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Could Steelers Add QB with Ties to New OC Arthur Smith?

Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota and Blaine Gabbert are among the free agent quarterbacks with ties to new Steelers OC Arthur Smith.



Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ryan Tannehill
Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 19, 2021. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

MOBILE, Ala. — The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the offseason with two big question marks, what will happen at offensive coordinator and what will happen at quarterback?

One of those questions was answered on Tuesday when the Steelers hired former Atlanta Falcons head coach and Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

Now, could the Steelers bring in a quarterback with ties to Smith to compete with Kenny Pickett?

Smith will be bringing in a new scheme and playbook. Getting Pickett up to speed in the new offense will be the first and most important job of the new coaching staff. There isn’t going to be a lot of time for them to be spreading his efforts around. 

So it makes a lot of sense if the second quarterback is someone that is already familiar with Smith’s offensive scheme and playbook. As the Steelers are likely looking to add a veteran, that new quarterback could be almost like a second quarterbacks coach — they need one of those as well — in the room along with Pickett and potentially another younger passer.

Tomlin also promised competition with Pickett for the starting job, so it needs to be a player that wouldn’t be a clear No. 2 or worse on the depth chart.

So who are the available quarterbacks that have worked with Smith?

Blaine Gabbert

Gabbert spent one season in Tennessee in 2018, while Smith was tight ends coach under Mike LaFleur. That’s a pretty thin and long ago tie.

Plus, it’s not clear that Gabbert is really a fit to push Kenny Pickett. The 34-year-old backed up Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City this year and is a free agent, but has played in just three games and made one start of the past two seasons. He had an 80.5 passer rating in his last season with extensive playing time, under Leftwich in Tampa in 2021. He might be better suited to being a coach than a coach on the field at this point.

Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator Search Candidate Arthur Smith Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) stand on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota had a mediocre year as the Atlanta Falcons starting quarterback in 2022 before giving way to Desmond Ridder, who turned out not to be an upgrade. Mariota had an 88.2 passer rating, throwing for 15 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. He spent 2023 in Philadelphia.

Mariota had followed Smith from Tennessee to Atlanta. He started for four years from 2015-18, when Smith was assistant tight ends coach and high ends coach. One of the first things Smith did to turn around the Titans’ offense was benching Mariota for Tannehill, but that didn’t stop Mariota from following him once.

With a change in scheme in Philadelphia, he could look for a more familiar home once again.

Would Mariota be a strong enough signing to truly push Pickett? That’s less than clear.

Ryan Tannehill

Now here’s an option that would push Pickett. Even though he’s 35 years old, and five years removed from his Pro Bowl appearance, and was hurt in 2023, Tannehill can still sling it.

In his three games after returning from injury late in 2023, he posted a 92.8 passer rating, 6.71 adjusted yards per attempt, and 70% completion percentage. All of those are better numbers than Pickett had in 2023.

Tannehill was Tennessee’s starter from when Smith first inserted him until this season, when he was usurped by Will Levis when he was out with injury. Tannehill is a free agent and should go right to the top of the Steelers’ list in terms of free agent quarterbacks.