Finding the Future: Who will be the Steelers Next Franchise QB?

The Steelers have enjoyed a nearly 2-decade long run with QB Ben Roethlisberger, and despite the ups and downs that have come with it, they have been one of the most successful franchises during his tenure. Two Superbowl wins, 13 playoff wins and 0 losing seasons since he came in for an injured Tommy Maddox in his rookie 2004 season, Ben is one of the most successful QBs in league history. All this has made Ben one of Pittsburgh’s all-time greatest athletes, but nothing lasts forever. Whether it will be after this year or sometime shortly after, Ben’s time as the Steelers QB is nearly over. A question fans have not had to ask for what seems like forever is looming: who will be the Steelers next starting QB? That is what I will be attempting to answer (or at least speculate about) over the next 2 weeks.

I will be breaking down five 2022 QB prospects who I believe could be potential answers to the Steelers post-Ben questions. I will be discussing each player using three categories: The Arm, The Athlete and The Man. The Arm will focus on every aspect of their ability as a passer including arm strength, accuracy, release, and all mental aspects of playing the position as well. The Athlete will focus on all aspects of their athleticism including speed, quickness, pocket movement and other physical attributes. Lastly is The Man, where I will discuss any insight I can find on who they are as leaders, members of their community and overall who they are as people. Now that you know what to expect, let’s not waste any more time. First up, Malik Willis out of Liberty.

Malik Willis, QB Liberty: 2020 stats: 2,260 passing yards, 944 rushing yards and 34 total TDs

The Arm

Simply put, Willis has a cannon. Whether it’s a 50-yard bomb, an 8-yard curl or a 10-yard out, he can get it there in a hurry. The problem is that he doesn’t have a good feel for when to take a little off his fastball, and while he has touch he doesn’t always use it at the right moments. He is similar in his weaknesses as a passer to Josh Allen coming out of college, although Willis isn’t as inaccurate overall. He completed 64.2% of his passes last season, which is respectable but a bit underwhelming considering his competition level. Some of that is due to the aggressive downfield approach of Liberty’s offense, but Willis has his own issues that need fixing. His footwork is very unrefined and inconsistent, causing some bad misses at times when he crosses himself up. He brings his legs far too close together at the top his drop occasionally, and he generally doesn’t seem 100% comfortable with longer drop backs. When everything clicks however, he shows great downfield accuracy as well as the ability to put the ball in the right place on routine throws. His ability to make plays out of the pocket help make up for some of his deficiencies as a pocket passer, and he does a good job keeping his eyes downfield once he escapes the pocket. Overall, he has all the tools needed to be an elite passer but needs refinement in key areas.

The Athlete

Willis is a phenomenal athlete by almost every metric. His straight line is elite for the QB position (my guess is a mid to low 4.5 in terms of expected 40 time) and more importantly is his quickness and burst when he decides to become a runner. He is lethal in the read option game, breaking of multiple long runs on his way to nearly 1,000 rush yards. He is dangerous as a scrambler as well, showing the ability to make several players miss in the pocket and the open field. Where he gets in trouble occasionally is his pocket presence. He has trouble navigating the pocket and will often bail from it when he didn’t need to. This is something plenty of QBs with his level of athleticism have struggled with, so it isn’t a huge red flag. He also passed up several easy checkdowns in favor of taking off, which is to be expected from a playmaker like Willis. If he can reign in some of his bad tendencies, he could be one of the hardest QBs to game plan for at the next level.

The Man

Those of you who are familiar with Malik know that his college career hasn’t been a cakewalk. After joining Auburn as a 3-star recruit, he struggled to find playing time in his two seasons. He made the decision to transfer to Liberty in 2019 and had to redshirt, so 2020 was his first season as a starting QB since his high school days. Add a sprinkle of global pandemic, and his explosive first season becomes even more impressive. His coaches and teammates at both Auburn and Liberty have praised him for his work ethic and leadership, which for me makes it easy to root for him. He seems to be an overall humble and well-liked person, which will serve him well at the next level. Leadership at the QB position can come in many forms, but the ability to lead is an important quality if you want to command respect amongst your peers. Willis seems to have that part of playing the position taken care of.

Final Thoughts

Willis will be one of the must-watch players for me this season to see if he can improve on his weaknesses. If he can improve his footwork and learn how to better use all of his tremendous physical tools, he could be one of the first QBs off the board. Even with minimal improvement, he would be worth a late 1st or early 2nd round pick based on upside and playmaking ability alone.

Now for the most important question: could he be the next franchise QB for the Steelers? It really depends on how much he improves during his senior campaign and where the Steelers find themselves picking in the draft. Because I have relatively high expectations for Pittsburgh in 2021, lets just assume they are picking in the low 20s or later. Unless Willis doesn’t improve much at all and just repeats his success from 2020, Pittsburgh would likely need to move up at least 10 spots to get him. Recently GM Kevin Colbert has been more willing to move around in the draft, most notably moving up for Devin Bush in 2019. The need at QB combined with a weakening offensive line could push them in the direction of a more athletic, playmaking style QB like Willis. Remember that Mike Tomlin seemed to really like another dual-threat passer in the 2021 class. I think when you factor in all of this, Willis should be on their radar going into this season.

Whether or not he will be in range for them come draft time will have to wait to be seen, but if he is I think the interest will certainly be there. It would be a huge change from the type of QB play we have had for so long, but I think it would be the right thing to do. The NFL is becoming more and more friendly for dual-threat QBs who are more playmakers than pocket passers, so making the move to a player like Willis makes a lot of sense.

Verdict: Very Possible

Steelers 2021 Draft Grades: Did they do enough to win the North once again?

Now that the NFL Draft is firmly in the rear-view mirror, plenty of draft analysts and NFL media members have had the opportunity to review and grade what each team came away with. The consensus has been that the Steelers did not do as well as they could have considering who was available at each spot. While I don’t necessarily disagree with that, for the most part they got good value/took a player they believe will fit what they are trying to do both offensively and defensively. Let’s break it down.

(Quick sidenote: literally all, none, or some of these players could be way better or worse than I or anyone currently believes. That’s the beauty of the draft and the sport as a whole. But my grades and opinions are based on what I THINK will happen, and what I thought of the pick in a vacuum. So enjoy and be sure to roast me in the comments if you think I am off on any of these.)

R1.24: Najee Harris, RB Alabama

Harris was my number 1 back in this class, and for good reason. His combination of brute force as a runner and finesse as a pass catcher make him the perfect modern running back. He has more quickness to his game as a runner than most backs his size as well, and despite not being a burner has enough straight-line speed to get chunk yardage once he gets to the second level of the defense. The Steelers clearly understand that their best strategy to complement their dominant defense and aging QB is to recommit to the power run game, and Harris will allow them to do that. Taking a back in the 1st is always hard to swallow in today’s NFL, but it’s hard to argue with the talent he possesses and the need.

Grade: A

R2.55: Pat Freiermuth, TE Penn State

Freiermuth had a late 1st-early 2nd grade for me as the #2 tight end on the board behind Kyle Pitts, so the value here is great. With guys like Creed Humphrey, Brady Christensen, and other offensive line upgrades on the board however, I was surprised by the pick. Eric Ebron certainly isn’t a long-term option, so the need was there. But I believed they would wait to address it later in the draft rather than use a top-60 pick. Still, he is a great player who has the potential to develop into a pro-bowl caliber TE. I think he needs at least a year to develop (as most TE’s do) as a complete player, but he is an excellent run blocker that should be valuable immediately. His potential as a receiver though is what makes him worthy of a pick this high. Just look at this collection of plays from the Big Ten Network for a glimpse of what he can be.

Grade: A-

R3.87: Kendrick Greene, IOL Illinois

Finally, an addition on the offensive line. Greene has position flexibility having played both guard and center at Illinois, but projects as a possible starter at center this season. He is a bit smaller which can cause him to have issues moving bigger defenders in the run game, but he is a fluid athlete who will be great on the move and getting to second-level blocks. While I think this was good value and certainly a need, I was much higher on another lineman taken 11 picks later: Quinn Meinerz. I think his upside is higher and he would be a better fit for what I expect to be a power run game for the Steelers in 2021. Greene still adds much needed talent to the position though, so hard to be too critical of the move.

Grade: B+

R4.128: Dan Moore, OT Texas A&M

Moore started 36 consecutive games at left tackle for the Aggies, so if nothing else you can say he’s durable. The problem I have with this pick is that people whose opinion I trust on offensive line evaluations (namely Brandon Thorn) had several tackles ahead. Two in particular that I would have loved to have were Stone Forsythe and D’Ante Smith, both of whom have much higher upside and could have even pushed for immediate playing time. Still, adding more depth at O-line was a need, just a missed opportunity to add more upside.

Grade: C

R4.140: Buddy Johnson, ILB Texas A&M

Back to the A&M well they go, this time with linebacker Buddy Johnson. I really like this pick, not only because he is good value here as an athletic and aggressive player, but because he was a great leader and took on the role as captain of his defense. He has a long way to go in coverage and understanding how to properly read and react in the run game, but has the physical tools to develop into a starter down the line. It was a bit of a reach, but I can forgive it considering his potential.

Grade: B

R5.156: Isaiahh Loudermilk, IDL Wisconsin

I was tempted to give this pick an A on name alone, but unfortunately Loudermilk’s tape doesn’t back up that grade. He is a solid all-around 3-4 defensive end and definitely a scheme fit for Pittsburgh, but he doesn’t have any elite traits outside of his length. He will get by on work ethic and effort, and he could make the roster as a backup end with potential as a rotation piece down the line. Considering we traded next year’s 4th for this pick, that is far from ideal.

Grade: C-

R6.216: Quincy Roche, EDGE Miami (FLA.)

By far their biggest value pick in my opinion, Roche offers immediate value as a speed rusher on 3rd downs and likely a great special teams player as well. He likely is never going to be a starter due to lack of power and flexibility, but finding a player with his production and polish in the 6th round is a steal. Look for him and Alex Highsmith to share duties as the edge across form T.J this season.

Grade: A

R7.245: Tre Norwood, DB Oklahoma

Norwood offers positional flexibility having played both corner and safety during his college career, which the Steelers clearly valued. However it is hard to justify drafting a defensive back who showed consistent struggles in coverage like Norwood did. He has good ball skills and has the instincts to diagnose the play, but his lack of athleticism will make it harder to translate those traits to the next level. He could make the final 53 due to his versatility, but I wouldn’t be betting on it.

Grade: C

R7.254: Pressley Harvin III, P Georgia Tech

You could honestly just look up his college highlights, not even read anything I have to say and still guess what grade I have for this pick. A 3-time all ACC selection, the 2020 Ray Guy Award winner and an absolute unit at 6’0 255lbs, this an A pick if I have ever seen one. Oh, and he can also throw a beautiful deep ball.

Grade: A+++

Overall Grade: B+