, and pretty good accuracy within his range. What he hasn’t got is the arm to really stretch a field, and his accuracy dips sharply when those limits get reached. Yes, his range is better than a certain much loved cult hero with an avian nickname. But how much better? And is that enough to get over the line into “good enough for the NFL”? ROUND 5-6 GRADE
- QB Kellen Mond, Texas A&M. (Senior). 6’3”, 217 lbs. Mond is a little tough to judge because he’s a multiyear starter who some people touted as a Round 1 talent, and who then disappointed often enough to earn whiplash rejections. The truth is no doubt buried in the middle, especially since he played with some pretty weak OL’s. The assets include an NFL arm, solid leadership presence, and superior but not special athletic talent. He also throws very well on the run – a skill that snarky people may attribute to sheer desperation. But above all he is as streaky as they come. One series he looks like prime Aaron Rodgers, and the next like a blundering incompetent. How the heck do you grade that? ROUND 5-6 GRADE
- QB Ian Book, Notre Dame. (Senior). 6’0”, 212 lbs. A lethal player of sandlot ball, and a proven winner, when Book has had trouble it’s been against defenses that force him to stay in the pocket, read the defense, and make the throws. The arm talent is plenty good enough but not great. Tends to be streaky. Baker Mayfield Lite? ROUND 6-7 GRADE
- QB Shane Buechele, SMU. (Senior). 6’1”, 210 lbs. Did well in the wide open Air Raid college system due to excellent accuracy and timing, but likely to face many more problems at the pro level because he has below-average arm strength, limited size, and only average athletic traits. ROUND 6-7 GRADE
- QB Zac Thomas, App. St. (RS Senior). 6’1”, 210 lbs. The Duck Hodges comparisons will be hard to avoid in Pittsburgh, and they may even be fair. Thomas is a proven winner from a smaller program who possesses very good accuracy and touch, but does not have the arm to stretch an NFL defense deep. He also has surprisingly good mobility, but reports suggest that he lacks the ‘stuff’ (contact balance, athletic edge, what have you) to beat NFL defenders like he was able to do against college ones. ROUND 6-UDFA GRADE
- QB Brady White, Memphis. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 215 lbs. Will be a 25 year old rookie. Good size, a history of winning, and NFL-level touch on his passes combine to make him a very draftable prospect. The somewhat advanced age and distinctly limited arm strength should limit that stock to the latter parts of Day 3. ROUND 6-UDFA GRADE
The national press may disagree, but I just don’t see QB as a primary target for Pittsburgh in the 2021 draft. One can see the F.O. pulling the trigger if Trey Lance falls all the way to 1:24, but it’s hard to imagine a trade up. Same thing if Mac Jones or Kyle Trask is available late in Round 3 or early in Round 4. Kevin Colbert would not turn his nose at a bargain, just because he plays at Quarterback. But Colbert & Co. are not going to reach for a QB either.
And then there’s my super secret master plan, shared only with you under this cone of silence: Pittsburgh is likely to lose a lot of big free agents in 2021. Bud Dupree, Juju Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Hilton-or-Sutton, and others could all bring in contracts worthy of 2022 compensatory picks. Some of those picks are likely to be pretty darned high as well. Compensatory picks equal draft-day capital. That would be the year for a major move up if the coaches feel a need to chase after a higher pedigree Quarterback. Heck, I wouldn’t be at all opposed to bundling some later round picks in this draft to get an extra 4th in 2022 on those grounds alone. Put some draft money in the bank so the team won’t have to trade away the by-now-normal array of future #1’s.
Just keep that last part a secret. No one’s to know but we happy few.