Dwayne Haskins Emerging in Pittsburgh as Steelers' Best Post-Big Ben Option

Alex KayFeatured Columnist IAugust 7, 2021

CANTON, OHIO - AUGUST 5: Dwayne Haskins #3 of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes a pass in the second half during the 2021 NFL preseason Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys at Tom Benson Hall Of Fame Stadium on August 5, 2021 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Dwayne Haskins had a rocky NFL start, but the 24-year-old quarterback seems well on his way to reviving a career that was in jeopardy not long ago.

The No. 15 pick in 2019 flamed out with the Washington Football Team before he could even finish a second season. Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw enough untapped potential to take on the third-year quarterback as a developmental project and possible heir to Ben Roethlisberger.

So far, Haskins—who signed a reserve/futures contract with the Steelers in January, a month after his Washington release—has looked like a fantastic pickup.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday the signal-caller has "grown by leaps and bounds" and "does a good job communicating with coaches, with players, gaining an understanding of what we're trying to do schematically and his role in it. Gaining a rapport with the receivers specifically."

Considering that 2021 may be longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's last season, the team desperately needs to groom a promising prospect to take over. Big Ben has served as the club's starting quarterback for the last 17 years, and although he has performed admirably during the latter stages of his career, Father Time is still rapidly catching up to the 39-year-old.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Injuries have cost Roethlisberger 15 games over the last two years—including most of the 2019 campaign thanks to an elbow injury—and there has been a noticeable decline in production.

Last year, he passed for fewer yards than he has in any season he played at least 14 games in since 2010. His 6.3 yards-per-attempt average was concerning, as it clocked in over a full yard below his average YPA from 2009 to 2018. To make matters worse, his mobility has taken a major blow. Roethlisberger has looked sluggish rolling out and has had trouble extending plays, something he once did as well as anyone.

Roethlisberger's decline was quite noticeable late last season. Pittsburgh started the year on an 11-0 run, but the squad sputtered to a 12-4 finish after averaging a meager 308.4 yards of offense over the last five contests.

Despite this, the Steelers haven't seemed overly concerned about a succession plan at the game's most important position. The franchise hasn't drafted a signal-caller in the first two rounds since it took Big Ben No. 11 overall 2004. Mason Rudolph was tapped as a potential heir with the No. 76 selection in 2018, but the 26-year-old hasn't shown nearly enough that Pittsburgh should feel comfortable handing the reins to him as early as next season.

While Rudolph has worked as the No. 2 QB for the last few years and stepped into the starting role when required—going a middling 5-4 as a starter with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions since 2019—it seems the organization is considering Haskins a legitimate contender for backup duties.

During Thursday's Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys, Haskins earned his first crack at showing the world how far he's come since being cut.

He didn't get the start, and his eight completions on 13 pass attempts for 54 yards didn't jump off the page while he worked behind Rudolph on the depth chart. But he earned praise from Tomlin for the poise and intelligence he displayed in his preseason debut.

The coach told reporters: "I liked [Haskins'] demeanor. I thought he was a really good communicator. I thought he was really present and kind of cerebral, the way you would like the quarterback position to be. There's just so much ball in front of him and the others."

Haskins has had no shortage of belief in his ability to secure a backup job he feels is there for the taking. When the QB was asked if there was an open competition for the No. 2 role, Haskins said: "I'm trying to make it one." Haskins also stated that he's been working on becoming the organization's next franchise quarterback since he first walked in the door at Heinz Field.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Ohio State product has been backing up those confident words with strong play on the practice field. Plenty of reports have surfaced about Haskins' excellence in training camp, as The Athletic's Mark Kaboly noted on August 3 the quarterback was "near flawless" while leading the offense to a score in a two-minute drill. Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot revealed Haskins went 6-of-7 with a 30-yard touchdown pass in the same type of drill last week.

Not only has Haskins performed well enough to warrant an honest shot at assuming QB2 responsibilities, but the incumbent has also been squandering his fading chances at retaining the job.

Rudolph struggled out of the gate in camp, especially when given the opportunity to work with the first team. Nick Farabaugh of SteelersNow.com noted that the quarterback made numerous mistakes in an early practice, unleashing several passes that were either underthrown or placed into double coverage that resulted in interceptions.

Rudolph wasn't able to show much improvement against the Cowboys, either, going a pedestrian 6-of-9 passing for 84 yards and at one point botching a handoff on a jet sweep. It was an especially concerning mistake given former Steelers safety Ryan Clark pointed out that these types of horizontal running plays will be a major part of Pittsburgh's strategy under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Haskins didn't make any notable gaffes during his initial preseason snaps, which will give him a major edge in his battle with Rudolph should the 2018 first-rounder continue to avoid them over these next few weeks. It won't hurt Haskins' case either that he has been displaying the type of strong decision-making, sturdiness and elusiveness that once made Roethlisberger a nightmare for opposing defenses. 

The quarterback even hinted that the Steelers' staff has significant plans for him, noting to reporters: "I've been told certain things. That's between me and the coaches. I just have to go out there and prove I can play."

Tomlin wouldn't tip his hand on which QB is leading the backup competition, simply advising reporters to "keep watching." Although the coach isn't acknowledging it directly, Haskins appears on his way to not only earning the No. 2 gig this season, but also the starting quarterback job when it becomes available.