Training camp is really training camp again for the Pittsburgh Steelers this summer.
The Steelers have returned to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., for the first time since 2019. Because of the pandemic, the Steelers were forced to hold preseason workouts at Heinz Field.
Nobody could be happier than coach Mike Tomlin. He believes going away to camp creates better bonding between the players.
Yet while the Steelers return to their old haunts, there is something very new about them. They officially began camp this week without knowing who their starting quarterback will be when they open the season against the defending AFC champion Bengals on Sept. 11 in Cincinnati.
Ben Roethlisberger retired at the end of last season, ending a 18-year career that put him on course for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
The last time the Steelers went to camp with a different QB1 was 2004.
The Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in the first round that year. He began camp at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Tommy Maddox but displaced the journeyman just three games into the regular season.
Tomlin says there is a three-way competition to replace Roethlisberger between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett. Tomlin also says he will not rush to judgement in picking a starter.
“I think it’s important from a leadership perspective to not overmanage it, to not be too impulsive,” Tomlin said.
Trubisky was signed to a two-year, $14-million contract as a free agent in March. He barely saw the field last season as the Buffalo Bills’ backup behind Josh Allen.
However, Trubisky has the distinction of being the second overall pick of the 2017 draft. He started 50 games for the Chicago Bears in four seasons, compiling a 29-21 record, leading them to the playoffs twice and getting selected to the Pro Bowl once.
Yet Chicago did not exercise the fifth-year option in Trubisky’s rookie contract prior to the 2020 season and made no attempt to re-sign him once he reached free agency. On the open market during the spring of 2021, Trubisky couldn’t find a team interested in him even competing for a starting job.
The Steelers, though, believe Trubisky can salvage his career in Pittsburgh.
Rudolph has spent his entire career with the Steelers since being their third-round draft pick in 2018. At the time, now-retired general manager Kevin Colbert said the team’s scouting department had a first-round grade on Rudolph.
Yet Rudolph has not lived up to that billing.
He failed to seize control of the starting job in 2020 when Roethlisberger sustained a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. Eventually, undrafted rookie free agent Devlin “Duck” Hodges supplanted Rudolph as QB1. Hodges has not taken a snap an NFL regular season game since then.
In 10 career starts, Rudolph has a 5-4-1 record, and this figures his last chance to prove he can be a starter in Pittsburgh.
The fans’ choice in the quarterback derby is Kenny Pickett, their first-round draft pick this year from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the first QB taken int eh first round by the Steelers since Roethlisberger.
The Steelers know Pickett well. They and Pitt share both Heinz Field and a training complex in the city’s South Side neighborhood. Pickett spent five seasons at Pitt and played in 52 games.
Pickett had a season for the ages in 2021 when he passed for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while being intercepted just seven times in 497 attempts. He led the Panthers to their first-ever ACC title last season and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Alabama’s Bryce Young and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson.
Yet Pickett is starting all over again in the NFL. In a sense, so are Trubisky and Rudolph.
It should make for an interesting time at a quaint campus in Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands.