In the weeks and months leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, an ongoing discussion persisted regarding the Steelers’ quarterback situation after Ben Roethlisberger hinted at retirement in late-January but then took a while to announce he was officially in for his 14th season.
While the 2017 class of quarterbacks wasn’t regarded as horrible, it wasn’t considered on a par with the 1983 group either. And Pittsburgh showed an interest in several prospects—including Texas Tech passer Patrick Mahomes.
As April 27 drew closer, a question still hung in the air about whether the Steelers would pull the trigger early if they felt a quarterback could be selected who was too good to pass up.
As you know, I was opposed to this idea and considered it a relief when Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt was the Steelers’ first pick at No. 30. I was also pleased to learn that USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton and University of Pittsburgh running back James Conner were the picks in rounds two and three respectively.
After the Steelers addressed what I thought were some important areas with their first four selections, I honestly believed we were out of heir-apparent territory with reference to the quarterback position.
The way I figured it, if they were going to select any quarterback at that point, the pick would come at the tail-end of the draft. And if they weren’t going to do that, I anticipated they’d sign an undrafted free-agent after Mr. Irrelevant’s name was announced.
But then the Steelers went and drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs of Tennessee with their fourth-round selection.
And based on the range of opinions I heard and read following the pick — ”what a waste of a pick,” (my uncle via text message); “I don’t get this pick (lots of people on social media); “they’ve found Ben’s heir-apparent (a minority of people on social media); “screw you, Landry Jones, you’re fired!” (a majority of people on social media) — it was painfully obvious that the Steelers had selected a quarterback in the fourth round.
In other words, the Steelers split the difference with this pick, but now people (even those excited about the pick) are saying, “Um, why did they draft Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round?”
I’m not the first person to say this, but it was an original thought of mine on Saturday:
Had the Steelers selected a quarterback in the first or second round, you could have safely assumed one of the things Roethlisberger said to his bosses in his post-cryptic retirement hint meetings was that he was likely going to be done soon, and that the new guy was clearly being targeted as his heir-apparent. And had Pittsburgh brought in a quarterback as a sixth-rounder, seventh-rounder or an UDFA, you could have assumed the team was taking a flyer on a possible backup or third-stringer.
But this whole fourth-round stuff is just plain confusing.
I mean, when you get to the fourth round, you’re thinking, “Well, this guy probably won’t be a starter for us, but maybe he can contribute on special teams; if he develops into more than that, great!”
But you certainly don’t draft anyone in that round with the intent that he will start for you, at least not for many years to come, or at positions other than quarterback.
I doubt the Steelers have ever picked a safety in the fourth round and thought, “Now, this guy could be the next Troy Polamalu.” Chances are, if they thought that in the first place, they would have selected him in the first round.
But those fourth-round quarterbacks have a way of making you go “Hmmmmm.”
Even though he was drafted one round later, when the Steelers selected Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, there was actual excitement, given Dixon’s college pedigree that included being named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and finishing fifth in the Heisman voting (both in 2007).
Had Dixon not suffered a torn ACL late that year (his senior season), many felt he would have gone in the top-10 of the draft. For that reason, people took notice when Pittsburgh picked him in the fifth round.
Fast-forward five years to the 2013 NFL Draft.
I know this might be hard to believe given the almost universal disdain for him, but when the Steelers picked Landry Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, there was palpable excitement in some circles of the fan base and, just like with Dixon, a little confusion.
Five years after drafting a former Heisman trophy candidate in the fifth round, why did the Steelers use their fourth-round pick on a quarterback who completely shattered every significant passing record in Oklahoma football history?
Today, thanks to the passage of time, we know the Steelers wanted to get a young quarterback under the roof so he could master (at least mentally) Todd Haley’s playbook and be somewhat competent when called on to run the offense in the event of an injury to Roethlisberger.
But back in the spring of 2013, many, including former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch, thought Jones had the potential to be Roethlisberger’s heir-apparent.
“Ultimately, I think this isn’t about replacing me,” Batch told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette five years ago. “Big picture, maybe they’re thinking ‘Can we develop Landry Jones to be the starter? Maybe two years from now, he could be our guy for the next 10 years.’ We don’t know. But with the contracts for quarterbacks these days, he’d certainly be a lot cheaper than Ben at age 34 or 35 or 36.”
Again, thanks to the passage of time, we know Dixon started three games for Pittsburgh but never played another down of football after injuring his knee in Week 2 of the 2010 season, while filling in for a suspended Roethlisberger.
As for Jones, he’s never become the heir-apparent to Roethlisberger and many consider him nothing more than a cheap imitation of a backup quarterback.
So what does this mean for Dobbs, an actual rocket scientist who passed for over 7,100 yards at Tennessee and, like just about every member of the Steelers 2017 Draft class, is super smart and an absolute joy of a human being?
Can he become Roethlisberger’s heir-apparent? He might, considering he actually has the best chance of any quarterback currently employed by the team.
Dobbs has the talent, intelligence and character to take advantage of whatever playing-time he might get between now and Roethlisberger’s actual retirement.
Maybe Dobbs will be Ben Roethlisberger’s heir-apparent. But first maybe he’ll be a short-term option to Landry Jones at the backup quarterback spot.
Then again, maybe Joshua Dobbs gets cut during his first training camp or, even worse, goes on to become the most hated backup quarterback in the NFL.
You just never know with fourth-round draft picks.