Steelers, Mike Tomlin pro day travels suggest quarterback in play with first-round pick

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers wasted no time signing a quarterback in the first wave of free agency, but the recent travels of their brain trust suggest they might make another splash at the position.

Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert are in the middle of a quarterback pro day tour de force, zig-zagging the East Coast and Deep South to evaluate the next batch of signal callers available in next month’s draft.

“It’s a quality class,” Colbert said at the NFL combine. “It might not be the number of players at that position that there have been in the past, but it’s certainly good quality, and there’s going to be starting NFL quarterbacks coming out of this class for sure.”

On Monday, Tomlin only had to walk next door to take a look at Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, but later that night, he headed down to Lynchburg, Virginia, to have dinner with Liberty product Malik Willis. The next day, he watched as Willis ran through a script of 70 throws and showed off the traits that could make him the first quarterback off the board.

Wednesday, Tomlin, Colbert and pro scouting coordinator Brandon Hunt were on the sideline in Oxford, Mississippi, to evaluate Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, throwing for the first time in the draft process since injuring his ankle in the Sugar Bowl.

After they wrapped up in Mississippi, Tomlin and Colbert traveled north to Cincinnati where the head coach took quarterback Desmond Ridder out to dinner Wednesday and watched his pro day Thursday.

Next week, Colbert is expected in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he’ll scout Sam Howell, and the Steelers may also attend pro day at Western Kentucky to check out Bailey Zappe.

Even though the Steelers bought time in drafting the next franchise quarterback by signing Mitch Trubisky to a team-friendly two-year deal, the front office is carefully studying the 2022 quarterback draft class -- or engaging in an elaborate smokescreen.

Because the Steelers filled so many holes in an uncharacteristically aggressive free agency -- spending a franchise-record $80.5 million in the first week to address offensive line, cornerback and inside linebacker -- they have the flexibility to draft the best player available in the first round, including quarterback.

But, if their preferred quarterback is Willis, the Steelers may not be able to stand pat at the No. 20 overall selection.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected the Steelers to pick Willis in his latest mock draft, but he admitted Wednesday that might not be feasible.

“When I was doing the mock, my thought was, ‘Am I locking them into a quarterback who won’t be there?’” Kiper said. “And Malik Willis, you think about the Steelers, will he be there at 20? He may not be. I didn’t want to project a trade and say, ‘Where am I going to put the Steelers? How far up do I have to put this trade? What do you have to give up to go up that high?’

“... I’m thinking you’ve got to move up to get him. Maybe in the top 10. But do they want to do that? ... They could sit there for a quarterback. Could they sit there for Willis? Maybe not.”

The Steelers last moved up in the first round for inside linebacker Devin Bush in 2019, but they’ve been historically hesitant to move in the first round.

If Willis isn’t there at 20, and the Steelers pass on Corral, Howell and Pickett, they could look to fill one significant position of need not addressed in free agency: wide receiver.

With JuJu Smith-Schuster closing the chapter on his time in Pittsburgh by signing a one-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, and slot man Ray-Ray McCloud heading to the San Francisco 49ers, the Steelers need to fill out an inconsistent position group. Diontae Johnson made the Pro Bowl, but struggled with drops in the final stretch of last season. Chase Claypool was a touchdown machine (nine receiving, two rushing) in his rookie season, but he had only two in 2021. Beyond that, the group is thin. Though the Steelers did add Gunner Olszewski, he figures to be more important in the return game than receiving game.

If the Steelers use the draft to restock the position, one candidate at No. 20 is Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson, Kiper said.

Dotson, a college teammate of Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth, caught 91 receptions for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns in his senior season at Penn State. He also ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

“He’s a guy I’d look at at 20 as a receiver who could give you versatility, yards after catch, great attitude, great approach,” Kiper said. “Snatches the ball. He would be an immediate hole filler, immediately be a productive player in the NFL.”

The Steelers could also consider Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams with their first-round pick, but Williams’ ACL tear in his left knee in January's national championship game could keep him from having immediate impact.