One of the biggest questions Mike Tomlin faces in 2022 is how he can replace Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers front office answered the personnel part of that question with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, but filling the talent gap left without an established quarterback is another matter.
Tomlin addressed that question directly on the Pivot Podcast with Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor and Channing Crowder on an episode that aired Tuesday.
“First of all, the dude is talented,” Tomlin said of Roethlisberger. “When you watch somebody do something at a certain level for so long it messes up your perception of what’s regular and what’s not.”
Since Tomlin took over as the Steelers head coach in 2007, Roethlisberger has made 207 starts for the team. The next-most by any other quarterback in that time was Mason Rudolph with ten starts, Charlie Batch and Devlin Hodges each with six, and Landry Jones with five.
The Steelers have had to survive with brief stints of non-franchise quarterbacks under Tomlin, but outside of 2019, they’ve always had Roethlisberger to fall back on.
“The dude’s arm talent was so special for so long that when you see special stuff every day.” Tomlin continued. “You get used to it. I’ve enjoyed that comfort and we’ve all enjoyed that comfort. But I’m excited about being uncomfortable.”
But where some see a loss in talent at quarterback, Tomlin sees an opportunity for the team to invest in other positions.
“Yeah, we might not have the quarterback we’ve had and we might not have the special talent we’ve had,” Tomlin said. “But we’ve got capable dudes and a team. We’re also not allocating the damn money that we allocated at the position in the past, so there’s a redistribution of the money. So there better be a redistribution of the playmaking.”
That redistribution is a real opportunity for the Steelers, and one Omar Khan has only started to strike with the signing of Larry Ogunjobi. While details on that contract outside of it being a one-year deal haven’t been released, we know the Steelers had an approximate $22.6 million in salary cap space before Ogunjobi’s signing.
As Tomlin implied, that’s money that wouldn’t have been freed up had the team still needed to pay Roethlisberger. Excluding 2019 when Roethlisberger missed all but two games, the future hall of fame quarterback cost the team an average of 12.66 percent of their salary cap between 2013-2021.
That’s the cost of business to keep a franchise quarterback on the roster. But now that the Steelers won’t spend much on the position as they see what Trubisky, Pickett and Rudolph have to offer, the time has come to strengthen the rest of the roster.
Tomlin’s words on this subject were brief during the podcast, but it was clear that investments into different positions will be different. Where the Steelers might have been more conservative with their salary cap space over the past decade, Omar Khan has the opportunity to be aggressive.
Signing Ogunjobi was just the first step. Expect the Steelers to use the rest of their salary cap space to address positions across the roster to solidify any depth chart questions. Khan won’t just look to free agency for help, as most of the big names in free agency are gone.
Instead, the Steelers’ projected salary cap space could point to a trade being a real possibility during training camp. Just like the Steelers, teams across the NFL will have position battles that put them to tough decisions and that can lead to opportunities to acquire veteran players who could strengthen the Steelers’ depth.
Last season that came in the form of Joe Schobert from the Jaguars in August. Don’t be surprised if Khan makes similar moves this summer to fortify the Steelers across the board with a more balanced roster than their offensive-heavy years in the mid-to-late 2010s.