Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Thursday that the team’s intention is to provide Kenny Pickett with competition at the quarterback position. The only problem is the player people anticipate being that challenger is not under contract for the 2024 season.
That would be Mason Rudolph, who started the final four games. That included a generally solid showing in the team’s postseason defeat by the Buffalo Bills, marred largely by a crucial red-zone interception. His insertion into the lineup with three games left in the regular season, however, sparked a turnaround that got the Steelers into the postseason in the first place.
Having gone virtually ignored as a free agent a year ago only to re-sign with the Steelers, Rudolph now has valuable tape for the league to chew over as the teams consider signing him. Stuck in third place on the depth chart for most of the past two years, he would surely prefer to flee, right?
Well, that depends, in Ray Fittipaldo’s estimation, on how serious the Steelers are about a competition this time. “I cannot imagine Mason Rudolph signing here unless he is given assurances that he can compete for a starting job”, he told Andrew Fillipponi and Chris Mueller on 93.7 The Fan on Thursday. But what will the market think?
“I’m not convinced he’s gonna be a hot commodity on the open market”, Fittipaldo conceded. “Obviously he’ll be much more sought after than he was last year, but I think there’s a real opportunity here. If you’re gonna go into this truly with an open competition and you know it’s gonna be a legitimate competition, why wouldn’t Mason want to come back?”
“If it is a legit competition, I think Mason will be back”, he added.
The only carryover from prior rosters in 2022, Rudolph was stuck mostly with third-team reps behind veteran free agent Mitch Trubisky and then-rookie Kenny Pickett in a quarterback competition that season, though the total cumulative reps evened out. The coaches kept him on the third rung, however, and he never exactly seemed happy about it—not that any competitor should.
Still, he carried himself professionally and stayed the course, ready to seize any opportunity that presented itself. That opportunity finally came in December, and it’s reasonable to say that he made the most of it.
The issue at hand is that we have no idea what Rudolph’s market is actually going to look like. I think most of us assumed that he would at least sniff an offer last year, and that never materialized, Rudolph remaining unsigned until after the draft.
There’s no debating the fact that he will draw interest in 2024, but to what extent? Will any team view him as its potential starter, or simply as an experienced veteran backup? And how will that correspond with the salary, financial guarantees, and opportunities guarantees he may be given?
The last one, for the record, would be strictly non-binding. You can’t guarantee playing time or a role in somebody’s contract. You can tell him anything you want, but if you violate your word, the best the player can do is get pissed off about it. Players do have regrets. Especially after they’re benched, like Chukwuma Okorafor.