The Pittsburgh Steelers need to start thinking about the future. This is true at multiple positions, but nowhere is it more essential than at quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger and backup Bruce Gradkowski should form an excellent duo for the next few years, but it is never too soon to think about what will happen after that.
Let’s break down exactly what the Steelers need to consider when looking at the quarterbacks available in this month’s draft.
Roethlisberger’s Age and History
Roethlisberger has been the starter in Pittsburgh since the third game of the 2004 season, taking over in Week Two when Tommy Maddox was injured and never gave the job back.
During the intervening seasons, Roethlisberger has made all 16 regular-season starts only once, that being in 2008. The only one other time that he started every game he was eligible to play in was 2010, when he started 12 games after being suspended by the league for the first four contests.
The fact is that Roethlisberger plays a tough, backyard style of football that naturally leads to more bumps, bruises and major injuries.
While that style of play suits Pittsburgh and its offense just fine, it also means that the remainder of Roethlisberger’s career is potentially much shorter than what many expect.
Last season, Roethlisberger missed three games. That was his highest total since the 2005 season when he only played in 12 games (excluding the suspension-shortened 2010 season).
It’s never too early to think about replacing a player who’s now 31 years old. Roethlisberger could end up being productive and relatively healthy for another 10 years. He could also end up having to retire in another five or six.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have the best history either when it comes to drafting and developing quarterbacks.
Prior to Roethlisberger’s arrival, the team had failed to develop an elite passer since taking Terry Bradshaw with the first pick in the 1970 draft.
In that 34-year period, Pittsburgh drafted one other quarterback in the first round—Mark Malone. Malone was supposed to develop in as the next starter for Pittsburgh after Bradshaw stepped down and retired.
As mentioned, he never did live up to that status and ended up being one of the many disappointments out of the team’s draft classes from the '80s.
Pittsburgh has traditionally drafted well in the middle rounds. They found serviceable quarterbacks like Bubby Brister in the '80s and Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell in the '90s in the middle rounds.
Finding a franchise quarterback is a difficult process for many teams, but Pittsburgh had very talented teams in the '90s and early this century that couldn’t get over the hump because there wasn’t a good quarterback under center.
To prevent that kind of precipitous dropoff from happening again, it would be best to draft a quarterback now and see if he can develop. If not, Roethlisberger will likely have enough left to give the team a second chance at nabbing their future signal caller.
This Year’s Draft Class
Never has a quarterback draft class been more widely panned than the 2013 group. There’s talk that no quarterbacks will be taken in the first round and that there may not be a star in the whole bunch.
Which quarterback should Pittsburgh take in the draft?
There is talent in this class, however. Some of it is just too raw to risk a valuable high pick on because the player won’t be an immediate contributor for the team that selects him.
Players like Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have spoiled the NFL to some degree. It used to take years to develop a successful star quarterback. Now, some seem to emerge overnight. People seem to forget that it is OK to develop a guy for a few years.
Landry Jones of Oklahoma, Tyler Bray of Tennessee and Zac Dysert out of Miami (Ohio) are three of the best mid-round prospects at the position this year. All three could eventually turn into successful NFL quarterbacks. All three could also end up being no better than a decent backup.
This year’s crop of young passers is as tantalizing as they come, but there’s no reason not to spend a third- or fourth-round draft pick on a player that could end up becoming very important in a few years.
Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert need to be realistic about the quarterback position.
Roethlisberger isn’t getting younger. He isn’t anywhere near hitting a wall yet, but it’s time to start considering what will happen if he’s felled by a big injury. Gradkowski gives Pittsburgh a good backup, but nothing near what they need down the road.
It’s time to make sure that, if the Steelers ever lose their passer for more than a handful of games, they have a replacement that can shoulder the load.