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Monday, March 8, 2021

Three solutions to Steelers’ quarterback conundrum; three best fits for JJ Watt

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

— Where will J.J. Watt end up? Three landing spots that make perfect sense.

— The intriguing view of the quarterback position in Atlanta.

But first, a look at how the Steelers might handle a crucial question at a critical position …

* * * * *

Tick, tick, tick …

The clock is ticking as the Pittsburgh Steelers contemplate whether to move on from Ben Roethlisberger after the recent completion of his 17th NFL season. The two-time Super Bowl champion certainly deserves kudos for keeping the Steelers in the title hunt since stepping into the lineup fresh out of Miami (Ohio), but he turns 39 next month and the last year of his contract features a super-sized salary cap number of $41.25 million.

Steelers owner Art Rooney II already told reporters back in January that the team “couldn’t have [Roethlisberger] back under the current contract,” and Big Ben responded by publicly stating he’s willing to take a pay cut. But this week, Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert was strikingly noncommittal to the six-time Pro Bowler.

As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Colbert said. “We told him, quite frankly, we have to look at this current situation. Art Rooney addressed that. With Ben’s current cap number, some adjustment will have to be made.”

The Steelers must weigh the financial implications — with Roethlisberger’s dead cap figure sitting at $22.25 million, Pittsburgh could save $19 million by releasing the QB — against factors that suggest he will not play at a top-tier level going forward. Let’s be real: Big Ben looked like a shell of his former self last season, with waning arm strength that prevented him from stretching the field as a deep-ball passer.

Studying the veteran on tape, I saw a lot of the issues that have hindered Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in recent years. Roethlisberger peppered defenses with a barrage of short throws to the perimeter at a very efficient rate, but his inability to push the ball down the field enabled opponents to suffocate Pittsburgh’s passing game down the stretch with man coverage. The tight coverage forced the Steelers to play in a phone booth and it became harder for the offense to score points without the threat of the big play. And after starting the season at 11-0, Pittsburgh lost five of its final six games, immediately bailing out of the playoffs with a home wild-card loss to Cleveland.

That said, the veteran still deserves credit for producing a solid statistical season despite being fresh off a serious elbow injury that ended his 2019 campaign in Week 2. With a 33:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Big Ben managed the game well from the pocket and made enough plays to put his team in the postseason tourney.

“Going back on Ben’s 2020 season, he really did do some special things,” Colbert said this week. “In the beginning of the year, we talked about watching what he was doing because he was doing some incredible things as we were building that 11-0 record. A lot of that was him performing in crucial times in games. Down the stretch, he didn’t play as good, but we didn’t play as good around him.

“Can he still do some special things? Absolutely. Did he do that to his expectations? I think he’d be the first to tell you, no. Ben cares about one thing — he cares about winning a Super Bowl. He is no different than us. When it doesn’t happen, he is never going to be satisfied. Whatever team we come up with in 2021, it will be a team that we hope we are not talking about losing a first-round playoff game.”

The Steelers have a few weeks to decide, but here are their options for moving forward, with or without the longtime franchise quarterback:

1) Run it back: Despite the balloon mortgage payment attached to Roethlisberger’s name on the books, the Steelers can rework his contract to reduce the cap hit to a more manageable amount. The veteran would need to take a “for the love of the game” salary to help the team escape cap purgatory, but his sacrifice would enable him to chase a third ring for another year with a decent supporting cast around him.

This option is sensible, based on Roethlisberger’s play for most of the 2020 campaign. The veteran thrived operating a dink-and-dunk offense that enabled him to quickly hit his playmakers on an assortment of short routes from spread formations. With Big Ben getting the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL, the Steelers would alleviate some of the pressure on an offensive line that already lost C Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and could lose LT Alejandro Villanueva to free agency.

And the presence of an 18th-year veteran at QB might not be so bad for the continued development of Pittsburgh’s young receiving corps. With JuJu Smith-Schuster about to hit the open market, the 2021 Steelers will have to depend on Chase Claypool, James Washington and Diontae Johnson to anchor the passing game. All three pass catchers have shown promise early in their respective careers due to the impact and influence of the veteran passer in the huddle. Given another year to work under Roethlisberger’s tutelage, Pittsburgh’s wideouts would continue to improve as craftsmen on the perimeter.

