The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem. It has been easy to see the past couple weeks.
The Steelers don’t have a quarterback and that problem might not be fixed in 2020. Ben Roethlisberger should be back, though it’s impossible to say he’ll still be at his peak and his return might cloud the Steelers’ judgment even more.
Here are the Steelers’ top options at quarterback for 2020, at least how it looks at the moment:
• Roethlisberger, who will be 38 years old and coming off season-ending elbow surgery. The surgery was to reattach three tendons, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. That doesn’t sound like a minor procedure. It’s at least possible he could return and be 100 percent. But the history of 38-year-old quarterbacks is shaky even when they’re healthy. Had Roethlisberger never had elbow surgery it was at least as likely he would look more like Eli Manning and Philip Rivers at 38 than Tom Brady or Drew Brees. And how can the Steelers be certain he’s totally fine after what seems like major elbow surgery?
• Mason Rudolph, who was benched for undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges. On Sunday, Hodges was benched for Rudolph. There have been very few moments in which Rudolph looked like a legitimate NFL starting quarterback. Before Week 16, Rudolph’s Pro Football Focus grade was 40th among 41 quarterbacks with at least 125 dropbacks. Only Josh Rosen ranked worse. Rudolph was put on injured reserve Tuesday and won’t play the rest of the season, but is that really a bad thing for the Steelers?
• Hodges, who has at least been slightly better than Rudolph. If you like PFF’s grades, Hodges ranked 35th among 41 quarterbacks with 125 dropbacks, so nothing too exciting there. He threw six interceptions over six quarters against the Bills and Jets before he was finally yanked against the Jets. He had passer ratings of 43.9 and 37 in those games. And he was an undrafted rookie out of an FCS school. That doesn’t mean he can’t be good, but it’s not like he had a great draft pedigree that you exercise patience with.
• Someone from the 2020 draft. But here’s the problem: The Steelers don’t have a first-round pick. They traded it for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They could trade up for a top prospect, though that is very hard to pull off without a 2020 first-round pick to give. Most likely they’re going to waste yet another mid-round pick on a quarterback, praying to hit the Dak Prescott lottery.
Again, Roethlisberger complicates things. Let’s assume he returns for his age-38 season. The Steelers will hope he’s back to his old self. They won’t spend a ton on a quarterback in free agency, if one happens to hit the open market. That’s especially true with Roethlisberger set to have a $33.5 million cap hit. And they won’t be in a draft position to take a ready-made prospect.
So heading into 2020, the Steelers have a 38-year-old coming off major elbow surgery, a third-round pick who has been better than Rosen (and that’s about it), an undrafted rookie who has posted about a 40 rating the past two games, a cheap veteran free agent or a rookie who is drafted after all the top prospects have long since flown off the board. It’s not pretty, unless Roethlisberger has a great comeback. And even if he does, the clock is obviously ticking.
The Steelers have had a remarkable season to stay in the wild-card race. But they have some serious issues to address at quarterback next offseason, and not an easy path to a good answer.
Here are the Power Rankings after Week 16 of the NFL season:
32. Cincinnati Bengals (1-14, Last Week: 32)
Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd said that no true fans care about their team getting the first overall pick, which just tells me they haven’t spent much time interacting with fans. No fan, before a season starts, wants their team to be so bad that they’ll pick first. But once the team is 1-14, yeah, they want Joe Burrow.
31. Detroit Lions (3-11-1, LW: 31)
The Lions are actually in a position in which they can play spoiler against the Packers next weekend in the NFC playoff picture. And let’s add a spoiler alert: They are incapable of spoiling any of the Packers’ plans by beating them.
30. Washington Redskins (3-12, LW: 30)
All Washington needs to do is lose to get the second pick of the draft, and likely select game-changing pass rusher Chase Young of Ohio State. Given how the Redskins can’t get anything right, this would be just the time to pull off that all-important upset win that would change their final record from 3-13 to 4-12, losing a phenomenal pass-rushing prospect in the process.
29. Carolina Panthers (5-10, LW: 26)
It’s shocking how bad things have gotten for the Panthers. It’s tough to compete with a bad quarterback situation, but that doesn’t explain everything. They quit weeks ago, and instead of just chalking this season up and feeling 2020 has to be better, the way this season is ending makes you wonder if everything needs to be blown up in Carolina.
28. Miami Dolphins (4-11, LW: 29)
Ryan Fitzpatrick has had a fine season. Assuming Fitzpatrick wants to play again, he has a very cheap $5.5 million salary in 2020. He’d be perfect to back up whoever Miami drafts (or, if Tua Tagovailoa is the pick, Fitzpatrick can start while Tagovailoa gets back to 100 percent from a hip injury).
