Steelers' Position Battles to Watch Ahead of 2022 NFL Season
The Pittsburgh Steelers are embarking on perhaps their first real rebuild in nearly 20 years. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has retired. Kevin Colbert stepped down as general manager and was recently replaced by Omar Khan, while Teryl Austin has replaced Keith Butler as defensive coordinator.
Yet, rebuilding doesn't mean punting on the 2022 season. Pittsburgh has never had a losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin, and the playoffs will still be the goal this season. Emerging from the loaded AFC North with a postseason berth won't be easy, though.
Playmakers such as Diontae Johnson, Najee Harris, Minkah Fitzpatrick and 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt will be back, but Pittsburgh has plenty of positions to settle ahead of Week 1.
Below, we'll examine three of the most critical position battles to follow during the remainder of organized team activities (OTAs), minicamp and training camp.
Who are the key players? What needs to happen in the coming months? Let's take a look.
This is the big one, obviously, as the Steelers look to replace future Hall of Famer Roethlisberger under center. It won't be easy, but they have three intriguing options.
The first is veteran Pittsburgh backup Mason Rudolph. He isn't the future for the Steelers, but he's experienced in Matt Canada's offense and has 10 starts on his resume. If one of the other quarterbacks cannot claim the job, the 26-year-old is the safe fallback option for Week 1.
The Steelers also added 2017 first-round pick Mitch Trubisky in free agency. He didn't evolve into a franchise quarterback with the Chicago Bears, but he's been to a Pro Bowl and has a 29-21 starting record.
In the first round of the NFL draft in April, the Steelers selected Pittsburgh product Kenny Pickett. He represents the Steelers' long-term plan, but will he be ready to start right away? If the 23-year-old is going to start in Week 1, he'll have to win a heat competition with Trubisky and Rudolph.
If Pickett isn't ready, that's OK, because the Steelers can afford to develop him on the sideline.
Trubisky has the best NFL resume of the three, but Pittsburgh will likely (and should) start whichever signal-caller gives it the best chance to win out of the gate. This will be the most pivotal position battle of the Steelers' camp and arguably the most interesting quarterback competition of the entire NFL offseason.
If the Steelers are going to find quarterback success in 2022 and/or develop Pickett on the field, they'll need to find improvements along the offensive line. Last year's unit allowed 38 sacks while struggling to open holes in the ground game.
Pittsburgh ranked 29th in yards per carry last season.
Unfortunately, the Steelers didn't do a ton to upgrade their line. They added center Mason Cole and guard James Daniels in free agency but didn't take a lineman in the draft.
There should be an open competition along the interior involving Cole, Daniels, J.C. Hassenauer, Kendrick Green, Joe Haeg, John Leglue and Kevin Dotson. Daniels was a fairly reliable starter in Chicago, so the rest of the participants may be competing for two starting spots.
Presumably tackles Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor are the favorites to start on the edges, but the Steelers shouldn't be quick to set anything in stone. The former allowed seven sacks in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus, while the latter was responsible for 11 penalties.
Pittsburgh may want to consider bringing in a free agent such as Duane Brown or Eric Fisher, depending on how camp competitions unfold. Finding a reliable starting five will be nearly as important as settling on a quarterback before Week 1.
Pittsburgh has some reloading to do at the receiver position after losing both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington in free agency. Chase Claypool and Johnson should be in line for significant roles, but the battle for the No. 3 spot will be heated.
Rookie second-round pick George Pickens may have the inside track for the job. He battled through injuries at Georgia and had limited production, but the 21-year-old is dripping with potential.
"Overall, Pickens has the ability to be a No. 2 outside-only wide receiver in the NFL," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "He has the size, ball skills and enough athleticism to be an X receiver who primarily runs a vertical route tree, which will also allow him to use his body strength and catching range."
Rookie fourth-round pick Calvin Austin III will also be in the mix, as will free-agent additions Anthony Miller and Miles Boykin. Austin is a speedy and talented deep threat, while Miller and Boykin have been capable if underwhelming role players at the pro level.
With long-serving slot specialist Smith-Schuster now gone, the task of determining who will start on the perimeter and who will play inside remains.
With a younger and hopefully stronger-armed quarterback under center this season, the Steelers have an opportunity to revitalize a passing attack that ranked 29th in yards per attempt in 2021. However, they must work out the right lineup and rotation in the coming months to find early success.