FACT: Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement has left a giant gulf on the roster that we have not seen in almost 20 years. There are Seniors in high school that have never known this team with a different starting quarterback. And thus we all feel angst and worry about what comes next.
FACT: All of us really, really want to make that unpleasant sensation go away. And we know that it won’t go away until the Heir to Ben can be found, drafted, and settled into place.
QUESTION: Has that angst and worry hypnotized even our most serious fans and analysts to the point where they are seeing wishful-thinking unicorns in the sky instead of everyday clouds?
I’m afraid we’re getting kind of close. Folks, we used to joke about this even as recently as last year! “Just you wait and see. Someone is going to fall because teams do nutty things when it comes to QB’s!” How about a quick reality check?
Yes, it is appropriate to trade the farm if there is a QB prospect you fall in love with.
But it is desperately, often tragically wrong, to bet like that on a QB you only like. Let’s be clear about this. There is a lot to like about all of this year’s top QB’s. I honestly would not object to any of them as a fallback pick for 1:20. My personal grades may be a little lower, but that is because I have too many questions to really open up the wallet and start to place serious bets. Answer those questions and my grades would shoot right up. Answer those questions and every one of these five would be worth the pick at 1:20 or so. But you’d have to flat out guarantee those answers before I’d want to trade up, and the one guy I might trade up for has more questions to be answered than all the others combined.
Desmond Ridder. This young man is a proven winner, program rescuer, leader of men, and overall athlete. He also has a big arm capable of making every NFL throw, and is reported to have intangibles that are enough to make you swoon. Indeed, he has everything needed to be a Top 10 prospect… except accuracy. And real, consistent, reliable accuracy is the single most important physical skill of them all. Worse yet, I’ve yet to see a scouting report that can explain where things go wrong. Desmond Ridder’s mechanics are among the best in the class. It’s just that nine throws look perfect, and then the tenth wafts off into the ground, or high over the middle.
I used to be a pitcher. I was never a great control guy, but it was good enough, and I had great stuff until I blew out my shoulder in a most professional way. Ridder is described like a prospect who will paint the corners for three innings straight and then send a ball sailing over everyone’s head. Even when there are men on base, which is a disaster. Walks are bad enough. Wild pitches? No.
Hence the major question mark that drags down his stock. If that will continue in the NFL, he’s a lost cause. But will it? Ridder has recently started to work with body dynamics guru Jordan Palmer, the man who gets a lot of credit for helping Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to bring their wild talents under control. From those two players in addition to other people. I have heard Palmer speak about Ridder on more than one podcast, and he’s repeatedly said there is a rhyme and reason behind those wild pitches, and that it is fixable. I can’t confirm that of course. And coaches get paid in real, cashy money to help provide those cures, which means that Palmer has some self interest in the draft stock at issue. So as much as I admire Jordan Palmer and his work, I have some salt at the ready too.
Alas, but that’s the edge of my ability to penetrate the puzzle. Mine; but not the teams. Convince me that Jordan Palmer isn’t blowing smoke, and I’ll be fully on board. Erase those wild pitches and Desmond Ridder is a moderate bargain at 1:20. Maybe even a bargain you’d trade into the teens to obtain.
Sam Howell. Howell has all the tools except height, and he isn’t actually short. I watched him a lot in 2020, with greed in my heart as he lofted those balls deep downfield for his pro-quality receivers. I will also say that I, personally, saw NFL-quality poise in the pocket under pressure. That poise disappeared in 2021 according to the clips I’ve seen and the scouting profiles I read. He was way to willing to tuck and run when the first read or two wasn’t clear. So… What happened?
I cannot answer that. I can only list the alternatives. In one scenario, Howell’s basic nature got revealed when he lost the crutch of two NFL caliber WR’s, and two NFL caliber RB’s. His entire offensive line returned, so the flaws must fall on his shoulders. Right?
In a second scenario, all that talent hid a lot of O-line flaws too, which seems likely because the UNC line was quite frankly awful in 2021. Howell was constantly under pressure, and took a ton of nasty sacks when he wasn’t out there scrambling away.
