The Pittsburgh Steelers are not heading into the 2015 season with a quarterback controversy on their hands. In fact, it's unlikely that the team will have to consider their future at the position until the next decade.
Their current starter, Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off of the best season of his career. He had personal bests in completion percentage (67.1 percent) and yards (4,952) in 2014, tied his highest single-season passing touchdown total with 32, threw just nine interceptions and was sacked only 33 times while starting all 16 games.
As a reward for this performance—and in anticipation of more to follow—the Steelers gave Roethlisberger a four-year, $87.4 million contract extension in March. The deal includes $31 million in guaranteed money and has a per-year value of $21.85 million. It's fair to say that he's not going anywhere for quite some time.
But Roethlisberger isn't invincible, as his numerous injuries and missed games in the past attest. He's completed his last two seasons in full, which is a good sign, and with a better offensive line, he's much better protected from sacks, hits and potential injuries.
But it's important to look at the quarterback depth chart in Pittsburgh to get an idea of who is backing up Roethlisberger, even if he remains healthy and active for all 16 games in 2015.
For the past two years, Roethlisberger's primary backup has been Bruce Gradkowksi, a 2006 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gradkowski has played for five teams and has 20 starts in his nine previous seasons. He's never started in the regular season for the Steelers simply because he hasn't had to. In the preseason last year, he appeared in three games, completing 27 of his 36 pass attempts, for 218 yards. He threw two touchdowns to one interception and was sacked once.
|Gradkowski, Jones & Boyd, Preseason 2014|
Backing him up during that time has been 2013 fourth-round draft pick Landry Jones. Despite his youth and relatively good draft pedigree, Jones has yet to beat out Gradkowski on the depth chart. In fact, he's yet to crack the game-day roster. He's never dressed in the regular season.
In three preseason games last year, Jones completed 27 of his 44 pass attempts, for 224 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception and took six sacks.
This is likely Jones' last chance to move up the Steelers' depth chart. General manager Kevin Colbert told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly in February that Jones may never beat out Gradkowski:
Has he progressed to the point where he beat out Bruce as the No. 2? No. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. I think when you have young guys, at least they have that chance to grow. If they grow, great. If they don't, then you look for others.
The Steelers have looked for, and found, another young quarterback to either push Jones to the No. 2 spot or off of the roster entirely—Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round 2014 draft pick of the New York Jets who was released by the team last August. The Steelers added him to their roster in March, giving him a one-year, $435,000 deal.
Boyd is even more green than Jones. He appeared in only two preseason games for the Jets as a rookie and even then saw limited action. He completed just eight of his 17 pass attempts last summer, for 98 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions and two sacks.
Given that Jones is in now-or-never mode when it comes to his career in Pittsburgh, expect him to not only split third-team reps with Boyd in training camp this summer, but also second-team reps with Gradkowski.
This is his last chance to prove he has what it takes to have a long NFL career—albeit as a backup. There will be no opportunities for Jones to start for the Steelers full-time with Roethlisberger so firmly entrenched. All he can hope to do is to beat out Gradkowski and be the team's go-to quarterback should injury befall the starter.
Colbert acknowledged that Jones improved from Year 1 to Year 2: "[Jones] had more extended play this preseason. I thought there were signs where he did some things better than he did the year before."
One example of this is his improved completion percentage, which was 45 percent in his rookie preseason and 61.4 percent in 2014. But he's still making more mistakes than Gradkowski, as evidenced by his lack of passing touchdowns last summer and the six sacks he took.
It's not looking likely that the Steelers' quarterback depth chart will change between now and Week 1. There is a level of optimism that the young Jones will finally perform well enough to surpass Gradkowski, but given his last two years, it's not looking likely.
Instead, it appears that the real quarterback battle for the Steelers this year will be for the No. 3 spot, with Jones and Boyd competing for a job that they won't ever have to do.