Ben Roethlisberger’s reaction to the Pittsburgh Steelers drafting Mason Rudolph with pick 76 in the 2018 NFL Draft has been disappointing. His passive-aggressive public comments reflect poorly and come across as someone who is acting like a big baby, not a 36-year-old veteran with plenty of success and pelts on the wall. He’s also wrong about his assessment of his value of the pick, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Here’s what he said:
"“I was surprised when they took a quarterback because I thought that maybe in the third round, you know you can get some really good football players that can help this team now,” Roethlisberger said. “Nothing against Mason; I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. “But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”"
Roethlisberger also added that he didn’t view himself as needing to mentor Rudolph. “I don’t think I’ll need to, now that he said he doesn’t need me. If he asks me a question, I might just have to point to the playbook,” Roethlisberger said with a laugh.
Rudolph’s actual quotes on NFL Network the day after the draft, when asked about getting to learn under Big Ben, said “you know, I felt like whatever situation, whether it was a team where I had to start day 1, I could have done that and I could have done it at a high level. But obviously, you are going to relish an opportunity to learn from somebody like that. It’s not Ben’s job to teach me, it’s my job to learn from whatever resources I can gather information from.”
Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers famously didn’t get along, as more recently detailed by Jeff Pearlman in his book “Gunslinger.” There weren’t public comments like Roethlisberger has already been throwing out there, and it was far, far different in terms of team investment, as Rodgers was the first round pick. But it’s the most similar, and Roethlisberger needs to ask if that’s how he wants it to be, or if he wants to emulate other top quarterbacks.
By my count, there have been 16 occasions where a team with a future Hall of Famer as a starter used a pick inside the top 100 to select a QB since 1990. If we expand it to “top starter” and bring in guys like Boomer Esiason, Donovan McNabb, and Rich Gannon, the list continues to grow. Which is to say, this is not a rare event for a good team with a top veteran starter, and the use of pick 76 is not even particularly early.
Top franchises, of which Pittsburgh is one, do not neglect the QB position. The Patriots have spent 5 picks on QBs in the Top 100 since Tom Brady became a starter. You can expect that to happen roughly every 3-4 years with Belichick, and we’ll get to why that makes sense shortly.
But first, here are some of those other veterans.
After New Orleans used pick 75 on Garrett Grayson in 2015, Drew Brees said:
"“I’ve got a great relationship with Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin and I’m sure that as I get to know Garrett, we’ll very much be like that as well,” Brees told The Advocate on Monday. “All the quarterbacks are great together. We push one another, we compete, we get the best out of one another. That’s what you kind of like about surrounding yourself with those types of guys. And Garrett seems to be that kind of guy.” *** The thought of Brees excluding someone from that fraternity is unimaginable — threat or no threat. So it’s no surprise that he says he’ll help Grayson however he can and that he is unfazed by the idea of the team using a high draft pick to select another quarterback. “I’m worried about winning a championship,” Brees said. “Trying to be the best player I can be, trying to be the leader that I can be, that applies to how can I help get the best out of everyone who is on the team.”"
Here’s Eli Manning after Davis Webb was selected with Pick 87 last year:
"“I just wanted to welcome him to the team, let him know if he has any questions or needs anything in the next few days, I was here for him,” Manning said, via the team’s official site. “He responded to that with, ‘Yes, sir.’ I told him we were off to a bad start. Please do not refer to me as sir. I appreciate the manners, but we’re teammates. I was always taught the same thing. Anyone older than me, I have to call them sir. But hopefully, we straightened that out.” "
Here’s Donovan McNabb after the Eagles used their first pick after trading down to select Kevin Kolb at 36.
"Kolb, the rookie second-round choice with the Texas drawl, still is viewed by McNabb as more pupil than threat. Looking at the kid’s blitz recognition during practice, there is much to learn. Like a true professional McNabb has been freely giving of his knowledge. “Donovan is great,” Kolb said. “Every time something happens, every time something went wrong — for both of us — he would point it out. We all kind of work together as a group. I just appreciate the way not only the quarterbacks but the coaches and everybody have taken me in.” McNabb can read the writing on the wall. When the topic was Kolb and the rookie’s eventual pursuit of the starting job, McNabb conceded Kolb probably will be his successor."
Brock Osweiler had this to say about Peyton Manning (Denver used pick 57 on Osweiler the same year they signed Manning):
"“That’s one thing I’ve really asked Peyton quite a bit about is stuff to do with coverages, and every time he has an answer,” Osweiler said. “And I make a note and at the end of the night, I’m putting all those notes into one kind of main notebook, so one day when Peyton’s not around, I can go back and see what he said about this coverage-2 or what he said about this play. “There are a lot of words in that notebook.”"
I couldn’t find any public comments by Tom Brady about any of the five picks made to select another quarterback, and he wasn’t out making comments like Big Ben (I found Mallett praising him a few years later).
But let’s talk about the value of using these early-mid-round picks on quarterbacks, especially now with the current salary scales and escalating veteran contracts. Roethlisberger bemoaned wasting a pick on a backup QB when a third round pick could be used on someone that could help now. Let’s walk through it (and why Belichick’s m.o. is to use decent picks to get his backup).
Chase Daniel is averaging 5 million on his current deal, Mike Glennon is averaging 4 million, and there are several other career veteran backups above 3 million. Even disregarding cost, would you rather have them going forward, or Mason Rudolph? Rudolph will make about 3.4 million, over the next four years.
That means that Pittsburgh can save around 10-13 million over the next four years with Rudolph as the backup, even if he is not viewed as an imminent replacement. That they had a first round grade on him means that they believe they have one of the best situations in the league.
Meanwhile, the 76th overall pick has produced a pro bowler 17% of the time. The median games started for a career is 15. Pittsburgh drafted two guys with earlier picks that can help now. They can use the money they saved on not having to pay a veteran backup quarterback (after all they have to have one, I’m sure Roethlisberger would agree) to pay for other positions. That could be the difference between getting a Joe Haden or a borderline guy at cornerback. It could be money used to retain a star. Hell, it could be money used to pay Roethlisberger, as whiny as he may be and unaware of how this works.
By my “wins added” draft value chart, the 76th pick is worth about 0.3 wins over 5 years. If Rudolph can be better than a typical backup, he’s worth it if the goal is to win.
Even if he has selfish motives, Roethlisberger might want to review and revise his stance. There are so many more outcomes than just “Mason Rudolph quickly replaces Ben Roethlisberger.” How many seasons have we seen recently where the backup QB being competent matters?
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers missed the playoffs when Brett Hundley wasn’t very good last year. Back in 2011, the Bears collapsed when Jay Cutler got hurt after a 7-3 start and missed the playoffs. Arizona limped into the postseason having to start Ryan Lindley in 2014. On the flip side, we just saw the Eagles survive without Carson Wentz and win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles after having a great season.
Or Roethlisberger can look at his own history. He’s missed games in 10 of the last 13 seasons. Back in 2009, they missed the postseason, losing the Baltimore game with him out. In 2010, they survived to go 3-1 in his absence. Had they lost one more game that year with him out, they do not have a bye and home game. Had they lost two, they miss the postseason, and do not reach the Super Bowl. In 2015, if they go 2-3 instead of 3-2, they miss the playoffs. Having a competent backup may be the difference between Roethlisberger having a chance to add to his legacy.
He might not want to blow it.