And in a third scenario, the coaches looked at the lost weapons, looked at the failing OL, and then ordered Howell to make his first read, and maybe a second, and then to get his butt out of dodge. Was he really instructed to to show his legs rather than his courage? If so, we’re there. Making weak choices would be bad. Following orders would be good. Get me the right answers and Howell, like Ridder, becomes a fine target for the pick at 1:20 and maybe even worth a small trade up.
Matt Corral. Kind of the same thing. Corral has moderate size (smaller than Howell), and Top 10-15 natural assets if all the answers come back perfect, but you and I have no way to know if they did. In his case the questions are a lot like those facing Howell, except that he is a little smaller and the coach’s presence a little more looming.
Simply put, people complain about how quick he was to cut and run when the first read wasn’t there. The offered explanation is that Corral played for Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss; there is no coach who controls his players more closely; and that RPO-based system may have essentially ordered him to use his legs even on 3rd and long, when analysts wish he’d shown more pocket presence and patience to let a play develop. Show me that Corral was doing as ordered, and we’re there.
There are also some questions about Corral’s leadership skills, but those trace back to his teenage struggle against clinical depression. He’s been open and honest about that, and has claimed the high ground by turning into a successful advocate for mental health care, but there are no ‘reasonable accommodations’ in an NFL locker room. Have his struggles made him tougher and better, as struggles often do? Or vulnerable when the hottest of lights bears down? Again, we outsiders have no way to say yea or nay, and those answers could make all the difference.
Kenny Pickett. The young man really did break Dan Marino’s passing records at Pitt. People say that happened because he had a pro-level of understanding about how to make his pro-style offense work, rather than from superior talent. Thus “high floor, low ceiling.” Convince me he has the ceiling to be great in addition to the floor that says he can start right away. And while you’re at it, convince me that a solid NFL backup with a hazy ceiling isn’t worthy of the pick at 1:20 just for that. Is there any better way to buy time for searching through future years? Mac Jones may not be the True Heir To Brady in New England, but he’s certainly giving that team enough breathing room to continue the search in comfort.
It would also help if you could show that Pickett’s 38 fumbles (26 of which were lost) have nothing to do with those doll sized hands. If the hand size caused the fumbles, it stops being funny.
Malik Willis. This one is easy: convince me that people aren’t drunk on pure potential. Ridder, Howell, and Corral would all be Top 10-20 players on my personal grading scale if you could answer those question marks in the right way. Pickett would be solid value in the 20’s with the proper answers, but they are easier to get at. Malik Willis has no ceiling like that. He is a #1 overall talent if the answers come back right. But Willis comes with more and bigger question marks than all the others combined.
- He lost his job at Auburn to an underclassman. What’s the real story behind that?
- He ended up at tiny Liberty instead of another Power 5 program. Why? Those questions may be answerable – and here is a good NFL.com article that makes his case pretty well – but you and I cannot confirm those facts.
- What about his football IQ, since Liberty’s offense had little more in the way of sophistication than the sort of thing they run in really good high schools?
- What about his tendency to cut and run? If Howell and Corral get knocked for leaving the pocket too soon, why not Willis when he does it even more?
- What about his questionable accuracy, which is actually worse than Ridder’s by a lot if you wish away the aforementioned wild pitches. Is there a Jordan Palmer stepping up to certify that Willis’s mechanics can be fixed?
- Can he win against higher caliber opponents? The other three played for contenders in big time programs, and proved that they can stand up and be counted in that environment. The NFL is an even bigger stage, but they’ve done all that can be asked on the biggest stage available. Willis has not, which makes it another question mark.
- Can he get his teammates to play at a higher level, or is his success based on being a man among boys?
I am not saying those questions can’t be answered! Do not take that wrong. The point is that we cannot fall in love with Willis despite his awesome talents unless and until we learn that the questions have been answered. Nor is it fair to anyone to say, “If the Steelers love the kid, they ought to trade up and get him…” That “if” is the entire point.
Has Steelers Nation Been Hypnotized By Wishful Thinking?
