Depth Chart Trade Bait? Don’t Overthink Tomlin’s Decision To Keep Mason Rudolph As Backup QB

Steelers QBs Kenny Pickett Mason Rudolph

The Pittsburgh Steelers released their first official depth chart of the regular season yesterday, and while there wasn’t anything that I would say was a significant surprise, there were certainly some decisions that are going to be talked about.

I doubt anybody who’s been paying attention batted an eye when they saw Mitch Trubisky at the top of the quarterback depth chart, but seeing Kenny Pickett on the bottom generated a wealth of discussion—much of it silly, or perhaps simply misguided, although plenty of it legitimate as well. I’m not going to share a bunch of Tweets and other social media posts in here, but suffice it to say that they’re out there, and they’re from prominent people, too.

Let’s talk about the decision, though. First and foremost, the decision was that Mason Rudolph is the backup quarterback, not that Kenny Pickett is the number three quarterback. In other words, the depth chart reflects more what they think of Rudolph than what they think of Pickett. I saw suggestions that Pickett starting his rookie season as third on the depth chart is somehow fating him to be a bust, and…that’s about as much time as it merits being addressed. Acknowledging its existence.

Now, I think our readership is pretty much on the level here. I recently discussed the possibility of Rudolph and not Pickett being the backup, and the replies were largely encouraging in that they reflected an understanding of the situation, so I feel like I’m more preaching to the choir, but that’s okay, we can do that anyway.

The most popular ‘hot take’ that we’ve seen in response to this move was that it is some type of long game by the Steelers to increase Rudolph’s trade value. The thing is, that is silly even if there is possibly a grain of truth to the idea that his being the number two instead of the number three is more enticing to opposing teams who may be in the market for him.

Aside from everything else that is silly about the suggestion, it really is audacious to suggest that general managers around the league would be so easily duped by what would be an incredibly transparent tactic. It doesn’t make a difference to them where Rudolph would be listed on the Steelers’ depth chart. If they were going to trade for him, they would be doing so based on their scouts’ evaluations of his on-field work.

The notion of Tomlin wanting to try to avoid a situation where fans are calling for Pickett to be in the game because he’s in uniform is at least as valid, if not more so, as the idea of the decision being about trade value. Of course, some fans would call for him anyway even when he’s not eligible to play, but perhaps it would lessen it some. Yet it’s also not why Tomlin made the decision he did.

Here’s the very simple truth: Rudolph is the backup because the Steelers are comfortable with him being the backup. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t put him there just in the hope that they could get a team to offer them a fourth-round pick instead of a fifth, or a fifth-round pick instead of a sixth, whatever the offers may have been that they’ve fielded.

At the most charitable, any benefit to making Rudolph the backup quarterback pertaining to his trade value is an indirect, tangential consideration. At best. And that’s assuming the Steelers have any genuine interest in trading him at any price, in spite of their very long history of keeping three quarterbacks, and the fact that they don’t have any other quarterbacks right now they could even sign off the street who knows anything about their system.

Arguably the only reason that they traded Joshua Dobbs when they were offered a fifth-round pick for him in 2019 was because they knew they had Devlin Hodges, who was likely close to winning the number three job. They don’t have any Plan D this year. Chris Oladokun is with the Chiefs now, and he might not even want to come back here. Of course, in theory, they could sign him to their 53-man roster off of Kansas City’s practice squad. But they’ve shown no serious interest in rostering him. They may not have even offered him a spot on the practice squad.

With that being said, there is something about Pickett that also makes him the number three quarterback rather than the backup, and it’s obvious. It’s because he’s a rookie, and because backups, especially backups to quarterbacks who are new to a system, are not going to get many reps during a week of game preparation.

This is not to say that making a rookie your backup quarterback is not a valid option. It happens often enough around the league, after all, and for the record, I did say that I leaned toward believing that’s the decision Tomlin would make. But ultimately, the fundamental football logic behind going with the experienced, well-versed Rudolph as the backup, who has been the backup for the past three years, is there, and is sound.

There is no indictment of Pickett in the decision. There isn’t even a commentary. It just speaks to the reality of the limitations that exist for backups, especially backup quarterbacks, during a typical work week, and of the comfort level the Steelers do have in their options. Rudolph is far from a bad backup. Pickett wouldn’t be one either. But you do have to choose one over the other and let them prepare. Tomlin made his choice, and it’s a legitimate one in a scenario in which there was no one right answer.

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