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Steelers 2017 Draft Outlook: Quarterback rises on team’s draft list

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recently signaled that his days in Pittsburgh are numbered. Even though retirement this off-season is unlikely, the quarterback position just became a larger draft need than it was just one week ago.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t all that long ago that the retirement of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was nothing more than a hypothetical situation that was still several years down the road.

Fewer than three years ago, he said, “I think I can get five, six, seven more years out of this arm and these legs.” And it was barely 10 months ago that Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert said he believed, “we still have, you know, three to four more good years in his prime.” It felt as if the team has been prepping these last two years or so for that final, three-year push through a window that would eventually close, but was still wide open.

Those beliefs came to a screeching halt two days after the AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots, when Roethlisberger, himself, stated that he planned to use this off-season to “evaluate, to consider all options. To consider health, family, and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate ... if there’s going to be a ‘next season’.”

Of course, one breath later, he said, “at my age, that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year.” The reality is there is little, if any, chance that Roethlisberger actually retires this off-season. But, the fact he made those statements in public certainly brings front and center the reality that his time as a quarterback in the NFL is drawing toward resolution. That means it may be time to start looking for his eventual replacement.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: therein lies the rub. For one thing, it’s eminently clear that his replacement is not currently on the roster. 2016 backup Landry Jones’ time with the team may draw to a close the moment the NFL calendar officially flips over to 2017 on March 9 at 4:00 p.m. At that moment, Jones becomes a free agent, and one has to wonder what kind of desperation the team must feel should they attempt to re-sign a backup who never showed the kind of consistent field recognition to simply not go out and screw things up.

That replacement is also not third-string quarterback Zach Mettenberger. All you need to know about him is that he was a sixth-round pick who was probably chosen too early in the 2014 NFL draft.

The question, then, is not, “where do you find Ben’s replacement?” More correctly, it’s, “is he available now?”

The answer is probably a resounding and emphatic “no”.

The 2017 draft is one of the weakest at the quarterback position in recent memory, and that’s saying a lot considering there isn’t a single quarterback taken in the 2013 draft who is still a starter anywhere in the NFL.

This year, the only quarterbacks I’d argue are even worthy of consideration in the first round are North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. The reality is that none of them stack up against some of the better first-round picks in the last ten years — Carson Wentz in 2016, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015, Andrew Luck in 2012, Cam Newton in 2011, and Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in 2008. Trubisky is the most NFL-ready of the lot, and even he has his fair share of issues. The one who might be the best fit for the Steelers is Mahomes, who often does his best work when trying to run for his life. As familiar as that sounds, he’s no where near on par with Roethlisberger, who was a surprisingly polished quarterback coming out of college.

As scary as it is to think it, if Roethlisberger did suddenly decide in the next month or so to hang up the cleats, so to speak, the Steelers’ best options are to either re-sign Jones for a year and tough it out, or take it on the chin for a year to secure a top-ten draft pick in 2018, when the pickings are decidedly better.

Fortunately, I’d say the odds of Roethlisberger actually retiring are somewhere between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell professing his love for helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless receivers, and the Cleveland Browns winning Super Bowl LII.

As for backup options, there are some guys who should be available in round three or later who could help the Steelers. One intriguing prospect is Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, who came on strong in the second half of 2016 and really looked good in the Senior Bowl last weekend. Cal’s Davis Webb also improved his stock over the weekend. Both should solidify their draft positions at the NFL Combine in March.

The one who may intrigue me the most, though, could be a seventh-round pick or even an undrafted free agent: Georgia’s Greyson Lambert. He’s rough around the edges, and struggled to get on the field in 2016, but he had a fine season in 2015 and has all the physical tools you look for in a quarterback. Available game film is extremely limited, but he shows good decision-making, a strong arm and decent pocket presence. Physically, he’s not all that different from Roethlisberger. He’s certainly never going to be a starter, but he could make a solid, long-term backup.

The 2017 draft is limited at quarterback, but the chances of the position becoming critical for the Steelers between now and the end of April are approaching zero, which is good news. But the eyes of the front office are now, without a doubt, looking very closely at the available quarterback talent, nonetheless.

Because, you just never know.