27. New York Giants (4-11, LW: 28)
In Daniel Jones’ last six games, he has 17 touchdowns, four interceptions, 263.7 yards per game and a 99.2 passer rating. There have been ups and downs, but that’s fairly normal for a rookie, and the good moments this season should give the Giants a lot of hope.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10, LW: 25)
Leonard Fournette was very good the first half of the season. In the seven games of the second half: 102 carries for 361 yards rushing (3.5 average) and two touchdowns, 41 catches for 259 yards (6.3 average) and no touchdowns. The overall numbers are going to look OK because he started well, but Fournette’s downturn in the second half seems a little more indicative of his true level. Fournette is good but it seems obvious he’s never going to come close to living up to the pre-draft hype.
25. Los Angeles Chargers (5-10, LW: 23)
The Chargers ended their weird time in Carson with another awful performance. The idea of an NFL team playing in a smaller venue was actually interesting, and I think we haven’t seen the last of it. The Chargers’ three seasons in Carson weren’t a failure because of the venue, it didn’t work because nobody in Los Angeles cares about the team.
24. New York Jets (6-9, LW: 27)
Le’Veon Bell has a 3.3-yard average, which would be a career worst. It’s possible the year off really sapped his ability. More likely, you look at how Kenyan Drake, Ryan Tannehill and DeVante Parker are playing this season, and realize Adam Gase likely isn’t a very good offensive coach and he’s ruining Bell, too.
23. Cleveland Browns (6-9, LW: 19)
Odell Beckham Jr. has been hurt, but has played in all 15 games. And he still needs 46 yards to reach 1,000. That’s no sure thing given his season. I never would have imagined a 27-year-old Beckham would play 16 games and not reach 1,000 yards. His lack of production is astonishing.
22. Arizona Cardinals (5-9-1, LW: 24)
I was very skeptical about Kliff Kingsbury, and at this point I’d admit to being wrong. It looks like he can coach in the NFL. We need to see way more than 15 games to make sure, but the signs have been good this season. That win on Sunday at Seattle was an impressive way for Kingsbury to put a stamp on his first season.
21. Atlanta Falcons (6-9, LW: 21)
With a win at the Buccaneers, the Falcons would finish 7-9 and have a 6-2 second half with wins over the Saints and 49ers, perhaps the top two seeds in the NFC. On one hand, it’s troubling the Falcons have been awful until it didn’t count for two straight seasons, only to rally to make the final record look good. But it would seem a little odd to be that good in the second half and still fire Dan Quinn, so he may have saved his job.
20. Oakland Raiders (7-8, LW: 22)
The Raiders getting into the playoffs would be a phenomenal story. And when you look at what has to happen in Week 17 for the Raiders to find their way in, it’s really not that outrageous.
19. Dallas Cowboys (7-8, LW: 12)
The Cowboys’ list of issues is too long for this space, but I’ll mention one more time that Jerry Jones is crazy if he pays Amari Cooper anything near No. 1 receiver money. Cooper is too unreliable to pay like he’s Michael Thomas or Julio Jones.
18. Chicago Bears (7-8, LW: 16)
Many Bears fans scoffed at the notion their 2018 defense was boosted by a ton of turnover luck and it would regress. Well, the Bears haven’t forced a turnover in three games, and have forced a startling six turnovers in their last 10 games. When people say regression is inevitable — as folks will say about something like the 2019 Seahawks going 10-1 in one-score games — it’s best to pay it some mind.
17. Denver Broncos (6-9, LW: 20)
The Broncos have a young and talented offense. We’ve seen good things, from time to time, from Drew Lock, Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. That’s a good core. The Broncos desperately need to fix their offensive line issues, though it seems like that has been a theme for most of this decade.
16. Indianapolis Colts (7-8, LW: 18)
The Colts have come up on a few lists of teams that will be looking for a quarterback next offseason. I don’t buy it. Jacoby Brissett was playing very well before suffering a significant knee injury. The Colts seem to like him. It’s worth seeing him again in 2020, with a full offseason to prepare as the starter and better health.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8, LW: 15)
Breshad Perriman has been a surprising story. He got a bigger role due to injuries and has had four straight quality games. More than that, he has looked like a legitimate receiver. He was an obvious first-round bust with the Ravens and usually that doesn’t reverse itself, but he has revived his career.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7, LW: 13)
It’s rare for a team in playoff contention to worry more about injuries to center and running back than an injury to its quarterback, but that’s clearly the case with Pittsburgh. Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges are practically the meme of the two Spider-Mans pointing at each other. Rudolph went on IR, Hodges will start Sunday, but it doesn’t really matter because neither one would help much. But the Steelers do need James Conner and Maurkice Pouncey in the lineup for a must-win game.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7, LW: 17)
It would be fitting for the 2019 NFC East for the Eagles to blow this at the Giants on Sunday, wouldn’t it? And that could happen.
