PITTSBURGH — The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers had an open quarterback competition, Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart were vying for the job during the 1996 offseason.
Now, nearly three decades later, a new trio of challengers are preparing to compete for the job. That evaluation begins this weekend when Kenny Pickett suits up as a Steeler for the first time at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for rookie minicamp.
With Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, the Steelers spent their offseason retooling and reloading in an effort to find his replacement. After free agency and the NFL draft, the Steelers came away with three additions. Joining Mason Rudolph in the quarterback room will be Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Chris Oladokun.
Realistically, seventh-round pick Oladokun isn’t in the mix for the starting job, making this a three-man race. Will it be the rookie, the free-agent acquisition looking to turn things around or the in-house candidate attempting to make a statement?
NFL experience: Rookie
Why does he have the chance to be the starter: The Steelers don’t view their first-round pick as a developmental project, putting him firmly in the mix to be the starter Week 1. After drafting the 24-year-old Pickett with the 20th pick, Mike Tomlin said the quarterback will get the opportunity to compete for the starting job, and both Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert said Pickett’s decision to stay in college for another year greatly aided in his maturity and development.
In a Pittsburgh radio interview, Colbert compared Pickett’s last season at Pitt to a rookie season in the NFL.
“It’s almost like he spent his rookie NFL season at the college level, and really mastered it,” Colbert told 105.9 The X. “Coach (Pat) Narduzzi and coach (Mark) Whipple provided him an opportunity to take that step in a pro schema. And it is easier to project those types of players and those schematics to our level. It’s not that the others that play in a more college-type offense can’t do it, it’s just more guesswork.”
Pickett also has the benefit of reuniting with Matt Canada, who recruited him to Pitt. The two never worked together on the college level as Canada left for LSU, but Pickett is familiar with Canada’s concepts and Canada obviously felt Pickett fit in with what he wanted to do.
Why he’s vulnerable: Pickett is a rookie. Yes, he’ll be in the friendly confines of Heinz Field and a city that embraced him during his college career, but the transition to the NFL shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s adjusting to NFL defenses and the speed of the game, plus learning a new playbook.
But Whipple, who coached Pickett for three seasons at Pitt and worked with Roethlisberger as his quarterbacks coach during his first three seasons, believes Pickett’s transition to the NFL won’t be as difficult as it is for other rookies because he’s staying in a familiar environment .
“I don’t know if it’s the easiest transition,” Whipple said, “but it’s pretty much easier than maybe Ben had it or other rookies that I had at Cleveland.”
NFL experience: 5 years
Why does he have the chance to be the starter: The Steelers added Trubisky on the first day of free agency, working quickly to bring in the former No. 2 pick.
“He’s young and experienced,” Tomlin said in March. “He’s won — to be quite honest with you — he’s probably won more than anybody else that was kind of in the field.”
He spent the last year in Buffalo as Josh Allen’s backup and saw action in six games, completing 6-of-8 attempts for 43 yards and an interception. But, he said that year in Buffalo was valuable after a four-season stint in Chicago where he flourished in his second year before struggling in his final two.
Trubisky’s strength in this quarterback competition is his veteran experience and a skill set that meshes well with Canada’s scheme.
Why he’s vulnerable: Trubisky hasn’t played meaningful minutes since 2020, and in his last season as Chicago’s starter, he threw 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He was also benched in Week 3 for Nick Foles, though Trubisky was eventually reinstated by Week 12. Still, he was inconsistent throughout his career with the Bears, and the work he’s put in since has been mostly out of sight. The Steelers won’t know for certain if the Jekyll-and-Hyde play is behind him until they get him on the field and in game situations.
NFL experience: 4 years
Why does he have the chance to be the starter: With four seasons in the organization, Rudolph is the known quantity of the group. He has the benefit of having worked with Canada for two years, first as his position coach and then as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. After Roethlisberger’s retirement, Rudolph talked about getting an opportunity to lead the Steelers the way he wanted, suggesting that he’ll have more freedom to be himself with Roethlisberger gone.
Why he’s vulnerable: Since a tumultuous start to his Steelers career in 2019, when he got thrown in the starting job after Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, Rudolph has largely been an average to below-average quarterback in spot starts. His best outing came against the Browns in Week 17 of the 2020 season when he completed 22 of 39 attempts for 315 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a loss. Rudolph got another shot in 2021, when Roethlisberger tested positive for COVID-19 less than 24 hours before the Steelers played the Detroit Lions, and Rudolph was thrust into the starting job again. This time, he completed 30 of 50 attempts for 242 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and many of the throws were off-target and inconsistent. He did have a 26-yard rush, showing off the mobility the Steelers are searching for in their next signal-caller.
“Mason is 5-4-1 as a starter,” Colbert said in February. “One of those games this year, he found out he was going to be the starter Saturday night, and he tried to give us what he could. We almost won that game, we didn’t. So, I’m comfortable that Mason has won more games than he’s lost as a starter. , if that’s the case.
The bottom line is Rudolph is a serviceable quarterback, but Pickett and Trubisky have higher upsides and playmaking ability that figures to give them a leg up in the competition.