The 2022 NFL Draft prep has started to heat up with the week of practices leading up to the 2022 Senior Bowl. All 32 NFL teams are represented in some capacity at the event to see the latest crop of talent about to enter the professional ranks.
As for the Pittsburgh Steelers, all the brass is in attendance, and they are keeping a close eye on the quarterback situation. In fact, they’ve already met with at least every big-name quarterback in attendance at the Mobile, Alabama event.
With the Steelers being in the mix for a quarterback for the first time since 2004, fans are clamoring to know how these to-be rookies are performing during practices. Jordan Reid of ESPN is at the event, and gave a breakdown of how every quarterback has been playing this week.
Take a look:
Malik Willis, Liberty (American)
The biggest factor that NFL evaluators measure when watching quarterbacks is the day-to-day improvement each of them make. As I wrote Tuesday about Willis, he struggled throwing passes that were breaking away from him. During Day 2, he eliminated those issues and had the best day of any signal-caller. He had several impressive tosses on the day, showing off his arm strength. His best came fading away on a 25-yard pass to tight end Greg Dulcich (UCLA).
The 6-foot Willis has the strongest arm of any of the quarterbacks in Mobile. He ran a little bit on Wednesday, too, showing off his legs in the 11-on-11 portion. The next step for Willis is identifying pressure points and throwing hot routes away from blitzes, which was an area in which he had some troubles during the 11-on-11 work.
Whether you like Willis or not as a prospect for the Steelers, the Liberty quarterback has already started to see his draft stock rise exponentially. And the Senior Bowl could just be the start of a rise up the draft charts. If Willis continues to play well, and combines a good Senior Bowl week of practice to a good Scouting Combine and Pro Day, he might be off the board before the Steelers pick at No. 20.
Carson Strong, Nevada (National)
Strong and Willis were the quarterbacks whose passes cut through the rain the best Wednesday. The ball has plenty of life when coming out of Strong’s hands. After struggling with his accuracy on Day 1, he was more precise, but his ball placement still remained a bit scattershot. He seemed as if he was overcompensating for the weather, as many of his passes came out hot and he lost control of his accuracy on some occasions.
Strong’s go-to target has been former college teammate Romeo Doubs. His best pass of the day came on a corner route to his No. 1 target at Nevada. With the third day of practice expected to be inside, he has a prime opportunity to continue to build on what was a promising showing on Wednesday despite the weather.
The weather was not cooperating with throwing the football on Wednesday, and I’m sure coaches like Mike Tomlin absolutely loved the adversity. Strong, like many of the quarterbacks this week, have had issues with accuracy; however, from all reports Strong has proven he certainly has the skill set to be an NFL caliber quarterback. Questions about his mobility and overall readiness in Year 1 continue to linger as this process just begins.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati (National)
Ridder had some struggles with accuracy Wednesday. Considering the elements, his best throw of the day came to Trey McBride (Colorado State), who made a tough catch down the seam, and another came on a dig route off play-action to Doubs over the middle.
Ridder still has lots of questions to answer through two days. Putting together a strong third practice could go a long way in helping to improve his draft stock. He needs to improve with his ball placement on Thursday. Scouts I talk to still see Ridder being selected within the top 50 picks, though.
There is a lot to like about Desmond Ridder. His size and athleticism is where you start, but for every attribute you like about the Cincinnati quarterback, there are other areas of his game which certainly lack. His footwork and overall accuracy are the biggest issues for Ridder coming out of the Alabama practices. The question becomes, if Ridder is a Round 2 draft pick, could he eventually develop into a starting quarterback at the NFL level? No one who has watched film of Ridder would suggest he is Day 1 ready, but could he be a project worth investing in?
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh (National)
Pickett ditched one of his gloves Wednesday, just wearing one on his throwing hand, and he had an up-and-down performance. He had some troubles with driving the ball in the deeper portions of the field in the inclement weather.
His hand size will be a recurring narrative, and Wednesday was a great test to see how he fared in difficult circumstances. After a steady first day, Pickett was inconsistent from period to period. He was correct on reads and didn’t force the ball to pass-catchers, but he opted to dump the ball to his running backs and not risk testing windows considering the circumstances.
With practice moving indoors Thursday, Pickett will be in a favorable environment, which could lead to similar results that we saw from him during the first practice.
For all the hype surrounding Pickett, at least in the Pittsburgh area, at the end of the season, his stock has dropped off this week. This isn’t to suggest Pickett won’t be a Round 1 pick, but there are more questions than answers surrounding Pickett moving forward. A good finish to the week of practice, combined with a good Senior Bowl game could silence some of those doubts.
Sam Howell, UNC (American)
It has been tough to get a feel for Howell so far. He played in a quarterback-friendly system at UNC that was heavy on run-pass options, and he has had to adjust to a pro-style system in Mobile. He didn’t have much college experience with taking snaps from under center, and he wasn’t asked to throw to all areas of the field in college. He has at times looked uncomfortable; he looks much better when operating out of shotgun.
Howell’s best passes have come from his comfort zone, and he has the best deep touch of any of the quarterbacks here. He has showed off that deep accuracy a few times through the first two days. His best throw of the day came during the one-on-one session on a deep corner route to wide receiver Calvin Austin III (Memphis), when he dropped it over the head of cornerback Mario Goodrich (Clemson).
There have been many who have Powell married to the Steelers for the upcoming draft. Kevin Colbert has been a mainstay at UNC and at Tar Heels games this past season, but Howell is going to have to prove his worth on the field this offseason. As Reid indicates, a quarterback like Howell is someone who will need time to learn an NFL system and be able to do adapt. The Steelers might be the team to allow him to learn and not need to play right away, but the question remains if Howell will ever be able to adjust, or if he is nothing more than a system quarterback.
Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky (American)
Zappe was the quarterback who had the most challenges with the elements, as his accuracy and decision-making remained inconsistent. He has had some high moments with his efficiency in the underneath and intermediate areas over the middle of the field. He was involved in a record-setting Air Raid attack in college, but many evaluators wanted to see how he would perform outside of that offense.
Zappe is used to a quick-fire attack that wastes little time with exhausting lengthy progressions, and the NFL playbook and extended dropbacks have been an adjustment for him. On top of fighting the weather elements combined with having average arm strength, he continues to battle.
Zappe is a project quarterback who has an uphill battle before being considered a pro prospect. Needless to say, he has his work cut out for him.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for what could be a crazy offseason.