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Steelers Will Regret Not Finding Big Ben Successor in NFL Free Agency, Draft

Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger watches from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Jameis Winston now has a team. Ditto for Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, Jalen Hurts, Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm. Last month, Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota hit the open market but quickly found new homes as well. 

None of those sub-30-year-old quarterbacks joined the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now the market for 20-somethings at the NFL‘s most important position has gone dry. 

By not landing a potential successor to battered-and-bruised 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, the Steelers were negligent.

While the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers turned at least some of their attention to their long-term future by adding young quarterbacks this offseason—granted, Green Bay did to a faultthe Steelers instead spent prime draft picks on another wide receiver and another running back. 

They drafted a backup outside linebacker (Alex Highsmith) when they could have added Eason and took a potential project guard (Kevin Dotson) when they could have selected Fromm. They committed more money to fullback Derek Watt and journeyman guard Stefen Wisniewski than the Saints owe to Winston, who—despite a bad turnover habit—is 26 and coming off a season in which he led the NFC in passing yards and touchdowns. 

Soon after the draft, Jameis Winston signed a cheap deal with the Saints.

Soon after the draft, Jameis Winston signed a cheap deal with the Saints.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Winston might never kick that habit, and there’s a good chance that Eason, Fromm and fellow middle-round-pick James Morgan never pan out as NFL quarterbacks. Bridgewater landed a starting job with the Carolina Panthers and might have been out of Pittsburgh’s price range as a result. Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert and Love were probably out of reach in the draft. Mariota couldn’t hold on to his starting job with the Tennessee Titans and signed a shockingly lucrative contract with the Las Vegas Raiders

There are always excuses, always blemishes. But Pittsburgh’s unwillingness to even swing the bat at hittable pitches is absurd. 

Roethlisberger is 38 going on 50. He isn’t a health enthusiast like 42-year-old Tom Brady, and his career sack rate (6.5 percent) is almost double that of 41-year-old Drew Brees (3.9 percent). He hasn’t boasted a triple-digit passer rating since 2014 and hasn’t been a Pro Bowler since 2017, and between 2015 and 2018, nobody threw more interceptions than he did.

Not only did he lead the league in picks in his last full season (2018), but among the 23 quarterbacks to attempt 75 or more passes that traveled 15-plus yards that year, only he and three other passers completed fewer than 40 percent of said throws.

Even before a major elbow injury ended his 2019 season in September, Roethlisberger looked tired, defeated and out of shape. He’s openly mulled retirement in the past, and he even suggested that he might not “have it anymore” back in 2017. 

He’s now recovering from surgery to reattach three tendons in the elbow on his throwing arm. 

So long as they have a quality quarterback, the Steelers have the talent to remain a contender post-Roethlisberger, which is why they need a succession plan right now. 

And yet, as if it were a badge of honor, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert declared on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday that “we absolutely made no negotiation or any offer to any veteran quarterback.”

Congratulations? 

In the same interview, Colbert stated the organization is “very comfortable” with backup Mason Rudolph, citing the team’s 5-3 record with him starting in place of Roethlisberger last season. However, Colbert conveniently failed to mention that the 2018 third-round pick was at one point benched for an undrafted rookie third-stringer. 

Additionally, Pittsburgh won those games as a team, primarily thanks to a loaded defense that surrendered a league-low 4.7 yards per play and generated a league-high 38 takeaways. 

In Rudolph’s five wins, the Steelers surrendered an average of only 12.6 points per game. They averaged a so-so 22.6 on offense, but three defensive takeaways per victory helped, as did the fact that three of those five wins came against the AFC’s two worst defenses (Miami once, Cincinnati twice). 

The 24-year-old finished the season as the league’s fourth-lowest-rated qualified passer, and his 6.2 yards-per-attempt average ranked ahead of only Chicago Bears bust Mitchell Trubisky. Among the 29 quarterbacks who attempted at least 50 deep throws, he was the only one who completed fewer than 30 percent of those passes. 

In short, it’s extremely unlikely that he’s the long-term answer beyond the Roethlisberger era, and you won’t find anyone who will argue that Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch or J.T. Barrett are heirs apparent. 

So, why is Colbert seemingly satisfied with the status quo? 

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

It might be pride and nostalgia for a man who played a role in drafting Big Ben 16 years ago and celebrated Super Bowl championships with him in 2005 and 2008. It might also be stubbornness considering that it would cost the team $22.25 million to part ways with Roethlisberger next offseason after extending and then restructuring his contract in the last 18 months. 

But that’s a shame, because adding Mariota, Winston, Hurts, Eason, Morgan and/or Fromm wouldn’t have been broken the the Steelers’ back and would have bolstered their chances of eventually replacing Roethlisberger in semi-seamless fashion. 

They can still achieve some redemption by coming to their senses and signing 2015 MVP Cam Newton, but Newton is 30 and may be past his prime. It doesn’t sound like Colbert is even considering that, though. 

As a result, Pittsburgh will eventually regret its approach to the 2020 offseason. 

      

All statistics via Pro Football Reference, and all contract information via Spotrac.

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon

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