Big NFL news seems to come in pairs these days. A few weeks ago, the Texans made two huge trades in the matter of an afternoon. Over the past few days, a pair of promising young cornerbacks in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jalen Ramsey hit the trade market. On Monday, unfortunately, we saw two superstar quarterbacks hit the shelf. After Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger left their respective games with injuries in Week 2, it was confirmed that both will undergo surgery.
Brees could miss six weeks after he gets surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand, while Roethlisberger is done for the season after injuring his elbow. Surprises haven't been hard to come by during this wild league year, but this qualifies as a stunning one-two punch. In going back through the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, I can find exactly one other date in which a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks suffered multiweek injuries on the same date. John Elway and Warren Moon each suffered injuries on Nov. 15, 1992, with Elway missing five weeks and Moon's absence costing him six.
There are major ramifications for both the Steelers and the Saints, though the injuries hit their teams in different ways. Teams such as the Bills, Browns, Chargers and Colts have a better chance of making the postseason than they would if the Steelers were projecting to roll out Roethlisberger for 14 more starts. And while the NFC South remains wide-open, the Saints might still be the favorites with Teddy Bridgewater under center.
There's a lot to write about with each of these situations. Let's start with Roethlisberger, whose season is over after just six quarters of football:
Is this the end for Big Ben?
Ben Roethlisberger's injury throws the Steelers into significant uncertainty at the most important position in sports for the first time in 15 years. He has struggled to stay healthy at times -- and his off-field behavior has included a serious motorcycle accident and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct -- but the Steelers have been assured of generally above-average play from the quarterback they selected in the first round of the 2004 draft. One NFL executive to whom I recently spoke compared his team to a house and the starting quarterback to a roof. The Steelers haven't had to worry about getting wet for 15 years. Now, suddenly, there's a huge hole in their roof.
This injury comes at a time when the Steelers already were in transition on offense. Longtime starters Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Marcus Gilbert and Jesse James -- along with legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak -- all left the organization this offseason. While the Steelers already had developed a pair of replacements in running back James Conner and offensive tackle Matt Feiler, Pittsburgh generally used midround draft picks (and former Munchak assistant Shaun Sarrett) to replace the others.
Pittsburgh always has been an organization built around drafting and developing young talent; but in recent years, it has used some of its cap space to target veteran help in free agency, including cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. Perhaps owing to the $21.2 million in dead money Brown occupies on their 2019 cap, the only veteran the Steelers added to their offense this year was wideout Donte Moncrief, who has been a disaster while playing through a dislocated finger over the first two weeks of the season.
Roethlisberger was supposed to be the rock of the offense, one of the few players who wasn't moving into a larger role or subject to a coaching change over the offseason. Now, he's gone. The Steelers didn't choose to sign a veteran to help back up Roethlisberger this offseason, instead letting 2017 fourth-rounder Joshua Dobbs and 2018 third-rounder Mason Rudolph compete for the job. Rudolph was the favorite and won the competition, with the Steelers promptly shipping off Dobbs to the Jaguars for a fifth-round pick.
The Steelers already have promoted Devlin Hodges from their practice squad to serve as the new backup quarterback. There aren't exactly many options available in free agency, but I wonder if Pittsburgh might call Matt Cassel, who played under former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley in Kansas City. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's scheme shares many of the same playcalls with Haley's playbook.
Even if the Steelers sign a veteran such as Cassel, they'll move forward in the short term with Rudolph as the starter. Projecting how he will perform is a difficult enterprise. The 24-year-old played in a spread offense at Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy, posting a 79.1 Total QBR over his four seasons at school. That number comes in just behind Sam Darnold's 79.5 mark over his two years at Southern California.
Like Roethlisberger, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Rudolph has the prototypical size you would expect from an NFL quarterback. Some reports coming out of college, however, suggested Rudolph doesn't have the prototypical arm strength that often is associated with that physical archetype. For what it's worth, Rudolph's numbers throwing deep in college were quite good, as he posted a 98.8 QBR on throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air.
The arm strength concern popped up during Rudolph's biggest play on Sunday, the 45-yard flea-flicker that he tossed to JuJu Smith-Schuster. When Rudolph threw the pass, Smith-Schuster was accelerating past a wrong-footed Lano Hill, but Rudolph's throw forced the star wideout to slow down and nearly gave Hill a chance to break it up. A better throw would have produced a walk-in touchdown:
Mason Rudolph's flea-flicker from Sunday pic.twitter.com/zWEUxyu4yl— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 16, 2019
It would be impossible to draw broader conclusions about Rudolph's future from his appearance on Sunday. He was 12-of-19 passing for 112 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against a Seahawks pass defense that had been gashed by Cincinnati at home the previous week. His interception was entirely on Moncrief, who was benched after his most recent drop. His two touchdown passes were short throws to Vance McDonald, one of which came on a failed screen. The second of those touchdown drives was just 3 yards. Rudolph didn't cost the Steelers the game; Pittsburgh's defense allowing three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half before letting the Seahawks turn a third-and-16 over two plays into a new set of downs was what pushed the Steelers to 0-2.
