Intrigue awaits Steelers as they consider drafting QB from ‘less gifted’ group

Leigh Steinberg knows quarterbacks. The famed NFL agent has represented Hall of Fame passers Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon, and he advised Ben Roethlisberger early in the retired Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback’s career.

Steinberg, 73, counts Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa among his current clients, so it’s not as if he isn’t up to date on the way the position has evolved in recent years.

Steinberg looks at this year’s crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks and is unimpressed, which is a reason why he represents exactly zero of the passers in the class of 2022.

“It’s a fairly dramatically less gifted group than it has been in the past,” Steinberg said. “You don’t have a Kyler Murray or Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert in there. We’ll have to see. It’s not to say (this class) won’t produce, but there was no one obvious quarterback this year as there has been in the past. ”

Steinberg is hardly alone in that assessment. Others who evaluate and analyze draft prospects for a living are lukewarm about the star power this year’s group possesses.

Every NFL fan, particularly those residing in Steeler Nation, knows the names by now: Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder, Sam Howell. If they were available in the class of 2021, they would each fall in line behind Mac Jones, the former Alabama passer who was taken by New England at No. 15 and was the fifth quarterback off the board last season.

That is the assessment of ESPN’s Todd McShay, and he reached that conclusion after speaking with general managers tasked with making the ultimate evaluation on the quintet of top passing prospects.

“There’s a difference of opinion when you get off the phone with one guy versus another,” McShay said. “A general manager on one team had Corral as his No. 1. Other teams liked Ridder more. Some like Willis the most, some think he’s fourth. Pickett is usually one or two; he’s the most consistent.

“There are a lot of varying opinions on these quarterbacks. The only thing that is consistent is everyone agrees they are more mid-to-late first-round prospects – guys that carry similar grades to Mac Jones or slightly below. ”

The lack of star power, though, won’t make the first round any less eventful when the draft kicks off Thursday night. Talent evaluators can’t wait to see where Willis, Pickett and company will find future employment. They just won’t go 1-2-3 like Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance did in 2021.

“It provides a lot of intrigue,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said.

Detroit, which picks second, and Houston, which is third, have iffy starting quarterback situations but likely will fill other positional needs. It might not be until No. 6 when Carolina announces its pick that the first quarterback might be taken. Atlanta and Seattle, which hold the Nos. 8-9 slots, could take a quarterback as could New Orleans at No. 16 or 19.

The Steelers, of course, follow New Orleans at No. 20 and have heavily scouted all of the top prospects, bringing each one to UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for a top-30 pre-draft visit. McShay believes, after Carolina, the Steelers are the only team likely to take a quarterback in the first round.

If that holds true, quarterbacks such as Ridder, Corral and Howell may have to settle for second-round signing bonuses. And perhaps one could be available to the Steelers at No. 52 overall if they bypass quarterback in the first round.

“I’m as fascinated as anyone to see where these quarterbacks land and how far one of them winds up going if the first indeed goes at No. 6, ”McShay said.

Jeremiah wonders whether general managers are concerned about having buyer’s remorse if they spend a first-round pick on a quarterback.

“The thought that keeps coming back in the back of my mind is that, man, what you don’t want to do is take a quarterback this year and then a year from now at this time be saying,‘ Oh, my goodness, we’re right back in the quarterback market again, ‘like is this guy really good enough, ”he said. “That kind of lingers in my head when these teams are forced to make this decision whether to go with one or wait.”

McShay said Willis is a “great fit” for the Steelers and can spend a year watching and learning while Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph compete for the starting job.

“It’s hard to have better traits,” he said. “He has the strongest arm by far. He’d be the third-most-dangerous runner (among quarterbacks) behind Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. Malik would legitimately give them an advantage in the run game that few others could. ”

Jeremiah has Pickett, who shared the same practice facility as the Steelers for the past five seasons, as his favorite to go with the No. 20 pick.

“He’s obviously somebody they’d be a little bit familiar with,” Jeremiah said. “He’s my No. 1 quarterback. I’ve kind of stuck with him through this whole process. If it was up to me, looking at that team and the best fit, I would actually probably probably lean towards Pickett. ”

Top 5 quarterbacks

1. Malik Willis, Liberty, R-SR, 6-0, 219

After transferring from Auburn, Willis was a two-year starter for Liberty, which went 17-6 with him under center. He completed 61.1% of his passes for 2,857 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2021. He also rushed for 878 yards and 13 scores.

2. Kenny Pickett, Pitt, R-SR, 6-3, 217

Pickett took advantage of his super senior season afforded by the pandemic to become a Heisman Trophy finalist, ACC player of the year and second-team All-American. He threw for a school-record 4,319 yards in 2021, completing 67.2% of his throws with 42 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

3. Matt Corral, Mississippi, R-JR, 6-2, 212

Corral emerged as a prospect in 2020 when he led all FBS passers with 384.3 yards of total offense per game. In 2021, he finished seventh in Heisman balloting and was a second-team all-conference pick in the ACC. He completed 67.9% of his passes, throwing for 3,349 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 11 scores.

4. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati, R-SR, 6-3, 211

A four-year starter for the Bearcats, Ridder completed his career by helping Cincinnati reach the college football playoff. He was the AAC offensive player of the year in 2020 and ’21. As a senior, he completed 64.9% of his passes for 3,334 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for six touchdowns.

5. Sam Howell, North Carolina, JR, 6-1, 218

The ACC rookie of the year in 2019, Howell capped his three-year run as a starter for the Tar Heels by completing 62.5% of his passes for 3,056 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. He threw at least one touchdown pass in all 37 of his career starts.

Best fit for Steelers, first day

Malik Willis, Liberty

Coach Mike Tomlin has made it known he would like his next quarterback to have mobility, and Willis is the most mobile passer in his class. The question is whether he will be on the board at No. 20 and if the Steelers bypass needs on the defensive and at wide receiver to take him.

Best fit for Steelers, second day

Sam Howell, North Carolina

Like Willis, he could afford to spend a year developing in the Steelers system before he takes the field. Of the top five passers in the class, he may be the only one still on the board when the No. 52 overall pick arises.

Best fit for Steelers, third day

Carson Strong, Nevada

The 6-foot-3, 226-pound redshirt junior had a top-30 visit with the Steelers and is a viable option in the fourth or fifth round. A two-time Mountain West offensive player of the year, he passed for 4,175 yards, completing 70% of his throws for 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2021.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at or via Twitter .

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