PITTSBURGH — It may seem like a long time ago at this point, but at one point this offseason, Mason Rudolph was the presumptive starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Probably because I was the only quarterback on the roster,” Rudolph joked after an OTA practice session this week.
That’s not entirely true, but it was definitely Rudolph at the top of the Steelers depth chart when Ben Roethlisberger announced his retirement in January. Just about everything that’s happened since then has gone badly for Rudolph’s chances of emerging as the starter this fall, though.
The Steelers signed the top free agent in the quarterback market in Mitch Trubisky and then doubled down by drafting the top quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft in Kenny Pickett. That wasn’t exactly a strong show of faith in the ability of their fifth-year backup.
And yet, Rudolph entered the offseason program energized and excited to be taking part in a competition to be the team’s starting quarterback. After four years of coming into the season more or less knowing that he’d be playing second fiddle or worst to Roethlisberger, the fact that Rudolph has competition for the starter’s job doesn’t seem to bother him.
“I’m more excited,” he said. “I think the the last four years, there was a Hall of Fame quarterback in front of me. You’re developing, getting better at your position, doing everything you can to be ready in case your number was called. But obviously, it’s a little bit more realistic this year that it will be called. Just the added excitement.”
He said he was not made aware that the Steelers would sign and draft potential starting quarterbacks, but he knew there would be competition and he was expecting all along to have to win the job if he wanted it.
Rudolph acknowledged that competition, especially between quarterbacks, can sometimes be awkward, but said that hasn’t been the case so far.
“All the guys in the room get along well,” he said. “They’re all good dudes. … With the opportunity to play this year, everyone’s going to be competing and trying to put their best foot forward. I’m approaching it like I have, the same mindset I had the last four years. Every single day, every single rep I get, I’m trying to make the most of it and get better.”
That’s been the key for Rudolph all along. When he was drafted out of Oklahoma State back in 2018, there was not a need for him to be an immediate contributor. So he threw himself into taking what opportunities he got to improve his game. An underwhelming run in 2019 while Roethlisberger was injured left him redoubling that process.
Now in his fifth season, he also hopes to be one of the leaders of what is an extremely young offense. Only guard James Daniels and tackle Chukwuma Okorafor can match Rudolph’s five seasons of NFL experience among the projected offensive regulars.
“Experience is an advantage,” Rudolph said. “It’s just comfortability with the building, with Pittsburgh, my teammates and our offense. … From leadership perspective, it’s being able to step up a little bit more this year, kind of be vocal. You look, we are a young offense. There’s a lot of young guys that need to step up and have stepped up from a leadership perspective. I’m excited to do that.”
Another reason for Rudolph’s excitement is that this figures to be a different Pittsburgh Steelers offense. When he was forced into action last season against the Detroit Lions, the Steelers and offensive coordinator Matt Canada didn’t change the game plan that was designed for Roethlisberger.
Those two have never been similar players, and they were especially different as Roethlisberger’s deep ball faltered in the waning seasons of his career. Anyone that saw Rudolph and James Washington light things up with Oklahoma State can tell you that throwing deep is one of his strengths. He’s also a good bit more mobile than the end-stage version of Roethlisberger and more able to execute concepts like shovel passes, screen passes, sprint- and roll-out passes, and other pieces of Canada’s offense that were hardly seen in 2021.
“There’s some thing with the offense that have changed post-Ben,” Rudolph said. “We’re trying to get up to speed and see what we like, see what concepts we prefer over others. … We’ve got some good concepts in this year. Different things. I’m not going to [compare it to] last year. I know there’s some new stuff. I’m excited about having installed it and running it out on the field. I think Matt Canada’s offense does fit my skill set.”
“I think everything I want is still in front of me,” he said. “I want an opportunity to compete to be a starter. I’m not disappointed. I knew there was going to be competition. I knew they were going to bring guys in. … I’d be lying if I said it didn’t motivate. That’s going to motivate any competitor.”