Shoring Up the Depth at QB: Are The Pittsburgh Steelers Preparing to Develop From Within?

Pittsburgh Steelers players participate in the Organized Team Activity (OTA) at the UPMC Sport Performance Complex.

via Steelers.com

One of the frequent topics of discussion in recent years as the NFL Draft approaches concerns the Steelers’ future at quarterback. Many commentators/commenters, some with more credentials than others, have suggested the Steelers take Quarterback X, Y, or Z (generally projected to go in the later rounds, and generally felt by the commenter to have enormous potential) as a “development project” to sit and learn behind Ben Roethlisberger.

It’s pretty clear Ben Roethlisberger isn’t going to play forever. There are a lot of miles on his 6’4″ “241 pound” frame. (I would love to know what the real figure is, and how much it varies from the beginning of training camp to the end of the regular season.) He might want to play forever (and even that is doubtful, given the new perspective he expressed on taking a potentially concussive hit last November), but as Peyton Manning showed the world during the past few seasons, there comes a time when old age and treachery can no longer (or just barely) overcome youth and enthusiasm.

And seldom does the old expression fit as well as it does in Manning’s case. Does anyone have any doubt the Steelers would have won the Divisional Championship had Peyton not used his possum trick on the defense? And does anyone think any other defense is ever going to fall for that again? His bag of tricks is getting pretty empty by now, and his throwing arm was getting pretty unimpressive a long time ago.

And heaven knows, Peyton didn’t have the mileage on him Ben has. He had the years—quite a few more, actually—but his playing style kept him much more upright and less frequently hit.

I can’t find data for numbers of quarterback hits, although it clearly exists somewhere, as Chris Wesseling tweeted on April 6th:

Per NFL research, most QB hits taken since 2012:

 

Luck: 375
Tannehill: 364
Matt Ryan: 354
Russell Wilson: 349

But there are sack figures easily available, naturally. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote on this very subject back in 2014:

Getting blindsided by blitzing linebackers, drilled in the chest or just driven to the turf by a 300-pound lineman is a way of life for NFL quarterbacks. The punishment their bodies absorb, though, is not nearly what it used to be because the league has implemented many rules to protect them.

But it has been a big part of Roethlisberger’s 10-year career with the Steelers. He has been sacked 386 times, more than any active NFL quarterback and 13th most of any quarterback in the history of the league.

Peyton Manning, who has played six more seasons than Roethlisberger, has been sacked 270 times. San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who entered the league the same time as Roethlisberger, has been sacked 137 fewer times than the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

Of the top 21 most-sacked quarterbacks in NFL history, only Neil Lomax (362) averaged more sacks per season (45.25) than Roethlisberger (38.6). Even John Elway, another No. 7 who was the second-most sacked quarterback in NFL history (516), was sacked less on average than Roethlisberger (32.25 times per season).

I guess the Steelers Brain Trust knew what they were doing when they encouraged Bruce Arians to “retire” and brought in Todd Haley.

Between the many wretched offensive lines he played behind, the nasty hits he continues to take despite playing behind a much better line, the motorcycle accident, and so forth, his tenure with the Steelers is definitely in its final few years. Whether he can (or chooses to) play for two more years, or four, it is almost certain the Steelers will need a new quarterback by the start of the next decade.

Given the direction the NFL has gone in the past 20+ years, sustained winning is only possible with a better-than-average signal caller. And despite the very few counter examples (basically, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson), excellent quarterbacks are seldom found very far outside the top of the first round.

Actually, I’m not entirely certain this is true, and thought a bit of research might be justified. I made a comparison chart based on Pro Football Focus’s quarterback ratings for 2015, which I would love to insert into this article. However, my current technological accessories apparently won’t allow me to do this. So I’ll summarize, which I’m guessing many of you prefer anyhow.

As you may well know by now, PFF’s top two QBs for 2015 were Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger. They were drafted at No. 1 and No. 11 in their respective drafts. Tom Brady, ranked third, sort of spoils the theory, but of the top 18 quarterbacks (PFF ranked 36 QBs) nine were chosen with pick No. 11 or higher (in deference to Ben’s slot.) Three more were chosen within the first round, meaning 2/3rds of them were picked with No. 32 or higher.

Of the remaining six players, two were high second-rounders (Andy Dalton at 35 and Derek Carr at 36.) So only four were picked after the second round—Brady, Wilson, Kirk Cousins, and Tyrod Taylor. I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out on Taylor, at least.

As for the other 18 quarterbacks, eight were chosen within the first 11 picks, two more were chosen in the first round, one was a high second-rounder (Colin Kaepernick at No. 36), and the rest were chosen after the second round. The sole UDFA was Brian Hoyer. Some of the first rounders would more typically have been in the upper half of the rankings.

Joe Flacco had a bad year and was ranked at No. 26. Eli Manning was ranked at No. 24. One of the biggest fails was Andrew Luck, who came in at No. 34. Alex Smith’s Chiefs did well for themselves in 2015, but PFF didn’t give Smith much of the credit, ranking him at No. 22. Marcus Mariota looks to improve greatly in the coming years but didn’t really put it together for his rookie season.

Of those five players, only Flacco (No. 18) and Mariota (No. 2) were picked below No. 1 overall. If those four veteran QBs had performed more like one would have expected they would likely have skewed the top 18 even more toward the top of the first round.

How much the 2015 rankings say about the quarterbacks is an open question, as they were evaluating young risers such as Teddy Bridgewater, rookies, journeymen such as Matt Cassel and Brian Hoyer, and at least a couple of guys with not much left in the tank (Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck, who were ranked No. 29 and 30 respectively.) But it’s fair to say that the guys who made the list at all (because they played a significant number of snaps) were, in the majority, first round picks, and the majority of the first-round picks were within the first 11 picks of the draft.

