The Steelers may be soon headed to a split with Ben Roethlisberger after having him as their starting quarterback for 17 seasons. Big Ben is the last first-round QB standing from the famed 2004 NFL Draft, after Philip Rivers already decided to join Eli Manning in retirement.
But Roethlisberger is also set to turn 39 in early March and is coming off a shaky season of physical decline, on the heels of a lost 2019 campaign because of a right (throwing) elbow injury. Pittsburgh also is about $30 million over the salary cap for 2021, with Roethlisberger carrying a hefty cap number of $41.25 million.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was non-committal about Roethlisberger returning when he talked to reporters Wednesday. The team cannot afford Roethlisberger coming back unless he restructures his contract. Otherwise, he’s more likely to retire than joining another team.
Regardless, the Steelers, for the first time in a long time, need to explore short- and long-term starting QB options. Between in house, the trading block, free agency and the draft, here would be their most viable solutions for replacing Roethlisberger if needed:
Steelers’ in-house options for QB: Mason Rudolph vs. Dwayne Haskins
Although Rudolph, 25, has played quite a bit filling in for Roethlisberger since he was drafted in the third round in 2018, the Steelers have given no indication that has been groomed to be Roethlisberger’s successor. This year marks the final year on Rudolph’s rookie contract.
Haskins signed a bargain one-year deal after the 2019 first-rounder was released by Washington before the end of last season. Before that, he was an intriguing lower-level trade target for Pittsburgh. Off the field and on the practice field, Haskins didn’t live up to expectations as a leader or a passer. He went from not being a preferred option of coach Jay Gruden to no longer being tolerated by Ron Rivera.
That said, Haskins turns only 24 in May has some great physical tools for the position that he can put all together by absorbing coaching and getting re-dedicated with his second NFL chance that came much earlier than expected.
A potential starting battle between steady backup and volatile newcomer may not come with a solution for more than one season. But if the Steelers are too cap-strapped and want to use their best draft resources addressing other positions, it might be with what they are stuck. Should the Steelers not take a QB early, they can also draft a developmental type to put into the open competition.
In this scenario, Rudolph does have an inside track after working closely with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada was the latter was the team’s quarterbacks coach last season.
Steelers’ best trade option for QB: Sam Darnold
Darnold, like Haskins is only 24. The Jets are likely to move the No. 3 overall pick from 2018 while they prep to either make a blockbuster trade for the Texans’ Deshaun Watson involving giving up first-round picks or take BYU’s Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall in 2021.
Between his health issues and New York’s unsettled offense the past three years — stamped by the shaky tenure of Adam Gase — Darnold hasn’t had a real chance to show what he can do with a reasonable supporting cast. The Steelers can offer a steadier system with a good line and talented young receivers — which might include a USC reunion with JuJu Smith-Schuster if the wideout is re-signed.
With the Steelers unable to get Watson and Carson Wentz already traded, this is their best remaining avenue to acquire a young veteran with good starting experience.
Steelers’ best free agency option at QB: Jameis Winston
Winston didn’t get signed as a starer by any QB-needy teams as a free agent from the Buccaneers last year. He settled for a bargain backup deal with the Saints. He ended up staying a backup, however, even when Drew Brees missed four games, with Taysom Hill getting the full-time fill-in nod over him.
When Winston went No. 1 overall to Tampa Bay in the 2015 draft, there were comparisons to Roethlisberger with his 6-4, 231-pound frame, big arm to push the ball downfield and athletic wiggle when needed. But inconsistency and interceptions have curbed Winston’s upside. The Steelers may have had some level of interest in Winston in the 2020 offseason, but he wasn’t a necessary addition then with Roethlisberger on track to come back well from his injury.
If the Steelers aren’t thrilled of the thought of Rudolph vs. Haskins or don’t get into the Darnold mix, they could do a whole lot worse on taking a flyer on Winston. The issue is the change in offense from Randy Fichtner to Canada, where Winston may be less of a natural fit.
Steelers’ best draft options for QB: Mac Jones, Kyle Trask
Rudolph has been the highest-drafted Steelers QB since Roethlisberger went No. 11 overall in ’04. Sitting on the No. 24 and No. 55 overall draft picks in 2021, it might be prime time to finally draft a first- or second-round quarterback again, regardless of whether Roethlisberger is still in Pittsburgh.
Alabama’s Mac Jones falls into being a good prospect value late in Round 1 with his strong all-around passing skill set and championship pedigree. Florida’s Kyle Trask also has shown the arm and accuracy to prosper with the right NFL coaching and is lining up as a mid-Round 2 pick.
If there’s anyone the Steelers could trade up to get in the draft, it would be a few spots for North Dakota State’s Troy Lance, as BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields will be out of reach. Should it come down to in-house vs. draft, the Steelers should see that Jones and Trask both carry much higher upside than Rudolph.
Many thought the Steelers would have lined up a Roethlisberger contingency plan earlier. But they might be left scrambling for an answer when having limited resources. Considering the Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Browns (Baker Mayfield) and Bengals (Joe Burrow) set up at QB for a while with young recent first-rounders and the Steelers facing a bad cap situation, a rookie replacement for Roethlisberger looks like the wisest move.