Overall, the return of No. 7 would raise the confidence level of everyone on the team. As a proven winner with a decorated résumé, Big Ben allows his teammates to walk into any stadium with the belief that they can win. Although his game has diminished due to age and injury, Roethlisberger’s poise, savvy and wisdom give the Steelers a puncher’s chance of knocking off the heavyweights in the AFC despite a roster with holes.

2) Move forward with Mason Rudolph (or Dwayne Haskins): If Mike Tomlin and Colbert view Big Ben’s limitations as a hindrance to the offense’s evolution and the team’s overall development, it could be time to hand the ball off to one of the young quarterbacks in the stable to see if there’s true long-term potential.

Rudolph should get the first crack at the job, as the Steelers’ established QB2 and developmental prospect. He knows the offensive system and he’s flashed some as a nine-game starter with a 5-4 record. Although memories of an up-and-down 2019 campaign have soured some observers on his upside as a player, it is important to note that he stepped into an offense that wasn’t designed with his game in mind. The Steelers might’ve tweaked or removed some of the calls in the game plan to make the job easier for Rudolph due to a short prep period, but the team was unable to radically overhaul the system to put him in the best position to succeed based on his strengths as a player. Given a full offseason to build an entire playbook around Rudolph’s game, Pittsburgh could unlock his potential as a playmaker and see a much different quarterback than the one the football world has observed over the past few seasons. With Rudolph heading into the last season of his rookie deal, a one-year experiment could give the Steelers enough information to determine whether the former third-round pick is the future at the position.

Haskins is the wild card in the quarterback room. A first-round pick just two years ago, Haskins was scooped up by the Steelers following a tumultuous run with the Washington Football Team that spawned questions about his maturity and leadership skills. In addition, Haskins’ on-field flaws lead to concerns regarding his preparation and practice habits. That said, the third-year pro is talented, and his big arm could add a dimension to a revamped Steelers offense. Haskins has the capacity to stretch the field with the deep ball. Combining his bombs-away skills with a strong running game could enable the team to create a complementary football plan that makes the defense the top priority. Signed on a reserve/futures contract last month, Haskins is a low-risk/high-reward prospect.

3) Find a bridge quarterback and draft a new franchise signal-caller in 2022: The Steelers could shop at the bargain bin to find a veteran starter to serve as a stop-gap until they are able to find a potential franchise quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft. The team could sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston or another valued-priced veteran to compete with Rudolph and Haskins for the QB1 role in training camp.

While the Steelers’ cap constraints could make it hard to create that scenario, the presence of a veteran in the QB room following Big Ben’s departure wouldn’t be the worst thing. If the vet wins the job, he could certainly manage an offense that would complement a stingy defense boasting the capacity to win games with little assistance. In addition, an experienced quarterback would be able to serve as a mentor to Pittsburgh’s younger signal-callers.

The Steelers could also look to pry Sam Darnold away from the New York Jets, adding another reclamation project to the mix. The underachieving quarterback could be available at the kind of price that’s worth a calculated gamble. It’s an unlikely scenario, but the Steelers’ quarterback needs could prompt Colbert and Tomlin to investigate any and every situation to find a long-term answer at the game’s most important position.

J.J. WATT SWEEPSTAKES: Three best fits for the vet

That’s what J.J. Watt tweeted earlier this week. Perhaps the 31-year-old pass rusher with three Defensive Player of Year awards on his mantle didn’t know what kind of market he’d command, but his name has been buzzing in scouting circles since his release from the Houston Texans a week ago.

The 11th-year pro has been raised as a possible target for numerous teams, with general managers and coaches searching for a defensive closer in a passing league. Watt certainly qualifies with 101 sacks on his résumé, and a pair of 20-sack seasons that showcased his dominance as a power rusher with flair.

Sure, he is two seasons removed from posting double-digit sacks (16 in 2018), but he still flashes disruptive potential when given the chance to hunt quarterbacks in favorable situations. Considering Watt was double-teamed 30.1 percent of the time (most among edge rushers) last season, his disruptive potential shouldn’t be dismissed based on his 5.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss. With No. 99 also registering seven pass breakups, the five-time All-Pro is unquestionably a hot commodity as a veteran pass rusher with some gas in the tank.

After surveying the league for potential fits, here are three teams that make sense for Watt and his talents:

Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers

2020 record: 13-3

As a Wisconsin native, Watt heading to Green Bay is sensible based on how the homecoming would enhance his personal brand on and off the field. He already has earned legendary status as a former Badger, but helping the Packers hoist the Lombardi Trophy would cement his legacy as an icon.