So it obviously isn’t a slam-dunk, but your chances of getting at least a decent quarterback are way higher in the top of the first round. Which probably no one would argue, but it’s worth establishing the point with some data.

And while it used to be the practice to sit even high first-rounders like Ben and Philip Rivers behind an established QB to learn (as Rivers did behind Drew Brees and Ben was supposed to do behind Tommy Maddox,) the shorter rookie contracts have made this more difficult to do. And when you do try it with a later pick (such as the Broncos did with Brock Osweiler, drafted at No. 57,) you may well lose them to another team, just about the time they really begin to develop, if you aren’t quite certain you’re ready to sign them to a big contract.

But if you are a team like the Steelers who is generally in contention, it’s going to cost you a boatload of draft picks to move up to the top of the first round. And we all know Steeler Nation doesn’t have the patience to let the team tank for a year to get a top pick. And even if you do, it depends on having the right quarterback available to be drafted that year, anyhow.

But what if you could take the REALLY long view and develop your own players from within, before they are subject to free agency or even the draft? If any ownership and front office is stable and forward-thinking enough to do it, it would surely be the Steelers. It might also require some interesting maneuvers to figure out how to keep these guys out of the sight of the rest of the league, but anything can be done if you’re willing to spend the money.

So I ask you, can it possibly be a coincidence that all three of the Steelers’ quarterbacks have given birth (well, not personally, but their wives did) to sons within the past year? Bruce Gradkowski’s son Roman was first (born last July, according to this Tribune-Review article.) And of course we shouldn’t discount Ben Jr., who is four years old.

But where it really gets curious is when the above-linked Trib article notes that both Ben and Landry Jones missed practices this week for the births of their sons. Cue the “Twilight Zone” music.

What’s going on in the Rooney complex? I don’t know, but if in 21 years or so Bodie Roethlisberger is being backed up by Zeke Jones and Roman Gradkowski, you’ll know I’m right.

Obviously this doesn’t solve the problem in the short term, but as I said, if any team is capable and willing to take the long view, it’s the Steelers.

In all seriousness, congratulations to all of the proud fathers. And please accept the profound thanks of Steeler Nation that the boys were all born during OTAs…

There is a lovely picture of the family on Ben’s official fan site   in which he indicates the whole family would be watching the Pen’s Game 7 at Consol. And a fine, athletic-looking family it is, too…

5 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    At this point I think we are in the land of year to year for Ben’s career. A couple of years ago I was thinking he may have 3-5 years left in him because of the beating he was taking. This is year 3. If the Steelers win the SB this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hung up his cleats after the game. Three SB rings and his record would be enough to get him into the HoF and he has a wife and 3 kids to worry about. They won’t need more money as much as they would need their spouse/father.

    Even with the improved o-line, the beatings continue so I think he will keep playing until he either wins another SB or hits the end of that 5th year. This is just my unsupported opinion.

    Like

    • Ben clearly is closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it. How much time does he have left? That is anyone’s guess. Just as commentators were trying to wrap the “oft injured” label around him following 2011 and 2012, he went out and didn’t miss a regular season snap in 2013 and 2014.

      Then of course he missed all sorts of time in 2015.

      As Ed Bouchette mentioned back in 2008 or 2009, Ben could be one player who “Get’s old fast.” We’ll see.

      Ben is 34 this year, and I’d say he probably has 2-3 more seasons of prime play left, barring a major injury.

      He’s very competitive and has made it clear he wants to tie Brady and Bradshaw.

      Here’s a Wild Card: Ben’s future with the team might be tied to Browns.

      Brown has two years left on his contract, and one has to wonder if the Steelers can find a way to resign him w/o out completely destroying their salary cap. If they can’t do that, I can imagine Ben deciding to hang it up.

      Like

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Doh, I really should read all the way to the end of an article before I comment.

    Like

    • It started out to be just a parody piece but there’s actually serious stuff in there. I do think the question of when Ben hangs it up is very interesting. I think he wants four rings to at least tie Tom and for that matter Terry, but if they don’t get one this year he may give up. If he thinks they have a reasonable chance to repeat I could see him giving it another year or even two.

      Like

  • Nice article Rebecca. While I realize at the end you decided to go tongue and cheek, you raise a very interesting question.

    In another age, a long, long time ago, conventional wisdom held that quarterbacks had to develop for 4 or 5 years behind a starter. While you can find plenty of examples of players who were drafted and started as rookies (Terry Bradshaw) there are other examples of this at work.

    Wade Wilson was drafted by the Vikings in 1981 and didn’t start 50% of the games until 1988.
    Rich Gannon was drafted by the Patriots in 1987, was a waiver wire pick up by the Vikings that same year, and didn’t start until 1990.
    The Cowboys drafted Danny White in 1976, let him punt for a few years, and groomed him as Roger Staubach’s replacement. White became the regular starter in 1980.
    The Giants drafted Jeff Hostleter in 1984 and he backed up Phil Simms until Simms got injured late in 1990, and Hoss stepped in and took the team all the way to the Super Bowl.

    The Steelers of course drafted Mark Malone with the idea of him replacing Terry Bradshaw.

    As you point out, the rise of the salary cap and free agency make it a lot harder to do this now.

    The Oilers/Titans did it with Steve McNair in the 1990’s and the Packers pulled it off with Aaron Rodgers.

    But the difference between these picks and the ones I mentioned earlier is that Malone, McNair and Rogers were 1st rounders, whereas the others I mentioned were mid or late round picks.

    Like

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