The Steelers were one game away from the Super Bowl in 2016.
I realize the one game—a 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game—was so lopsided and exposed so many things, it probably felt like Pittsburgh was worlds away from boarding a plane to Houston for the right to win another Lombardi.
But make no mistake about it, the Steelers were what most experts predicted they would be prior to last season: a championship contender and one of a handful of teams capable of making it out of the AFC.
As the organization looks ahead to the 2017 campaign, nothing much has changed; the Steelers are a team with a roster worthy of contending for the next AFC crown and reaching the next Super Bowl.
Will they find a way to close the gap between them and the Patriots, one that seemed alarmingly large when New England was methodically dismantling them before a national audience on January 22?
In terms of free agency, no, perhaps they didn’t give you hope that they got better (whatever that may mean in March); after all, with the signings of Justin Hunter, Coty Sensabaugh, Knile Davis and Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh clearly went for depth, and depth isn’t sexy this time of year.
Depth doesn’t make you feel like your team is closing the gap on New England or even staying a few strides ahead of the Ravens and Bengals for AFC North supremacy.
But when you look at the Steelers roster, it is pretty clear that if most things work out in a positive manner this offseason—Martavis Bryant gets reinstated and really is a new man; Le’Veon Bell doesn’t make the same mistakes he did last offeason; Ladarius Green truly overcomes his concussion-related issues; and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin hit on a few draft choices--they really should be a force in 2017.
Speaking of the draft, we’re roughly three weeks away from finally discovering what direction Pittsburgh will go with regards to the 30th pick on April 27 and the remaining selections over the entirety of the draft weekend.
I don’t know what grade you would give the Steelers draft class from a year ago, but I do know that their top three picks—Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave--made fairly significant contributions, especially down the stretch and into the playoffs.
If the Steelers have similar success in the upcoming draft and find two or three gems that could make their team better “right now,” man, 2017 could really be special.
When you have a franchise quarterback, All-Pro receiver, All-Pro running back, world-class offensive line and a young and steadily improving defense, only the present should matter.
This is why it’s so puzzling to continue to read and hear the name Patrick Mahomes, the Texas Tech quarterback who is currently projected to get drafted somewhere in the late first round to early second round, mentioned as a possible fit for Pittsburgh.
Every year around this time, you begin to see Steelers fans fall in-love with a certain prospect, and the hope steadily builds that this player will fall to Pittsburgh in the first round.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Mahomes was a 290 pound edge pass rusher, with freakish athleticism (4.7 in the 40) and James Harrison strength (benching 420 20 times), because those are the types of prospects fans normally are smitten with this time of year.
But Mahomes, the most popular draft crush of 2017, is a quarterback.
Obviously, the reason Steelers fans (and maybe the team, itself) are so fond of Mahomes and perhaps other quarterbacks of his talent-level and ilk, is because the franchise passer—Ben Roethlisberger—turned 35 in March, which was about a month after he hinted at retirement in January.
This only increased the sense of urgency that a successor—an heir apparent—would be drafted and groomed—and this time, fairly high.
You might not be the only one concerned about such things these days, as the Steelers are apparently evaluating several young quarterback prospects, and Mahomes is no exception.
As per ESPN.com, the Steelers interviewed Mahomes at the combine in February, and quarterbacks coach Randy Fitchner was at his Pro Day workout on Friday, where the young quarterback ripped off a 78-yard pass--while throwing off one foot.
I gotta tell ya, seeing that kind of stuff just makes me giddy with excitement. The only problem is, I’m not a fan of a team that’s in-need of a quarterback with “Good size, big arm,” as ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler put it, one who also “throws from several different angles or on the run.”
In his article from Saturday, Fowler touched on some similarities between Mahomes and Roethlisberger, but also provided many caveats that the former is no where near the latter in terms of being NFL-ready.
“He is a big-time developmental prospect, and I mean big time in both the positive and negative,” said ESPN draft expert Todd McShay during a recent conference call, courtesy of ESPN.com and the Houston Chronicle. “I think his upside may be as great as any quarterback in this class, but his learning curve could be as great as any quarterback in this class because he comes from a system that has not translated well to the NFL.”
And that’s why, unlike Roethlisberger, who was the 11th pick of the 2004 draft and may have gone in the top five if it wasn’t for certain quarterbacks named Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, Mahomes is projected as a late-first round pick, at best.
Of course, Mahomes isn’t alone when it comes to this season’s class of incoming quarterbacks, passers who certainly aren’t drawing the same kind of rave reviews as the ‘04 group.
