By Matthew Marczi
Whether or not it was a surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a quarterback in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft depended greatly on who you asked. Equally elusive was the answer to the question of whether or not it was a good idea.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed three games during the 2012 season due to an unusual shoulder injury, and his performance continued to suffer after his return. In his stead, backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch muddled through a 1-2 record that was earned primarily due to strong performances from the defense.
During the 2011 season, Roethlisberger played through a significant high ankle sprain that he otherwise might not have if the team were more confident in their reserve signal callers. The drubbing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers told the story of why that was a bad idea. The Steelers went on to limp into the postseason, only to be ousted by Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in the first round.
In order to shore up the position, and to “freshen up the room”, in the words of quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, the Steelers allowed both Batch and Leftwich to walk in free agency, in all likelihood ending their professional careers.
It is a matter of opinion—and of time—whether or not the team’s subsequent moves have put the Steelers in a better position to withstand the loss of their franchise quarterback for a game or two, but they certainly have gotten younger.
The Steelers signed veteran backup—and local native—Bruce Gradkowski to a three-year contract to serve as Roethlisberger’s understudy, and followed that up by selecting former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Landry Jones in the fourth round of this past draft.
Before either of those moves, however, the Steelers claimed former Atlanta Falcons reserve quarterback John Parker Wilson off the waiver wire from the Jacksonville Jaguars toward the end of February earlier this year. In fact, they were the only team to put in a claim.
Pro Football Talk was only one of many voices expressing ambivalence toward that move. They wrote that the team is “just taking advantage of the roster spot to take a look at a quarterback who might be an arm for them to use during offseason work”, adding that “Wilson might last with the team until camp or he might be bounced from the roster long before the start of summer”.
That mindset echoed the prevailing opinion that John Parker Wilson was simply a camp arm and nothing more. Indeed, that was basically all that was said on the topic since the moment he signed—that is, up until recently.
The profile on John Parker Wilson was a young guy who had a big arm, an arm that sometimes was too big for his own good, and whose accuracy was poor. That scouting report seemed to fit throughout the early portion of the offseason activities. But that seems to have changed with the start of training camp.
The first to comment on Wilson in training camp, to the best of my knowledge, was Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider. On Saturday, he wrote on Twitter, “John Parker Wilson, who couldn\'t hit anything in the spring, can\'t miss anything here at camp”.
Later on in the day, Bob Labriola joined the John Parker Wilson bandwagon emphatically during the Saturday edition of Steelers Live on the team’s website:
[The prevailing opinion was that] John Parker Wilson is the camp arm. It really hasn’t turned out to be that way so far…in my eyes, that’s not even close. In my eyes John Parker Wilson is clearly at least number three, maybe he’s pushing two in terms of how he looks on the field. He’s got a nice, strong arm. On consecutive plays in this recent practice, he showed a nice touch down the field where you had to float the ball over the coverage and dropped it in to a tight end, and then he also on the next play zipped one over the middle in between some defensive backs. John Parker Wilson, he’s been kicked around the league a little bit so he has some experience. He has arm strength and touch. If you made me cut the roster to three quarterbacks, John Parker Wilson would be one of the three.
Granted, all of this is being said before even a snap in a preseason game has been taken. John Parker Wilson is a fourth-year veteran, and Landry Jones is a rookie.
Let’s assume, however, that by the end of the preseason, it is clear that Wilson is and will be the better quarterback in 2013 between he and Landry Jones. So then, what to do with John Parker Wilson?
Perhaps the more pointed question would be this: can the Steelers risk Landry Jones to the practice squad?
The Steelers have risked fourth round picks before—and lost. Twice, in fact, in 2010. The Steelers drafted three linebackers in 2010, one of them being fourth round selection Thaddeus Gibson, who, having missed spring practices due to school obligations, was the low man on the totem pole when the team needed to make room on the roster, rather than placing Aaron Smith on injured reserve.
They waived Gibson, hoping to put him on the practice squad, but he was picked up. To fill the void on the practice squad left by calling up Steve McLendon, the team picked up Al Woods, a fourth round rookie whom the New Orleans Saints attempted to stash away on their own practice squad.
A few months later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him off the Steelers’ practice squad; it was a year before they would get him back after the Seattle Seahawks cut him loose in November 2011. It is also noteworthy that the Steelers once put in a waiver claim to reclaim Gibson—currently with the Tennessee Titans, whom the Steelers play Week 1—but they lost the bid.
Clearly, it is no sure thing to be able to stash away a fourth round pick on the practice squad. The Steelers have lost sixth rounders, even undrafted free agents, from the practice squad.
There are a lot of things to consider, although one of them, I suspect, will not be the possibility of carrying four quarterbacks. Landry Jones, of course, possesses draft value; whether right or wrong, teams often place added value on their own picks. Losing a fourth round pick—which equates to whiffing on a pick in the fourth round—is accompanied with no small amount of scorn, which the Steelers received when they lost Gibson.
And quarterback, as always, is a premium position. Surely there is some team around the league that would have room on their roster for a fourth round rookie quarterback. In other words, the chances are high that if Landry Jones somehow does not make the 53-man roster, he will be gone.
On the other hand, there is certainly no guarantee that anybody would be interested in John Parker Wilson. After all, the Steelers were the only team that tried to claim him in February.
Gradkowski was signed to be the backup, and thus will be the backup unless he really struggles. But what happens if both Roethlisberger and Gradkowski are injured, and Wilson is still available? Would the Steelers cut somebody and bring back Wilson to start the next week in favor of Jones? That is a question the Steelers sincerely hope they never have to answer.