When the Steelers draft a quarterback in the first round, there’s a 60 percent chance that player turns out to be a Hall of Famer. So maybe they’ll get back to it in 2018.
Pittsburgh has only used a first-rounder on a quarterback five times. Terry Bradshaw (No. 1 overall in 1970) and Len Dawson (No. 5, 1957) are already in Canton, and Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11, 2004) will be there soon enough. Only Ted Marchibroda (No. 5, 1953) and Mark Malone (No. 28, 1980) won’t get there, and Malone still had a decent career.
Roethlisberger has been the man of the present and future since he walked into the Steelers’ building 14 years ago. Most teams don’t spend high picks on QBs when they have a franchise guy already, but the Steelers have made an art form out of it. They’ve picked four QBs since Roethlisberger, all in the fourth or fifth round. Two of them, 2013 pick Landry Jones and 2017 pick Joshua Dobbs, are Roethlisberger’s current backups.
In 2018, the Steelers might finally invest in their post-Ben future.
“Might” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, obviously. If you straw-polled a bunch of Steelers fans, most would tell you they won’t believe the Steelers are drafting a quarterback in the first or second round until after they’ve done it. But the organization appears to at least be considering the idea in a way it never has with Roethlisberger on the roster:
In March, the Steelers kept a close eye on Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph during his pro day in Stillwater. Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert, and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner all showed up. Tomlin watched Rudolph closely during his throwing drills, and team brass met with him afterward — after they’d already met at the NFL Combine.
Steelers staying late to talk to QB Mason Rudolph pic.twitter.com/cDxtQu41s3— Andrew Groover (@APGroover) March 15, 2018
The same high-level entourage showed up two weeks later for Lamar Jackson’s pro day at Louisville. ESPN’s Mina Kimes said Tomlin was watching Jackson closely, and she predicted the Steelers would trade up from No. 28 overall to 14th to take Jackson.
Both Rudolph and Jackson have teammates in the draft, and it’s not certain that the Steelers went to their pro days to see the quarterbacks. But given that they’re both likely to be on the board beyond the top 10 or so picks, they’re worth thinking about as ideas. Any of the other QBs who are likely to get drafted in the first round are probably out of reach. Rudolph might be around in the second round, too, though not likely at the Steelers’ current pick, 60th overall.
There’s good reason for the Steelers to take Rudolph or Jackson.
The big thing is that Roethlisberger’s continued presence on the roster is never guaranteed through more than one year out. He said two days after the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the 2016 season’s AFC Championship Game that he’d consider retiring before the next season. He didn’t, but he publicly maintained until the eve of training camp in 2017 that his last season might be that one. It wasn’t, and he’s back for 2018, at least.
He didn’t sound like a man on the verge of retiring immediately after this past season. He has two seasons left on his current contract. It might have rejuvenated Roethlisberger a bit that the Steelers parted ways with offensive coordinator Todd Haley after the season and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner. Roethlisberger had clashed with Haley and long been close with Fichtner.
Roethlisberger is 36, though. He’s within a few years of the standard retirement age for even the best quarterbacks. (Tom Brady is not standard.) In the last few years, Peyton Manning retired after his age-39 season, Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer after their age-38 seasons, and Tony Romo after his age-36 season. He’s a whole lot closer to the end than the beginning, even if he’s still playing well and still has Antonio Brown to throw to.
There are also good reasons not to take a quarterback.
The main one is that the Steelers’ offense is already great, and the defense needs a lot of work. Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury laid plain how unimportant football is in general, but to the extent football’s still being played, the Steelers badly need linebacker help for 2018. They are in perpetual need of defensive backs, too.
Le’Veon Bell is probably about to play his second year in a row under the franchise tag. Brown’s peak as the best wideout alive can’t last forever, and the Steelers’ window can’t stay open forever, either. Going with a quarterback early wouldn’t serve a quest to win now.
At some point, though, the Steelers will need a quarterback who’s not named Ben Roethlisberger to win them some games. Unless they think that’s Dobbs or Jones, and they probably don’t, they’ll have to find one in the draft sometime. That time could be now.