What we know, historically, is that the success rate for third-round quarterbacks in the NFL hasn't been great. Since 1990, 36 quarterbacks have been drafted in the third round. Two of them are Rudolph and Will Grier, whose futures still are basically indecipherable. When you look at the other 34, just six became players who started three seasons or more. (This assumes that recently drafted quarterbacks who have been slotted into backup roles, such as C.J. Beathard and Sean Mannion, don't suddenly turn into multiyear starters.) Five made it to at least one Pro Bowl. Two of them started and won Super Bowls; one was Nick Foles, while the other was the only passer from the 34 to turn into a no-doubt franchise quarterback -- Russell Wilson.
Tim Hasselbeck says that Mason Rudolph's campaign to become the Steelers' starting quarterback, even after Ben Roethlisberger's return, has now begun.
Wilson fell to the third round only because he lacked prototypical size. Rudolph has that size; if NFL organizations thought he had the skills to play quarterback at a high level, he would have been a first-round pick. My working theory with quarterbacks is that the league is generally awful at evaluating passers and that success depends much more on the infrastructure surrounding a quarterback than we think. Moncrief aside, Rudolph seems to have above-average infrastructure around him as he begins his starting career. Most rookie quarterbacks would kill for this offensive line and a receiver as good as Smith-Schuster.
What happens next is up in the air. Roethlisberger, who has flirted with retirement in years past, issued a public statement suggesting he intends to rehab his injury and return to the team in 2020. Plans change, of course; nobody expected quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning (Colts) and Tony Romo (Cowboys) to leave their franchise when they went down injured before a season began, but their departures seemed inevitable by the time those seasons were over.
The best thing for the Steelers, naturally, would be for Rudolph to play like a superstar. If that happens, Pittsburgh will face a difficult decision. Roethlisberger is due a $12.5 million roster bonus on March 20, and his $8.5 million base salary for 2020 already is guaranteed for injury. The Steelers could choose to bring back Big Ben as their starter and keep their quarterback of the future as a backup, but once teams find their new quarterback, they tend to stick with that guy.
Realistically, if Rudolph plays well, the Steelers will have to decide on Roethlisberger's future on March 20. If they found a trade partner, they would be off the hook for paying him that $21 million in 2020. But if they trade him -- or if he retires -- they also would simultaneously owe $25 million in dead money on their 2020 cap, which would see the team set the single-season dead money record for a player for the second consecutive season.
If the Steelers chose to designate Roethlisberger as a post-June 1 release, Pittsburgh would owe as much as $33.5 million in dead money, depending on the offset language in his contract. They would be able to spread that money over two years, but it still would be an enormous sum of money for him to go play somewhere else.
What the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade means
Originally, I was going to argue that the Steelers also would be in good shape if Rudolph flamed out. That argument went by the wayside on Monday night, though, when the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for disgruntled defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. The deal leaves Pittsburgh without its first-, third- and fifth-round selections in the 2020 draft, given that it sent away its third-round pick to move up and grab Devin Bush with the 10th pick in April. The team did add an extra fourth-round pick in the Fitzpatrick deal.
Fitzpatrick was promising as a rookie, and the Steelers will have him under contract for the next three years for a total of less than $6 million, which is a pittance for a starting cornerback in the NFL. It's reasonable to make the economic case that the surplus value Fitzpatrick plausibly offers as a starter over the next three years would be worth a first-round pick, especially if it falls in the back half of the first round.
If Rudolph gets injured or doesn't impress, though, the Fitzpatrick trade could set back the Steelers for several seasons. Under those scenarios, the Steelers could have used their 2020 first-round pick to draft their quarterback of the future without having to trade up. With Mike Tomlin posting a .500 or better record in each of his 12 seasons as the Steelers' coach, Pittsburgh hasn't naturally landed a top-12 pick since drafting Roethlisberger in 2004.
More than half of the NFL went through the 2019 offseason with a starter who was drafted with one of the top 12 picks. Since the Steelers can't use their 2020 first-rounder on a quarterback, they'll need to either use a future pick toward the bottom half of the first round, wait for another disappointing season or use further draft capital to trade up for a quarterback. The latter scenario is most likely, and that would give away much of the surplus value created by the Fitzpatrick deal.
The trade suggests the Steelers think they can compete for a playoff spot with Rudolph under center. Football Power Index (FPI) isn't as optimistic as the Pittsburgh front office. When we entered the season, FPI projected the Steelers with a 55.9% chance of making the playoffs. Since then, Pittsburgh has started 0-2. The Ravens are 2-0, and Lamar Jackson has been the best quarterback in football through two weeks. The Browns made it to 1-1 with their victory over the Jets. Once FPI replaces 14 games of Roethlisberger with Rudolph, it projects the Steelers with just an 7.1% chance of making it to the playoffs.
