One of the most common things you hear after every draft is that grades can’t be finished until at least three years after a pick has been made. So after submitting my grades for every Steelers’ pick in this year’s class, I’m going back and revisiting picks from three years ago and beyond made by Pittsburgh. That continues today with first of the team’s two third-round picks in 2018, quarterback Mason Rudolph out of Oklahoma State.
I tweaked my exercise for grading this year’s draft to look at and give letter grades to past picks, based on five specific ways to view the pick (listed below), before taking all that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Just like when grading a current year’s draft, each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made. For example, a first round selection should have a longer and more impactful career, whereas a late-round pick only needs a few seasons in a limited role to live up to his draft slot.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 3, Pick 12: Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: C
Rudolph was drafted to be a back-up in the early seasons of his career, before getting a chance to succeed Ben Roethlisberger after a few seasons of clipboard-holding. That was the case in 2018 when he spent the year as the team’s third-stringer. An injury to Roethlisberger in 2019 forced him into action for eight starts over 10 games, and gave him a chance to prove he had what it took to lead the team after Big Ben.
It was not a successful sample for Rudolph. Pittsburgh did go 5-3 in his eight starts. But Rudolph ranked 29th in QB rating and last in total QBR among the 32 primary quarterbacks for each team in the NFL that season. He averaged just over six yards per attempt and completed only 62 percent of his throws, with nine interceptions opposing 13 touchdowns. Pittsburgh at one point sat him in favor of undrafted QB Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Rudolph is remembered more for suffering a dirty hit from the Ravens’ Earl Thomas and being bludgeoned by the Browns’ Myles Garrett than for starting as the team’s QB.
He did show improvement in one game started in 2020, a two-point loss to the Browns. And Pittsburgh had to throw somebody into the fire when Roethlisberger missed almost an entire season in 2019. But Rudolph has not played well in his time in Pittsburgh.
PICK VALUE: C-
Just 16 picks after taking his star Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, Pittsburgh reunited the tandem by taking Rudolph. At the time, it was one of the first concrete looks at Pittsburgh thinking about life post-Roethlisberger, and viewed as an alright selection by a team gambling on a mid-round QB they thought had starting upside.
In the years since, Rudolph has proven it was a bad gamble. He may still grow into a long-term backup for Pittsburgh or another team, which is palatable but not great value here. But so far he hasn’t brought enough flashes of upside a team wants to see when it uses an early third-round pick on a QB (with the slight kicker that Pittsburgh also traded a seventh-rounder to move up from 79 to 76 to draft him).
POSITIONAL VALUE: A+
This is less of a statement in Rudolph’s favor and more of a statement that the depth of the 2018 NFL Draft class was horrendous. The seven quarterbacks taken after Rudolph have thrown a combined 81 passes in the NFL. Bonus points if you knew that 73 came from Luke Falk (Tennessee), five came from Kyle Lauletta (New York Giants), and three from Logan Woodside (Cincinnati).
Rudolph may not be the first-round pick Pittsburgh graded him as. But man, he is leaps and bounds ahead of the remaining quarterbacks from that class. He has even exceeded one of the five first-rounders taken (Josh Rosen, 10th overall to Arizona).
OTHER OPTIONS: C
Aaannnnnndddd we’re back to reality here, as we look outside the quarterback position for who else Pittsburgh had on the board at 76th overall. Michael Gallup, mentioned in yesterday’s retrospective of James Washington, went five picks later and became the player Washington hasn’t. Two selections after that went tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who starred in Baltimore and just brought the Ravens a first-round pick in a trade with Kansas City.
Baltimore had an outstanding third round, following up Brown with tight end Mark Andrews three picks later. Other names to go in the next 32 picks included Tampa Bay guard Alex Cappa and Houston slot receiver Keke Coutee. If you want to look at needs on the roster at the time, receivers weren’t needed after the Washington pick, but either lineman would have been an excellent selection in the third. A case is even there for Andrews to compete with Jesse James. The current situation, though, and how valuable Brown, Cappa, Andrews, or Gallup would be for the present-day team, doesn’t help this grade. But a lot of misses in the later third do help Rudolph avoid the D+ Washington received here yesterday.
OVERALL GRADE: C-
Pittsburgh was very wise to begin looking for a quarterback to succeed Ben Roethlisberger at this point. The method of bringing in a student to learn from the aging veteran superstar is an excellent one if a team can afford to do it, rather than a baptism by fire if the team waits for the starter’s retirement to make a move.
The idea was right. It was the execution that wasn’t. Rudolph has proven any first-round grades given to him were improperly assigned, as was the faith that he could develop into a franchise QB. If he could inspire hope to be a Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich — long-term backup who can win extended stretches when a starter goes down with major injury — this pick is one I’d consider making again.
But Rudolph hasn’t proven he can even retain the No. 2 QB job, let alone succeed Roethlisberger. Even with few players who did anything of note drafted in the 32 picks after him, this pick could have brought more value elsewhere. The Steelers still have faith in him, awarding him an extension to remain with the team in 2022. If he gets to his big leap, this grade improves dramatically. But if he plays like he has and continued misplaced faith leads the team to make him the next starter (and pass on a QB in the first round of the 2022 or 2023 drafts) this hits rock bottom of the grading scale and could set the franchise back years.