Just recently, Steelers QB Mason Rudolph spoke to the media following OTA practice and was asked about his future past 2021 and his perspective of being the future starting QB in Pittsburgh, Rudolph didn’t shy away from saying “That’s my goal, to be a starting quarterback in this league and for our team, and I’m working toward that goal every single day.” Now Rudolph is fresh off of a one-year contract extension this offseason, making him the only current QB under contract with the team beyond this season. Obviously, the decision of Rudolph potentially taking the reins in 2022 likely hinges on Ben Roethlisberger retiring this offseason, opening the door for a new projected starter to lead the franchise for the first time since 2004.
Now many would expect Pittsburgh to turn to the NFL Draft to select the eventual heir to Ben, but seeing as the team hopes to make a playoff push this offseason, this likely puts them out of contention to have a top-ten selection come next spring, and trade ups in the draft are no sure thing given the valuation of picks for each NFL team and the likely completion Pittsburgh may have to trade up for their QB of the future. That being said, I wanted to dive into the tape more to analyze the traits, both good and bad, of Rudolph and pose the question of whether he should be considered the likely favorite to start in Pittsburgh in 2022.
Now Rudolph’s woes on the football field have been well documented since being drafted in the third round back in 2018. He has moments where he fails to read off-coverage by defenders who play his eyes well as he can telegraph his throws underneath. Like this example back a couple years against the Packers in the preseason, we see Rudolph stare down his receiver, making it easy for the defensive back to undercut the route and take it back for six.
Occasionally Rudolph will have ball placement issues as well, either underthrowing his target or having the ball sail on him on the overthrow of his intended receiver. One just has to go back to the 2019 season with the infamous game against Cleveland where Rudolph was responsible for four interceptions on the night, having ball placement issues throughout the contest, including this pass well over his receiver’s head which the defender picks off.
While these errors have been documented, I firmly believe an NFL player is allowed to get better with time and experience in the league and isn’t the same guy as he was coming in as a rookie. All you have to do is go back to Rudolph’s only start in 2020 in Week 17 against the Browns to see ample improvement in his overall game from his up-and-down play as a starter in place of the injured Roethlisberger in 2019. There were several throws made by Rudolph in this game that showed improve anticipation and ball placement, one being on this throw on the sideline to Diontae Johnson where Rudolph takes the snap out of the shotgun, drops back, and puts great arc on the ball once he lets it go, dropping it in the bucket over the shoulder of Johnson for the big gain while taking pressure when he lets it go.
Rudolph has been known since his days at Oklahoma State to put good arch on his throws. Another great example of this comes here on this TD strike to Diontae Johnson against the 49ers in his first start of 2019, having a strong base in the pocket and drops it in over the shoulder of Johnson as he walks into the end zone.
Rudolph may not the biggest arm, but he’s more than capable of making downfield throws. Another example here in a good showing against the Jets in 2019 where Rudolph is leading the two-minute offense before the end of the half and finds that Johnson has a step on his defender on the left side of the field. Despite not being able to step up in the pocket due to pressure, Rudolph still drives the ball well once released, hitting Johnson in-stride in the end zone for the score before halftime.
While he’s had moments where he can be hesitant to throw into tight coverage, Rudolph has shown the ability to fit the ball into coverage as well over the course of his time in Pittsburgh. Here is an example from a preseason game against the Chiefs where Rudolph takes the snap, drops back, and the steps up in the pocket to drive the football on this throw to James Washington, fitting the ball in a window with three defenders in the vicinity of Washington. Rudolph does a great job to lead Washington in-stride as he is able to evade the first defender and try and pick up yardage after the catch.
Not tight enough of a window for you? Check out this TD throw in the red zone to Washington along the sideline with former Rams corner Troy Hill contesting the pass. Rudolph puts the ball high and outside so Washington is the only one who can make a play, and Washington capitalizes by making an impressive grab for the score.
In terms of throwing on the run, Rudolph has the capability to make such throws, but shouldn’t be considered a savant in this category. Take this throw versus the Dolphins as an example where Rudolph executes the play action rollout to the right and locates #11 Donte Moncrief downfield, eventually squaring his shoulders to deliver a strike to his receiver along the sideline which Moncrief, as we all can expect, dropped. However, notice how Moncrief got separation earlier in the route, but Rudolph was unable to put the ball on him. Should Rudolph recognize this and throw it sooner, Moncrief can run up the field and catch the ball in-stride for the walk-in TD. This shows the limitations of Rudolph’s arm in comparison to that of Dwayne Haskins in the article I posted earlier highlighting his ability to zip the football from a variety of platforms.
