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The Pittsburgh Steelers are committed to Ben Roethlisberger in 2021, planning to roll into next season with the future Hall of Fame quarterback leading the way once again. But as the 39-year-old shows clear signs of physical decline and nears the end of his career, Pittsburgh is thinking about its long-term future.
As Roethlisberger recovered from elbow surgery that kept him out for a majority of the 2019 season, the Steelers ignored finding his successor. Instead, the franchise bet on 2018 third-round pick Mason Rudolph taking a step forward and proving he could be the heir to Big Ben.
In 15 games across two seasons, Rudolph has an 82.7 passer rating and completed just 61.7% of his passes. It’s led to the Steelers re-evaluating their thinking, resulting in the signing of Dwayne Haskins this spring. While the 2019 first-round pick will provide some competition for Rudolph, it seems neither are viewed particularly highly within the organization.
NBC Sports’ Peter King wrote this week that he sincerely doubts the Steelers trust either Haskins or Rudolph entering the 2021 season. However, despite speculation that Pittsburgh might draft a quarterback this year, he believes they wait until next offseason.
The Steelers could view the 2021 season as one last opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl with Roethlisberger, using the upcoming NFL Draft to strengthen the offense around him. If they fall short, then general manager Kevin Colbert could find the next long-term face of the franchise next offseason.
Evaluating Steelers’ quarterback options in 2022
After sinking this year, the NFL salary cap is expected to climb next spring. It could exceed $200 million, putting the Steelers in a position to have more than $100 million in cap space. A long-term contract for All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt will eat into some of that, but there would still be plenty of room to reshape this offense.
Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen are both technically set to become free agents next spring, but the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills will pick up their respective fifth-year options in a matter of weeks. It’s the same story for Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers just exercised the 2022 team option for Sam Darnold.
That will leave the likes of Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston as the top free-agent quarterbacks. While Winston and Trubisky offer some upside, they are far from safe bets to hold down starting jobs and not the kind of players Pittsburgh would want to risk too much on.
A Deshaun Watson trade is possible. By then, the ongoing legal issues should be worked through the courts and the NFL. Since the Houston Texans will be in a position to draft a new franchise quarterback, a blockbuster deal becomes more likely. However, the Steelers’ organization would be taking a risk by acquiring another star quarterback with allegations of sexual violence in his history.
The 2022 NFL Draft might be Pittsburgh’s best bet. North Carolina Tar Heels star San Howell is the best quarterback in college football and the projected No. 1 overall pick next year. If the Steelers miss the playoffs in 2021, they could be a trade-up candidate to target Howell.
Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder, USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, Oklahoma Sooners star Spencer Rattler and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corrall are also on the first-round radar in 2022.