For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s 2004 rookie season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a legitimate training camp battle for starting quarterback. Before the players report Wednesday, July 26, to Saint Vincent College for camp, it’s time to preview the coming depth chart battle between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett.
Stats: 1016-1585, 10,652 passing yards, 64 passing touchdowns, 38 interceptions
Top Factor: Mitch Trubisky once was the number two overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft and the first quarterback selected over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. He earned one Pro Bowl nomination in 2018 and led the Chicago Bears to two playoff appearances, but was let go after four years and spent 2021 as Josh Allen’s backup on the Buffalo Bills’s roster.
Despite his drop in status, Trubisky is still, by far, the Steelers’ most experienced quarterback to start training camp. Tomlin likes experienced NFL veterans who know the expectations ahead of them, and Trubisky has been around the block a few times.
He’s managed several games and put together five fourth quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. The Steelers made it no secret that they wanted him as they signed him just an hour into NFL free agency in March. Now, he has to show he’s still got the skills that made him the highest drafted quarterback of his class.
Biggest Concern: Trubisky didn’t have the best end to his career with the Bears and never got to show if he grew in his time in Buffalo. He finished 2020 with a 6-3 record with 16 touchdowns to 8 interceptions across a limited 10 starts due to injuries. After he didn’t start a single game for the Bills, there’s a legitimate question as to whether he can still start in the NFL.
Trubisky is a small reclamation project for the Steelers. But in a year with plenty of uncertainty at quarterback, his NFL experience could make him the steadying hand the offense needs as it rebuilds.
Tomlin will want whoever wins the job to be prepared to adjust to weekly game plans and not slow the Steelers’ process. Trubisky is the best option heading into training camp to achieve that pace consistently throughout the season. He won’t be the franchise quarterback that leads the Steelers for the next decade, but his growth as a quarterback will be a comfort to an offense that might have eight starters still on their rookie contracts.
Top Factor: Kenny Pickett fit the model of the best quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft class to see the field and make good decisions. Those decisions came from inside and outside the pocket, a factor the Steelers haven’t boasted from their quarterback position in a few years.
But on top of his decisions on the field, Tomlin loves what Pickett brought to Pitt football as a leader. That’s a major component for any quarterback in today’s NFL, and one Pickett brought in spades for the Panthers. Tomlin and the Steeles want Pickett to have a natural progression in the NFL, which is why Cam Heyward’s locker is next to Pickett’s at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Combine that with Pickett’s athleticism and accuracy, and there’s a lot of potential.
Biggest Concern: Of course, there’s also a bit of a learning curve. Matt Canada’s offense will take new steps this year without Roethlisberger and the day-to-day challenges for Pickett to adjust to the NFL will have their ups and downs. Pickett took four years as the Panthers’ quarterback before his phenomenal 2021 season that broke college records once held by Dan Marino and Deshaun Watson.
Now Pickett looks to make a similar rise against bigger, faster, more complex defenses that will push him yet again. He doesn’t boast the strongest arm of recent young quarterbacks to join the NFL, but that’s something he plans to compensate for with his full package as a quarterback.
Prediction: No. 2 quarterback
Pickett joins the Steelers in a transition period. But even in that transition period, a climb to the starting quarterback spot is a steep task against other quarterbacks with 50 and 10 starts on their ledger. Still, Pickett has the pedigree to be a starter in the NFL and that’s why he was the top quarterback on the Steelers’ big board this year.
Look for him to make strides in camp and show his potential as a future starter. That potential won’t mean he’s a starter, but it will mean the Steelers give him a good chance to be the top backup.
Stats: 236-384, 2366 passing yards, 16 passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions
Top Factor: Mason Rudolph was signed to a deal last year to make him the Steelers’ primary returning quarterback after Roethlisberger retired. It didn’t tie him to the team for more than another season, but it did give Tomlin the quarterback who’s made the second-most starts (10) for the Steelers during his coaching tenure.
That experience is significant, as is Rudolph’s extra time to learn Canada’s offense. For those reasons, the Steelers brought him back to ensure that if neither Trubisky nor Pickett panned out, the Steelers had a quarterback experienced with their system ready to go.
Biggest Concern: Rudolph has not has his signature game yet for the Steelers. Trubisky has managed ten games with at least three touchdowns or more, and has one game where he threw six touchdowns in 2018. Rudolph has never thrown more than two touchdowns in an NFL game.
That lack of a ‘wow’ factor for Rudolph is why the Steelers haven’t committed to him as a starter and brought two different quarterbacks to the roster for competition. If Rudolph doesn’t show any factor that makes him a more consistent option in training camp, he won’t be the starter.
And if he’s neck-and-neck with Pickett in camp, he also won’t be the prioritized backup.
Prediction: No. 3 quarterback
Rudolph did have a stretch of four games out of five in 2019 when he three two touchdowns in each appearance. But since then he’s only replicated that feat once against the Browns in the 2020 regular season finale loss.
But to be fair to the fifth-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, Rudolph has also never had a chance to be the starter. That’s not something to overlook when considering how teams come up with game plans to accommodate their projected starters, and Rudolph was never going to have that opportunity behind Roethlisberger.
If Rudolph wants to be more than a career backup, he must show he’s a capable starter this season. That means consistency through his reps in camp practices and in preseason chances. If he does that, his veteran status will put him in a position to be the Steelers’ top backup. But he’s also had four years with the Steelers to become that player in practice, and hasn’t been the guy.
Don’t expect that to change overnight.
Top Factor: Chris Oladokun is the camp arm the Steelers thought would be most useful. He’s not overly fast for a quarterback, but he displays decent arm strength with the ability to move. That’s about what the Steelers will need for their scout teams and practice squads through camp, and if Oladokun fits, beyond.
Biggest Concern: There’s no chance Oladokun puts himself in the race for the team’s starting quarterback job. He didn’t last at South Florida and made his college profile at South Dakota State. If Pickett has to make a leap from college to the NFL, Oladokun has to skyrocket over a tall building to make such an adjustment.
Prediction: Scout team
Oladokun does possess good tools to practice against in the NFL. If he hits the playbook hard and demonstrates a good command to practice day-in and day-out, Tomlin will appreciate that and he’ll find a spot on the practice squad. Even if the Steelers do trade Rudolph at some point, look for Oladokun to remain on the practice squad as the team preserves other positions on the 53-man roster.