On the field, Watt’s disruptive skills as a pass rusher would fortify a front line that features a star (Za’Darius Smith), a stud (Kenny Clark) and an emerging talent (Rashan Gary). Although Preston Smith currently occupies a spot in the rotation, he could be expendable due to his stomachable dead-money hit ($8 million) and meager production as a pass rusher in 2020.

With Watt’s effort, energy and play-making prowess adding some juice to the unit, the Packers’ defense would be better equipped against offenses forced to chase points to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and Co. In addition, given the importance of trench play in the playoffs, the Packers’ willingness to upgrade the defensive front with a disruptive playmaker at the point of attack could pay dividends.

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

2020 record: 13-3

If Watt opts for the best cultural fit, he could join Buffalo to give the defense another blue-chip defender with a blue-collar mentality. Moreover, the 11th-year pro would give the Bills a legitimate pass rusher off the edge to harass the elite AFC quarterbacks they must defeat on the way to a Super Bowl.

The Bills had 38 sacks in the 2020 regular season (tied for 15th in the NFL) and registered five sacks during the postseason (three games). Buffalo’s inability to generate pressure, particularly against Patrick Mahomes, exposed the vulnerabilities of the linebackers and defensive backs.

With Watt on board, the Bills would have an intriguing tandem on the edges (Watt and Jerry Hughes) with Ed Oliver viewed as a potential breakout player on the inside. If A.J. Epenesa continues to develop, the Bills would have the option of utilizing Watt as a situational player or pass-rush specialist playing primarily on passing downs.

Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans

2020 record: 11-5

The pre-existing relationship between Mike Vrabel and Watt could make this marriage work in Nashville. Having been Houston’s defensive coordinator in 2017, the Titans head coach is familiar with using No. 99 as the unit’s centerpiece, and that experience could enable Vrabel to craft a plan that puts the veteran pass rusher in a position to re-emerge as a force in the AFC.

For the Titans, a Watt resurgence would address the defense’s biggest weakness in a division loaded with young, dynamic quarterbacks. The addition of an established pass rusher would fortify a front line that features an intriguing interior disruptor (Jeffery Simmons) and an edge flasher (Harold Landry).

Although the Titans would still need more reinforcements to improve a pass rush that only registered 19 sacks in 2020, the addition of Watt would certainly boost a unit that is badly in need of more juice.

QB PLAN IN ATL: Competition is king!

Terry Fontenot is only a few weeks into his tenure as the Atlanta Falcons’ general manager, but I love his view on the quarterback position. The longtime personnel executive believes in constant investment, which is certainly sensible in a QB-driven league.

“Whether we’re talking about free agency or whether we’re talking about the draft, we are going to add to every position,” Fontenot said. “We’ll build strength. We’re not afraid to build strength. We’re going to add to every position. It’s about adding. We want a culture of competition, and (new head coach) Arthur Smith has said it: We want to bring in smart, tough, highly competitive football players that are going to fit this culture. And we’re going to do that at every position, whether it’s QB or whether it’s WR.

“You look at (former Packers GM) Ron Wolf. You always bring in quarterbacks. You need to bring in quarterbacks, whether it’s in the draft, whether it’s in free agency, or signing guys off the street. It’s so important, bring in quarterbacks a lot, build strengths. (Former Ravens GM) Ozzie Newsome, bring in the best players available. These are men that have had all that success, and it’s about having the right 53, but we have to add competition at every position. So we’re not going to be afraid to add to strengths.”

I’ve never understood why teams refuse to bring talent into the QB room to create depth and competition at a position deemed the most important in the game. If the game is routinely decided by the performance of the quarterback, it is logical for teams to stockpile their rosters with legitimate players at the position.

Sure, the threat of another alpha in the room will make insecure quarterbacks uncomfortable, but teams that prioritize winning will make it a point to have multiple starting-caliber quarterbacks on the roster to keep the wins coming. I watched Wolf take this approach in Green Bay while I was there as a player in the mid-1990s, and I believe it gives teams an opportunity to remain competitive when the starter goes down.

Moreover, depth in the QB room gives a team-builder options when it comes to fortifying the roster through trades. With an intriguing developmental quarterback on the roster, a general manager can deal him to acquire a needed asset at another position.

With Fontenot believing in “building strength on strength” at the quarterback spot, the Falcons could be well-positioned whenever it is time to move on from Matt Ryan in the near future.

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