I did not intend those descriptions as slams on any of these prospects. To me, it’s a question of knowing the potential, the assets, the negatives, and the unknowns; and then to balance it out accordingly to arrive at a grade. Remember: I am the self-described bookie, who creates a consensus Board but does not engage in combat about any particular grade.
FWIW, my consensus viewpoint at this time is that we can and should like them all, but we do not know enough to think any are worthy of trading-up love. Not a one of them should fall out of Round 2, and that is a big time compliment coming from the likes of me. Remember when we all wanted Zion Johnson above all others, with Kenyon Green as our fallback? It was only two or three months ago! That spell popped when free agency landed us with a starter-quality Guard and Center, lowering the priority level from red alert down to a normal yellow caution sign. Zion has not lost his charm. It’s our perspective that changed. What would be your view on these QB’s if you had a guarantee in hand that either Trubisky or Rudolph would be able to play as a Top 15-20 caliber quarterback in the league?
But Scott, Look At All The Work They’ve Put In!
[Sigh]. We really are spoiled around here.
QB needy teams – a category that now includes our Steelers – are obliged to perform due diligence on every quarterback in every draft. And that process needs to continue, year after year, until they finally settle on someone they’re willing to bet on for the next three to four. The ability to avoid all that is a hidden benefit that comes from security at the tip top of the roster. Fans in Kansas City and Buffalo can ignore the position. Cincinnati and Cleveland too, for the most part. We no longer can. The Pittsburgh brass need to engage in due diligence even if it’s a genuine P.I.T.A.
Next question: what comprises “due” diligence when it comes to the most important position on the team?
My answer is, “You’ve been looking at it.” Due diligence in a QB hunt requires you send the brass to every pro day for every one of the potentially viable prospects, even if it means you need to skip out on Ohio State. You interview them as often as possible. You give them homework assignments, and then bring them in for a visit to test them on what they could absorb. You engage in casual, football-geekery conversation to gauge how deep the love of football has dug down into their souls. You look at the medicals with a microscope. You grill their coaches, including everyone from the head coach, to the position coach, to the conditioning coach, to the coordinator. You ask around to get a feel for their leadership style, and their impact on those around them. All that and more.
The Steelers have not done anything unusual this year. They’ve just done the work that’s required for every team that doesn’t have a Roethlisberger under contract. Get used to it people. This is normal. And it will continue until one of two things happens:
- The team finds That Guy, and trades the farm to get him in the Top 5 or so; or
- A ‘regular’ QB pick turns out to be a winner, saving us from that extra cost.
What, you forgot about option #2? I refuse to buy in to the idea that there’s only one way to skin this proverbial cat. What do you do with the prospects you like, but cannot honestly say you love? You pick them in Round 2, 3, or 4 as appropriate. Occasionally it works, as in the case of Russell Wilson, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and too many others to count. Heck, you may even take those just-likable prospects in the back half of Round 1 too. Good prospects really do fall, even at the Quarterback position. It’s just a matter of how many question marks remain unanswered even when the due diligence process has been completed.
Do I expect the Steelers to invest in a Quarterback from this year’s draft? Sure, unless the board simply won’t cooperate. I could even see a moderate trade up for Malik Willis if the F.O. has gotten enough good answers to all those different questions. There isn’t a lot that would surprise me given the acknowledge limits on what I can actually know.
Am I rooting for it? [Shrug]. I am content to sit back and watch. I know my limits, and there are just too many if’s and maybe’s to get that invested in one more than the others. I suppose the dream would be, “The Steelers learn that everything is perfectly answered about Malik Willis, but the other QB teams are left in that fog of mystery.” Yeah. Right.
I will focus on watching and enjoying the draft process in and for itself. I want to see that Colbert & Co. really do perform their due diligence in the right way. Which they clearly have. [Hooray!] And then I want to maintain some level of perspective. If this year’s class has QB prospects to like, but no one to love, fine: pick one at 1:20, or 2:20, or somewhere in between. There is nothing wrong with that! The great sin would be to trade away the future for a unicorn, only to discover he was just a cloud in the sky.