By: Zach Herbaugh
With the 2020 season in the rear view mirror, the offseason has officially begun. 2020 was definitely a season of highs and lows, with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning 12 games, clinching the AFC North, and making the playoffs for the first time since 2017. However, the Steelers experienced a quick exit in Wild Card Weekend to their divisional rivals, the Cleveland Browns.
Over the next couple of months, we are going to publish our expected 2021 roster predictions by position group before the NFL Draft commences in late April and free agency begins in March. These predictions will aim to predict who will make the final 53-man roster, as well as how we see the draft unfolding for the Steelers. The Steelers currently have the 24th pick in the first round and a bevy of holes to fill on their team. The first position group we are going to take a look at is quarterback.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
Quarterback has been the steadiest position for the Steelers since Big Ben took over the reigns in 2004. Roethlisberger has had an outstanding career with a laundry list of accolades that could fill an entire article. However, when news broke in September of 2019 that Roethlisberger was undergoing season-ending elbow surgery on his throwing arm, many fans and media types around the NFL began to question if this was the end for the Hall of Famer. In typical Roethlisberger fashion, he proved everyone wrong and was on an MVP pace through the first 11 games of his comeback leading the Steelers to a perfect record. Unfortunately, a December collapse saw the Steelers drop 5 of their last 6 and Roethlisberger’s play dipped. He began to put the ball in harms way more often, something he avoided through the first three months of the season, and ended the season by throwing four interceptions in their playoff loss to Cleveland. Roethlisberger ended the season with very respectable numbers: 3,803 passing yards, 65.6% completion percentage, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over 15 regular season starts.
Many, including Roethlisberger himself, would admit he has to play better in order for the Steelers to compete for a Super Bowl, but I disagree. A lot has to change within the offense in order for the Steelers to achieve their goals of hoisting a Lombardy, but little has to do with how Roethlisberger played in 2020. The main thing that has to improve in 2021 has already occurred – a change in offensive coordinator. The next thing that is a must is significant improvement in the offensive line and running back position groups. Roethlisberger has shown he still has the ability to be a gunslinger, but the Steelers desperately need a more balanced offensive attack in order to compete in 2021.
Prediction: Makes roster, contract extension through 2022 to push down cap hit in 2021
2. Mason Rudolph
Rudolph is the only other quarterback the Steelers currently have under contract for the 2021 season. Rudolph has been somewhat of a mixed bag in his short NFL career. He saw very little action in his first two season, but received a ton of game action in 2019 after Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury. Rudolph had some success in 2019 helping the Steelers to a winning record in his 8 starts, but only completed 62% of his passes and threw 9 interceptions in just 10 games. Rudolph had one start in 2020 and once again looked good on some throws, but he still struggled to maintain consistency over an entire 4 quarters.
The Steelers stated that they had a first-round grade on him when they selected him in the third-round of the 2017 draft, so it’s likely they will keep him around for the duration of his rookie deal which will commence at the end of next season. The Steelers do not have a clear succession plan to Roethlisberger on the team right now and Rudolph hasn’t proven enough over his tenure to show he can step in once Roethlisberger decides to hang it up, so it’s likely the Steelers don’t extend him next offseason. However, Rudolph has proved to be a serviceable back-up and clearly has a good grip on the playbook.
Prediction: Make roster, starts season as primary back-up to Roethlisberger
3. Josh Dobbs
Dobbs is set to become a free agent in March, but his extremely limited NFL experience (6 games and 17 career pass attempts in 4 seasons) isn’t likely to put him at the top of a lot of teams free agency list. Dobbs has proven his knowledge of the game is an asset to Roethlisberger and the Steelers, but his skill set hasn’t translated to an NFL capable quarterback. The Steelers will likely only carry three quarterbacks in 2021 and Dobbs will likely not be one of them.
Prediction: Steelers let Dobbs enter free agency/Does not make roster
4. Free agency/NFL Draft
Here is where the fun and ultimate speculation starts. There are likely to be 5 quarterbacks taken in the first round. However, there are a lot of teams picking ahead of the Steelers that will be selecting their potential franchise quarterback. In order for the Steelers to solidify their succession plan for Roethlisberger, they will likely have to trade up to acquire a top-10 pick. The likelihood of this, in my opinion, is very low. The Steelers haven’t moved up in the draft much at all in their history (Devin Bush, Troy Polamalu) and it’s pretty inconceivable that they would give up precious draft capital for a player that will likely not make an impact until 2022 at the earliest.
NFL Draft Prediction: Steelers pass on selecting a quarterback in 2021
Free agency is likely where the Steelers pick up their third quarterback for the 2021 season. There are currently 30 quarterbacks set to become unrestricted free agents and a lot of potential players that could be enticing pieces to add depth behind Roethlisberger. A few names to keep an eye on are: Jacoby Brissett, Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jamies Winston and my personal favorite: Nick Mullens. Mullens has played in a back up roll his entire career for the San Francisco 49ers, but has played well when filling in for their off-injured starter Jimmy Garoppalo.
Mullens does not have a great career stat line (5-11 record in 16 starts with 25 touchdowns and 22 interceptions), but I think he has potential to be an above average starter in the NFL. Give Mullens a year or two to learn behind Roethlisberger and I think he can potentially bridge the gap until the Steelers find their next franchise quarterback. Mullens is a restricted free agent in 2021, so the Steelers may not be willing to offer up a higher salaried contract to move him out of San Francisco, but keep an eye on him as free agency starts in March.
Free Agency Prediction: Steelers sign Nick Mullens to a two-year contract
Who do you predict the Steelers will keep on the roster in 2021? Do you think they will draft a quarterback? Sound off in the comments below!