Pittsburgh held its minicamp this past weekend for rookie draft picks, undrafted free agents and a handful of try-out candidates. Not much can be gleaned from what was essentially a football tutorial is shorts. Still, it was the first opportunity to see top selection Kenny Pickett as a member of the Steelers. By all accounts, the young quarterback afforded himself well.
Fellow rookie Connor Heyward lauded Pickett’s demeanor, saying “He had everybody on the same page, and his presence in the huddle was really good.” Pickett talked about feeling comfortable with an offense that retained some similarities to the one coordinator Matt Canada ran at Pitt when he recruited Pickett there in 2016. Granted, it’s May, and the vast majority of the weekend’s participants will be long gone by the time rosters are set in September. Still, it was a positive debut for Pickett, who, according to head coach Mike Tomlin, will be given a chance to compete for the starting job with veterans Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. It will be the first legitimate quarterback competition in Pittsburgh since Jim Miller, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak fought it out in 1996.
While the notion of a competition is exciting, it also presents challenges. Finding enough practice reps in meaningful situations to make a fair evaluation of three quarterbacks will be tricky. With practice time limited by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players and owners, the evaluation process must be precise. Canada, in particular, must script his training camp sessions meticulously to garner the information he needs about each candidate. Can he get enough reps for each in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills to make a fair judgement? And, by splitting things three ways, will he deprive the eventual winner of meaningful reps that could be useful come September? Ben Roethlisberger often skipped practices as a veteran who needed rest more than reps. The opposite is true of the three players competing to be his heir. The reps are crucial to each of them, both for their own sake and the continuity of the offense. The faster the coaching staff decides on a winner, the better for everyone.
What of that competition, then? Who might win it? The player who gets off to the fastest start and who shows the best command of the playbook will undoubtedly have an advantage. That would seem to favor Rudolph, who has played for Canada for two seasons, including one with Canada as coordinator, and is more familiar with his system than Trubisky or Pickett. Yet Rudolph is probably the player the Steelers are least inclined to favor. If they were optimistic about Rudolph, they wouldn’t have committed $14 million to Trubisky and spent their 1st Round pick on Pickett. The fact no one in the organization endorsed Rudolph or gave him a vote of confidence in the two months between Roethlisberger’s retirement and Trubisky signing as a free agent speaks volumes. It may indeed be an open competition, but it’s hard to believe the Steelers want Rudolph to win it.
That suggestion is likely to rankle some around BTSC who feel Rudolph is being unfairly written off. Personally, I don’t care who wins the quarterback competition so long as it’s the player the team feels is best positioned to lead them out of the gate in September. The Steelers do not do sabotage, so if Rudolph is that guy, I believe they will start him.
Their actions, however, suggest they’d prefer to roll with Pickett or Trubisky. Given their investment in those players, Rudolph will probably have to win decisively to get the nod. He will have to play far above who he has shown himself to be — namely, someone whose 5-4-1 record as a starter, 61.5 career completion percentage and 16:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio suggests mediocrity — for the Steelers to relegate Trubisky and Pickett to backup duties. It seems unlikely Rudolph can elevate his performance to that degree, especially since he’s better suited as a traditional pocket passer in the Roethlisberger mold than as a movement-based quarterback who fits Canada’s system. For him to win the competition, it would probably also take both Trubisky and Pickett falling short of expectations. This would be a terrible result for the Steelers, as it would suggest a misdiagnosis, at least initially, of two players in whom they have invested significant capital. For these reasons, Rudolph feels like the “break glass in case of emergency” option.
As for Pickett, I don’t believe anyone in the organization would be disappointed if he played so well they felt compelled to give him the job. Pickett was drafted as the future starter, so if he convinced them to accelerate that process why would they object? After all, the thing that made Pickett appealing was his pro readiness. He is not a player with a huge learning curve to navigate. This made him preferable to Malik Willis, whom many believe needs time to acclimate to the NFL game. If pro readiness was a factor in Pittsburgh’s decision, it stands to reason they’d be comfortable playing Pickett right away.
That’s a cautionary tale, however. Recent quarterbacks to start in Week 1 of their rookie season include Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones. Of that group, only Burrow had what could be described as a stellar rookie season, even though it ended in Week 11 with a knee injury. Wentz played well at times in Philadelphia, and Jones was decent in New England. The others scuffled on bad teams. Winston, Mariota, Wentz and Darnold all failed to establish themselves as franchise quarterbacks and have since bounced around the league. Murray has been good, but not great, in Arizona and is said to be feuding with the organization. It’s too early to tell with Lawrence, Wilson and Jones. At the moment, only Burrow seems to be living up to the expectations of the team who drafted him.
The Steelers are poised to have five new starters on offense, including three on the line. They also open the season with three games in 11 days, each of which presents a daunting challenge for a rookie quarterback. Week 1 is a road contest at Cincinnati, where the Bengals will play for the first time since winning the AFC Championship last January. The environment will be hostile, to say the least. In Week 2, the Steelers play the New England Patriots. While the game is at home, Bill Belichick is 24-6 against rookie quarterbacks since taking over as head coach in New England. Then, in Week 3, Pittsburgh has just three days to prepare for a Thursday night contest at Cleveland. The last thing the Steelers want is an 0-3 start with Pickett at the helm and immediate questions about whether he should be the starter.
Which brings us to Trubisky. Like Rudolph, the word that best defines his career so far is “mediocre.” However, Trubisky was dealt a bad hand in Chicago, where Matt Nagy did a poor job of developing him. He is said to have matured last season in Buffalo and to have learned a great deal from coordinator Brian Daboll and quarterback Josh Allen. Most importantly, Trubisky was hand-selected by the Steelers to run Canada’s offense. They signed him just hours after the legal free agent tampering period began, indicating he was the prime target in their quarterback search. Trubisky will have to prove he is the best choice to start in Week 1. But, considering Pittsburgh’s pursuit of him and the contract to which he was signed, it stands to reason he has the inside track for the job.
With Trubisky as the starter, the quarterback competition would end logically. He is the proverbial “bridge” quarterback, brought here to hold down the fort until Pickett is ready to take over. If Trubisky proves himself capable, the Steelers can bring Pickett along slowly. They can ease him into the starting lineup at a time that is most conducive to his growth and development rather than asking him to command an offense in transition against an unfavorable schedule. Plus, their signing of Trubisky will not be for naught. He will have validated their investment and served his purpose.
Mitchell Trubisky may not be the ideal quarterback for the Steelers over the long term. But for now, Trubisky emerging victorious would be the ideal result to their quarterback competition.