For example, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubinsky is the top-rated quarterback on most boards, but according to the draft site Walterfootball.com, that may be based more on need than talent:
“Trubinsky has more of a second-round-caliber skill set, but that doesn’t preclude teams from reaching on him in the first round. Teams have had second-day grades on many quarterbacks who ended up going as top-32 picks. Sources from three different teams told me they graded Trubinsky in Round 2, but he received a first-round estimation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.”
Good for Trubinsky and his very first signing bonus, but that is a big gamble for a team looking for a young quarterback to be its future.
The Steelers obviously don’t have an immediate need at quarterback, which is why the thought of drafting one high and letting him learn the system for a year or three is so intriguing.
But while the Steelers may have a Super Bowl-caliber roster, they also have two or three positions where youngsters could come in and contribute right away.
One of those positions could be running back, if Bell has to miss time yet again. Another position may be cornerback, if the Steelers decide to double-down by drafting one in the first round for a second-straight season. Yet another position could most obviously be outside linebacker, considering James Harrison’s age, and the lack of proven talent that will be backing him up on the right side in 2017.
If you want to throw in receiver, tight end and inside linebacker as possibilities for the Steelers in the first, second and third rounds, well, that’s three more positions that could possibly be upgraded in 2017.
The difference between those six positions I just mentioned and a quarterback, is that while a rookie pass rusher, receiver or running back could still contribute to a Super Bowl contending team, a rookie quarterback may never even dress.
Take last year for example, and the top first three picks who started a combined 30 games for the defense.
You might think that’s the exception to the rule of young Steelers defenders not contributing right away. But that rule was in place under former defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau and isn’t so much a thing anymore under new coordinator Keith Butler, who has simplified his scheme so that his young charges can come in and contribute more quickly.
Can’t you envision a scenario in which, say, an edge rusher/outside linebacker plays sparingly early in the season behind the veteran Harrison, before coming on in the second half and really making his mark in the defense?
Back to grooming a passer.
I believe the general thought is that Roethlisberger, despite his apparent angst, is going to play another three seasons (that’s the length of his current deal).
What contributions would an understudy make during that time, other than filling in for a game or three when the franchise passer is out? (And that probably wouldn’t happen until Year 3.)
In the meantime, how much can a young passer learn in practice and in preseason games? How much can he be groomed into an NFL-ready quarterback before he actually plays in a meaningful game?
Let’s say the Steelers do draft a quarterback in one of the first three rounds with the intent of naming him the starter once Roethlisberger retires; if he’s a first round pick, they’ll have a two-year window to decide if he’s the man, before free-agency kicks in; if he’s a second round pick or lower, the organization will have just a year to decide if this theoretical heir apparent is worthy of the kind of money it will take to keep him in town.
And that’s if he even shows the necessary development over his first three years.
In 2015, Brock Osweiler was in the right place at the right time, when he filled in for an injured Peyton Manning down the stretch. Osweiler was a soon-to-be free-agent and caught a windfall, when the Texans beat out the defending champion Broncos in a bidding war for his services.
After starting just seven games for the Broncos in 2015, Houston inked Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal.
Osweiler failed so miserably for the Texans last year, they traded him to the quarterback-starved Browns, who aren’t even sure if they want his services for 2017.
I can’t believe I even made it this far in the article without mentioning the potential locker room distraction a young heir apparent could create.
It’s safe to say Roethlisberger has had open dialogue with all the right people in the Steelers organization since he first hinted at hanging up his cleats; he’s no doubt aired whatever grievances were on his mind, regarding the events that took place during the 2016 regular season and postseason.
If the organization has convinced Roethlisberger that it will do the necessary things to win right now, would bringing in his successor be the wisest decision?
Roethlisberger is still the straw that stirs the drink, but that drink is obviously three-quarters empty. The organization must utilize its resources to win while the winning is good.
NFL history tells us that, heir apparent or not, once a franchise passer calls it a career, there will be some lean times ahead for the team he once played for.
The likely scenario that may play out is Roethlisberger will retire in a few years, the Steelers will identify and select a quarterback in the first round of the following draft and then throw him in there from the beginning to either sink or swim. Hopefully, by then, this young and improving defense will be older and at the top of its game...kind of like how things were around here when No. 7 stepped under center during the second game of his rookie season.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent may be in this draft class, but he could still be in high school, or sadly even elementary school.
As for right now, the Steelers should be doing what they can to reach Seventh Heaven while they still have No. 7.
Are there any guarantees that a linebacker, receiver or cornerback will make the Steelers a better team in 2017 and help them get to where they need to go?
No. But there’s absolutely no chance that Patrick Mahomes or any other rookie quarterback will.