Bridgewater's trouble in replacing Brees
I never imagined a scenario in which the Saints could lose Drew Brees for six weeks and still feel like things could have been worse. Given the Roethlisberger news, though, six weeks doesn't seem all that bad. The Saints are in much better shape to weather their quarterback's absence independent of its length, owing both to a better roster and a friendlier divisional situation. In Teddy Bridgewater, their new quarterback also seemingly has a much higher floor than Pittsburgh has with Rudolph.
My qualifier there has more to do with the former Vikings starter than it does with Rudolph. I'm going to be honest: I would love it if Bridgewater succeeded. In addition to being beloved wherever he has gone during his pro career, Bridgewater spent years working his way back from the serious knee injury he suffered during the 2016 preseason. Much as Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith was able to parlay his comeback into a meaningful long-term deal, I hope Bridgewater does the same in New Orleans.
If the Saints knew they were getting the Bridgewater who made it to the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter with the Vikings, they could feel great about their chances of staying afloat without Brees. A healthy Bridgewater is a smart, accurate passer with excellent movement within the pocket. Great veteran quarterbacks have an ability to diagnose blitzes and nullify pressure before it even arrives; Bridgewater came out of Louisville doing just that at a high level. The 215-pound quarterback fell in the draft after teams overreacted to a middling pro day performance, but he was clearly a better passer than Blake Bortles, who went off the board 29 picks earlier.
At this point, though, we have to at least consider the possibility that the old Bridgewater isn't the guy the Saints will start for the next six weeks. Bridgewater has thrown 55 regular-season passes over three years since returning from his injury, and while his lone start came in Week 17 and without running back Alvin Kamara or left tackle Terron Armstead on the field, he hasn't played like a viable NFL quarterback. He has completed 56.4% of his passes while averaging just 5.1 yards per attempt. The only quarterbacks since 2016 who have failed to top the latter figure while throwing 50 passes or more are Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez and Nathan Peterman.
Again, it's just one game, but Bridgewater's debut in meaningful action for the Saints on Sunday wasn't impressive. The accuracy that was once his best trait disappeared at times. Many of his completions were gimmes from a Rams team that held a comfortable lead and didn't care about allowing short catches; 15 of Bridgewater's 17 completions came on passes thrown within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. By the end of the game, Bridgewater seemed to be locking onto receivers with limited success. The Rams even successfully had inside linebacker Cory Littleton running with receiver Michael Thomas on a pair of those targets, though he had help.
Naturally, the hope is that Bridgewater plays more like his old self as he gets regular reps. My suspicion is that he'll fall somewhere between the quarterback from 2015 and the guy who has been a replacement-level quarterback since returning. The Saints don't need to change their scheme with Bridgewater in the lineup, but I wonder if we see Sean Payton lean more heavily on his running game and try to keep Bridgewater out of third-and-long. New Orleans already played relatively slow in recent years with Brees as the quarterback, but it could now try to slow down games even further and trust its defense to hold up.
When I wrote about the possibility of Brees declining in 2019, I suggested that the Saints could still win the Super Bowl if the Brees who showed up wasn't the guy who has dominated the league over the past decade. While their two-week start to the season hasn't been especially impressive, they are still in that discussion until proven otherwise.
Bridgewater faces a pair of tough games over the next two weeks, given that the Saints travel to face the Seahawks before hosting the surging Cowboys. After that, though, New Orleans' four games before the bye come against the Bucs, Jags, Bears and Cardinals. Those are winnable games. Five of the Saints' six games against the NFC South come after the Week 9 bye. If the six-week time frame holds, Brees should be ready to return in Week 10 for what could be a critical divisional matchup at home against the Falcons.
Unlike the AFC North, where the Steelers are already two games behind the Ravens, the NFC South is off to a slow start. The Falcons are 1-1 and needed a rash of Eagles injuries and a fourth-down conversion to avoid starting 0-2. The Bucs are 1-1. The Panthers lost their first two games of the season at home and don't appear to have a healthy starting quarterback. The Saints could easily still be the best team in the division with Bridgewater at quarterback, let alone once Brees returns.
What the injury does do is limit the Saints' ceiling. Their chances of going 13-3 again and claiming the top seed in the NFC without Brees are limited. While FPI gave them a 19.4% chance of finishing with the No. 1 seed in the NFC before the season began, those chances have dropped to 4.6% after losing Brees and falling to the Rams. Los Angeles now has a 32.7% chance of finishing with the top seed in the NFC.
The Saints still have a 53.5% chance of winning the South and 59.4% shot of making it to the postseason, but it seems likely that they'll need to win at least one game away from New Orleans in January to get Brees back to the Super Bowl. For all the magic Brees has worked during his incredible run in New Orleans, the future Hall of Famer is just 1-5 on the road in the postseason, with his lone win coming by two points in the wild-card round against Nick Foles.
This balanced Saints team might be less susceptible to January weather than the pass-happy Saints offenses of the past, but in famous losses to the Seahawks and 49ers, it was the defense that let down the team, not Brees. The star quarterback has played otherworldly football during his time in New Orleans, but the team's recent surge of dominance has come once his defense finally caught up. Now, with Brees absent and questions about Bridgewater, the Saints will need to rely more heavily upon that defense to stay afloat until their star quarterback returns.