For the first time since Tommy Maddox in 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers will enter a season without Ben Roethlisberger as their preferred QB1. Given that Big Ben missed all but two games in 2019, however, it’s not an unprecedented situation for head coach Mike Tomlin, who is entering his 16th season in charge. That year, the Steelers made do with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges (DUCK!), and they still managed to finish .500.
This year, Pittsburgh will be leaning on either veteran Mitchell Trubisky, most recently of the Buffalo Bills, or first-round selection Kenny Pickett, who played college locally at Pitt and is universally viewed as the long-term answer in the Steel City. The picture is less clear for 2022.
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When you’re talking about the Steelers, a team that has reached the playoffs in 10 of Tomlin’s 16 seasons, the expectation is to compete for a postseason berth. Under that criterion, Trubisky seems the logical choice when considering his experience and respectable 29-21 career record, which includes two trips to the playoffs in four years with the Chicago Bears. Then again, Tomlin enjoys rare job security, so perhaps he’d be willing to take a short-term hit to get Pickett ready sooner.
We’ll start getting a better feel for where things stand come training camp, but for now let’s take a preliminary look at the situation.
Simply by virtue of not being Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson — quarterbacks the Chicago Bears passed on to select him back in 2017 — Trubisky has become some combination of a cautionary tale and a punchline across the NFL. He’s not that bad. The 27-year-old enjoyed his best year in 2018, passing for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, earning his lone Pro Bowl nod and an NFC North crown for the Bears.
Things stalled out from there, though watching a cavalcade of NFL quarterbacks, including the highly touted Justin Fields, struggle to make much happen in Matt Nagy’s offense has to at least open the possibility that some of Trubisky’s failings were based on scheme and personnel. Chicago finished 21st, 29th, 26th and 24th in total offense during Nagy’s four seasons in charge, and general manager Ryan Pace joined him on the unemployment line.
One thing the Bears never seemed to fully embrace was Trubisky’s athleticism. After running for 421 yards and three TDs in ’18, the UNC product failed to reach the 200-yard plateau in his final two years with the club. He’s a much better athlete than the physically compromised Roethlisberger was, and it’d be surprising not to see offensive coordinator Matt Canada make adjustments from the short-passing attack that has dominated Pittsburgh’s offense recently. Canada’s past suggests we’ll see more RPOs and presnap movement.
In what was considered a down year for quarterback prospects, Pickett was viewed as one of the best, though some graded him a possible second-round target. He was often regarded as the most NFL-ready of 2022’s flimsy quarterback class. The rookie’s biggest strength is his accuracy, with football IQ a close second. His athleticism is subpar by modern standards, though, as he offers little as a runner, and his small hands create question marks about ball security. Pickett doesn’t necessarily have a lot of juice on his deep ball, either.
If you’re thinking that a limited athlete with questionable arm strength sounds familiar given what the Steelers have dealt with over the past couple years, you wouldn’t be too far off. Still, Pickett should offer more to work with physically than Big Ben, and Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins serves as a better NFL comp.
Given the first-round investment and presence of Najee Harris, the Steelers could choose to start Pickett immediately, though that’d probably look like what we saw from New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones a year ago (read: heavily managed).
Fantasy football outlook
Pittsburgh presents a capable cast of targets, featuring wideouts Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the aforementioned receiving back in Harris, and tight end Pat Freiermuth to help ease the transition for either quarterback.
Trubisky has been receiving first-team reps during OTAs and appears the likely Week 1 starter, unless Pickett shines in camp and gives Tomlin no other choice. Regardless, Trubisky figures to have a short leash, and if the Steelers find themselves out of the playoff hunt, there’s no incentive for Tomlin to stick with him.
If you plan to carry a QB3, Trubisky might offer some final-round upside, but that’s about it outside of a superflex league. Pickett is a sound dynasty league target and could be a flier as a third passer in best-ball drafts.