Time is ticking down for “Big Ben.”
With rumors swirling that the 2021 season may be the end of the Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will have to make a decision this offseason to who will be their passer of the future.
While there could be several intriguing trade options (Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers) or younger passers already in the league that the front office could target, if head coach Mike Tomlin walks back his unwillingness to play a rookie, there are several options that the Steelers could target come April.
Here’s who they could target:
BIG BOARD: Ranking top 100 prospects in 2022 NFL Draft
Steelers NFL Draft 2022 draft targets
There’s both good news and bad news for the Steelers: The good news is that there are potential first-round QB options entering the 2022 NFL Draft, and during the pre-draft process, more may ascend up the board to help.
The bad news: None of the college QBs projected to be in this year’s draft have really captured the true franchise quarterback title just yet, but the pre-draft process has played out plenty of wonky scenarios in years past.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
2021 stats: 12 games, 68.3 completion rate, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions, 3,333 yards.
Projected: Top 10
Corral is considered to be the best of the bunch in this year’s QB class, though the gap isn’t too wide.
Arguably most impressive improvement from 2020 to 2021 for Corral is the decrease in interceptions despite throwing the ball a fair amount more: Corral threw 14 interceptions in 2020 to just four this season with 50 more pass attempts in 2021.
Corral boasts a very good arm despite a less-than ideal NFL frame and good athleticism, as well. He’s gotten comparisons to Zach Wilson and Baker Mayfield for his ability to make plays in the college ranks.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
2021 stats: 13 games, 67.2 completion rate, 42 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 4,319 yards.
Projected: Top 10
Well, he wouldn’t have to move very far.
The redshirt senior absolutely exploded this season, throwing 47 touchdowns to seven interceptions for the Panthers in 2021. That’s more touchdowns than he threw in his first 39 games at Pitt combined.
Pickett’s the latest QB prospect to capture the eyes of scouts for his play this season, and some reports suggest that the quarterback could be a top-five pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. That would potentially be outside of Pittsburgh’s liking, considering it would force them to trade up, barring a total collapse this season.
Malik Willis, Liberty
2021 stats: 12 games, 61.6 completion rate, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 2,626 yards.
Projected: First round
Willis boasts the best all-around athletic traits this year, with a massive arm and plus mobility that screams 2022 NFL quarterback. Willis’ traits also would be a stark departure from the pure pocket passer Pittsburgh had for years, and would give the Steelers a mobile, physically gifted QB to play against fierce AFC North defenses.
The biggest knock on Willis is his intermediate accuracy: He’s a sensational deep thrower, but his accuracy in the 10-to-19 yard range leaves something to be desired. That’s something that can be coached out at the next level, though.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
2021 stats: 13 games, 65.9 completion rate, 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 3,190 yards.
Projected: Second round
Pittsburgh fans cheering for a kid who played at Cincinnati? It’s a possibility.
Ridder returning for his senior season with the Bearcats resulted in his best offensive season as passer under Luke Fickell, and pushed his draft stock from second-round pick to potential first rounder.
While Ridder has the arm, mobility and size of an NFL quarterback, his accuracy and ball placement issues have been apparent throughout his college career. He’s going to need some refinement at the next level — and who knows if that’s the type of proejct that Mike Tomlin wants to take on.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
2021 stats: 11 games, 62.7 completion rate, 23 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 2,851 yards.
Projected: Mid-first round
Sam Howell was the QB du jour entering 2021, and drew many comparisons to Baker Mayfield given their similar size, arm strength and playing style. Howell, though, is a more polished and aggressive runner than Mayfield was, and that’s resulted in 11 touchdowns in 2021.
Howell’s overall down 2021 has knocked him down draft big boards just a bit, with some viewing him a second-round pick more than a mid-first. Still, that could be more attributed to Howell’s running back room and receiving corps downgrading between last year and this one.
Through it all, the Tar Heel passer still makes for an intriguing prospect, especially if pre-2021 scouting reports pegging him as a potential top-five pick and the best QB of the bunch come to fruition.
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