Also check out this rollout pass to James Conner, who powers through a couple of defenders near the goal line for the touchdown. Overall good execution by Rudolph, but again you see that limited athleticism and mobility inside and outside of the pocket.
For reference, here is the two-play sequence from my Haskins article highlighting his mobility and ability to make the off-platform throw against the Jets.
Now this is not meant to be a knock-on Rudolph, as he has shown the development you like to see over his time in Pittsburgh. However, this is meant to recognize that Rudolph is likely the high-floor option compared to Haskins given his experience and growth in the Steelers’ system. He is more than capable passer who doesn’t carry that same baggage off-the-field that Haskins does coming in. I just use this to present the take that while Rudolph is the more stable, higher floor option, that Haskins does have the higher upside as a passer but needs to do a lot to prove to the coaching staff that he deserves to make the roster in 2021, if ever be considered more than a backup in 2022 and beyond.
Does Rudolph have what it takes to start in 2022? My answer is yes… but. Yes, I do foresee Rudolph likely being the opening-day starter for Pittsburgh next season as we sit here today. However, that is contingent on the Steelers wanting to sit their likely rookie draft pick at QB and allow him to learn under Rudolph initially before being thrown into the fire. This also falls upon the fact that Rudolph beats out Haskins for the starting job in 2022, which I would say is the wise bet right now, but that may change if Haskins stays on the roster throughout 2021 and is RFA tendered in the offseason.
In terms of the level of play as a starter in Rudolph, I looked toward another former Steelers QB as an example of what to possibly expect. Before Ben, Tommy Maddox was considered a flame out in Denver before coming to Pittsburgh and provided the team with a 15-16-1 record in the limited amount of starts he had. While that isn’t encouraging, he did lead the team to a 7-3-1 record as a starter in 2002 which compares well to Rudolph’s 5-3 record in 2019 as the starter. Plus, Maddox stood at 6’4, 220lb which is a similar frame to Rudolph’s 6’5, 235lb size, combined with the similar arm talent and lack of upper-end athleticism inside and outside of the pocket. For reference, I attached a couple of clips of Maddox on some deep ball attempts to compare to Rudolph’s film above.
Now this isn’t supposed to be a direct comparison of Rudolph to Maddox, as Maddox was smaller and likely had a tad less arm strength. Rather, I see it as a rough comparison of what Rudolph can provide as a starter for the Steelers. He’s 5-4 overall in his career in Pittsburgh, which suggests he can keep the boat steady right around that .500 mark or a little bit above if asked to start for an entire season. This can be tied to the supporting cast Pittsburgh boasts with a talented defense and intriguing skill position players, but also what we know Rudolph is as a capable option but lacks the upside and splash moments you want in a franchise signal caller.
This will lead Pittsburgh to look toward the 2022 NFL Draft for a future successor to Ben should he hang it up after the season, but that rookie likely wouldn’t be thrown to the fire Week One unless he was head-and-heels better than Rudolph from the get-go.
Another scenario is that Pittsburgh makes a playoff this run this postseason and is out of the running to make a leap up to select their QB of the future, leaving the team with the option of keeping Rudolph and re-signing Haskins to potentially battle it out for the 2022 job. Pittsburgh could entertain the likes of a Jacoby Brissett, but the Steelers traditionally like to stay in-house with their players on the roster and develop rather than explore options on the FA market. Now this will come down to whether Haskins deserves to stick on the roster in 2021 and show his maturity woes are behind him.
Nevertheless, 2022 shapes up to be an interesting scenario on many levels, but we have to sit here today and think that Rudolph is likely the favorite in the clubhouse to be the Week One starter for Pittsburgh.
What are your thoughts on the prospect of Rudolph opening 2022 as the starter for the Steelers? Do you think he can keep the job the entire season, or will cede the job to a rookie or the like of Haskins? What do you consider Rudolph’s upside and floor as a potential starter? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading and all your support!