12. Los Angeles Rams (8-7, LW: 14)
I agree with a lot of the points Jay Busbee made in this very dark look at the Rams’ future. The Rams were as aggressive as you can possibly be to maximize a championship window, and it’s hard to argue with an NFC championship, but now they’re a non-playoff team with some awful deals on the books and a lot of draft picks that were traded elsewhere. The glimmer of hope is that I still think Sean McVay is a good coach, despite having a subpar season, and the Rams do have plenty of blue-chip players.
11. Tennessee Titans (8-7, LW: 11)
The Titans’ scenario is easy to figure out. They win Sunday, they’re the No. 6 seed. Given the issues with the other teams still in play for the final wild-card spot, particularly the Steelers, all of us should root for Tennessee if we don’t want one of the four wild-card games to be unwatchable.
10. Houston Texans (10-5, LW: 10)
If the Chiefs lose early and the Texans decide it’s worth it to take a shot at the No. 3 seed and a potential date with the Steelers instead of the Bills, fine. But if the Texans truly have nothing to play for and they use all their starters like normal, it’s about as big of a mistake as an NFL head coach can make.
9. Minnesota Vikings (10-5, LW: 8)
Plenty will be said about Kirk Cousins playing poorly in that moment, and it’s all deserved. But what about Mike Zimmer? The Vikings called timeout to punt in the second half, and if you thought that would be the worst decision of the night, Zimmer decided to punt trailing by two scores with less than four minutes left. That’s inexcusably bad game management from an NFL coach.
8. Buffalo Bills (10-5, LW: 9)
The Bills didn’t win on Saturday, but everyone (but Patriots fans, it seems) could see that Buffalo is getting a lot better. Who knows if they’ll win the AFC East in 2020, but for the first time in a really long time there will be a legitimate challenger for New England.
7. Seattle Seahawks (11-4, LW: 7)
Not that all Seahawks games aren’t this way, but Week 17 is all on Russell Wilson’s shoulders. Whoever the Seahawks end up with at running back — hopefully we get a full dose of Marshawn Lynch now that he has signed, because it will be a heck of a lot of fun — won’t dictate if they beat the 49ers. Wilson needs a Hall-of-Fame type performance, and he’s capable of that.
6. Green Bay Packers (12-3, LW: 6)
The Packers aren’t necessarily as dominant as their record, but it might not matter that much if they get home-field advantage through the playoffs. And the possibility of the NFC playoffs going through Lambeau Field is still alive after Green Bay’s impressive win on Monday night.
5. New England Patriots (12-3, LW: 5)
The mental toughness of the Patriots is unmatched. Even when they trailed the Bills, it didn’t bother them. They never panicked. This is part of the reason they’ll still be so dangerous in the playoffs.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4, LW: 4)
In four games since the bye, the Chiefs have allowed 9, 16, 3 and 3 points. They haven’t allowed 20 first downs in any of those games, and only more than 278 yards once (332 to the Raiders). The competition hasn’t been that great, but the Chiefs defense is showing it might be good enough to make a deep playoff run.
3. New Orleans Saints (12-3, LW: 3)
I wish this Michael Thomas season hadn’t happened in the same year that Lamar Jackson took over the NFL. Because it would be an interesting test to MVP voters, whether they’d settle for the best QB available or do the right thing and finally give the award to a receiver. There’s no question that Thomas’ season is MVP-worthy, it’s just that Jackson has been unbelievable.
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3, LW: 2)
It’s wild how the 49ers’ season will likely turn on one Week 17 game at Seattle. Win that and they’re the No. 1 seed. Lose and they’re on the road for wild-card weekend. The 49ers could make a great run as a wild-card team, and they could also go one-and-done as a No. 1 seed. But clearly the stakes are enormous for them on Sunday night.
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2, LW: 1)
It’s a little dicey for a top-two seed to sit starters in Week 17. That means key players will go 20 or 21 days between games. But it’s better to be a little more conservative than to see a Lamar Jackson get hurt in a meaningless game, so it’s hard to argue with John Harbaugh sitting his guys this week. Bill O’Brien should take note.
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