The Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of work to do to shore up the quarterback position for 2020 and the long run.
Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is entering the final year of his contract, one that Steelers president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have said will need to be re-negotiated before he can return to the team in order to ameliorate his $41 million salary cap hit for the 2020 season.
Roethlisberger has said his pay for this season is no issue, but the sides have yet to come together to work out a resolution, with only three and a half weeks before the Steelers must be salary cap compliant.
In addition to Roethlisberger’s situation, the Steelers have made another move to add possible depth at the position by signing former Washington first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins to a future contract. Haskins will come at a cheap salary cap hit for the team in 2020 and, if he pans out, will be able to re-signed at a discount for 2021.
For good reason, Roethlisberger and Haskins have dominated the headlines when it comes to the Steelers quarterback situation so far this offseason. But it’s also an important offseason for backup Mason Rudolph. Rudolph is also entering the final season of his contract, and figures to be the Steelers’ starter if the team can’t work out an arrangement with Roethlisberger of if the 38-year-old sufferers an ailment.
Rudolph was drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft as Roethlisberger’s apparent heir, but has yet to really grab hold of that role. In eight games filling in for Roethlisberger in 2019, Rudolph had an 82 passer rating, took 15 sacks, threw nine interceptions and led the Steelers to a 5-3 record. It was a decent performance, but nothing that gave the impression that Rudolph is a franchise quarterback in waiting.
In 2020, he played significant minutes in just one game, against Cleveland in the regular season finale, when he posted an 87.7 passer rating, throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Steelers to a late comeback bid.
“It was very encouraging to see Mason play like we did in a tough situation,” Colbert said on Wednesday. “Cleveland was desperate to win. It was at their home field and we came within two points of beating them. So, I think that was encouraging for us.”
If the Steelers need to rely on Rudolph for more than spot duty in 2021, which version of him will they get? If it’s more of the same Rudolph that was benched for third-stringer Devlin Hodges in 2019, going into the season with him as a pending free agent is likely not an issue.
But if Rudolph does show that he’s grown into a capable NFL quarterback, and they don’t sign him to an extension before the season, they could end up paying a lot to keep Rudolph beyond the 2021 season.
The Steelers don’t renegotiate contracts in-season, a practice that Colbert does not expect to change any time soon, so the Steelers will have to make a decision on Rudolph’s future before they see how (or if) he plays this season.
“Hopefully we get to see Mason take some more steps in whatever role he has or whatever playing time he gets, be it preseason of regular season or whatever,” Colbert said.
The Steelers will likely know whether Rudolph will enter the season as the starter or as a backup in March, when they come to a decision with Roethlisberger. But what Rudolph’s future beyond the 2020 season looks like is still very much up in the air.