Training Camp Battles: Quarterback

Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports

I began this series with general musings about how the coaching staff makes decisions in close races. I used the Robert Golden/Sean Davis (and really, to be fair, Shamarko Thomas) competition for starting strong safety as a vehicle. But today I’m going to go into more specifics on some of the contests, since many of them involve guys one has heard little or nothing about.

The difficulty with a series such as this is it may already be out of date by the time it’s published, as two offensive players have been cut and another one signed in the past few days.

There are an even larger number than usual of such battles this year, or so it seems. In this post I’m going to cover the quarterback position.

The competition for the No. 3 quarterback appears to be between 11-year veteran Bruce Gradkowski, (at least it’s 11 years if you count last year, when he was on IR) and newcomer Dustin Vaughan. Vaughan’s NFL experience is basically zero, although he was in the Cowboy’s training camp last year and on the Bill’s practice squad for a week or so during the 2015 season, but that’s it. That’s pretty youthful. This battle is particularly interesting because in theory either of these guys could also depose Landry Jones for the No. 2 spot.

There’s no doubt that Vaughan is a very dark horse in this competition. Bruce Gradkowski has proven throughout his career that he’s not really starter material, although a couple of teams gave him the chance, but he’s a reliable backup. And given Ben’s injury history and the brutal division the Steelers play in you really need a reliable backup. (2008, 2013 and 2014 are the only seasons Ben has started every game.) Two is better.

Let’s look at Gradkowski first. He’s a Pittsburgh native, which you might think gives him an advantage but in fact doesn’t seem to, nor should it. His early NFL history is fascinating—he was drafted and first played well before I became a football fan, so this is all new to me. Most of the following information is taken from his Wikipedia article.

A 6th round pick in 2006 by Tampa Bay under head coach Jon Gruden, he played so well in the preseason that he was given a chance to start in Week 5. After a fabulous debut he had a very uneven season, with some good games and a lot of bad ones. He quarterbacked three of the team’s four wins that season, but never won by more than three points. He was finally demoted for good in Week 15. The Bucs waived him during the 2008 offseason.

He was picked up by the Browns for a No. 4 QB, and started the final game of the season, vs. the Steelers, after the three in front of him went down. The Browns lost that one 31-0. He had better luck starting for Oakland against the Steelers the following year, bringing the Raiders back to win against the heavily favored Steelers, at home. He had a number of starts over his two years with Oakland, but was injured and IR’d both years (torn MCLs in both knees in 09, torn pectoral muscle during the offseason, and a separated throwing shoulder during the 2010 season.)

He spent the next two years as the backup for Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, but saw very little action, as Dalton is pretty impervious, except to Stephon Tuitt’s knee. He then signed with the Steelers in 2013.

Vaughan seems like a fun, unpretentious, and interesting guy. The profile which appeared on this site a few weeks ago contains the hilarious “why you should draft me” video he made, very much with his tongue in his cheek. It also contains some information indicating Vaughan will require a long development time to make it in the NFL, if he ever does. So far in camp he’s very definitely the No. 4 guy.

I quoted his former college coach in the profile, but will save you the trouble of looking up:

He’s not going to be your 1 or 2 right now. But I do think with experience and with time, he could turn out to be a starter in the NFL. But it’s going to take a team that has that kind of patience. He’s a hidden gem.

Anything can happen, of course, but the best-case scenario for Vaughan is probably to sign on the Steelers’ practice squad. That said, the preseason games will be interesting. Bruce Gradkowski is a reliable backup, except for that whole injury thing. The torn pectoral muscle he suffered during the 2010 offseason was incurred lifting weights. In the 2015 offseason he suffered a shoulder injury during OTAs, was back very briefly in training camp, and then dislocated a finger in a preseason game which required surgery. The Steelers had to place him on IR.

Injuries are tough. These are all different sorts of injuries, and could be viewed as flukes. “Previous injuries are not predictive of future performance,” to paraphrase a disclaimer. For example, Willie Colon, who played in a total of 12 games during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, leading to an assumption that he was injury prone, was cut, signed by the Jets, and played every game for the next two years. However, last year he played in only six games and was IR’d in Week 10.

In other words, Gradkowski could now be suddenly sturdy. But he’s seeming like the new Charlie Batch, who (rather unfairly in Batch’s case) was perceived as moments away from an injury every time he took the field. I’m guessing this preseason will tell the tale. If Gradkowski makes it through without injuring something else, and plays reasonably well, he will win the competition hands down. But if the injury bug rears its ugly head once again, then the question is, will the Steelers feel confident of Vaughan at the No. 3 spot, or will they look to sign another veteran, as they did last year with Michael Vick? I’m guessing the latter, unless Vaughan develops a lot more quickly than his college coach thinks he will.

And what about Landry Jones? I’m thinking this is may be his last chance to make a case for himself. The Steelers were, I’m sure, very grateful to have him last season, but the more he played the more it seemed his weaknesses (mainly his tendency to throw the ball to someone in the wrong-colored jersey) were exposed. However, it did seem as if he was more decisive and in control as he got more playing time. Sometimes a great deal of development takes place in the crucible of necessity. I don’t think I will be the only one watching him closely in the preseason games, which I sincerely hope are all quarterbacked by guys not named Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben looks amazing. He was considered to be the best quarterback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus last year. This isn’t his first rodeo, as Mike Tomlin might say. Do they really need to see anything out of him in the preseason? He and his veteran receivers seemingly have taken right back up where they left off. I vote for saving them for the regular season and letting the young guys get their feet wet.

Rant over. I don’t imagine the Steelers coaches are combing this blog for suggestions, but I do hope they take the opportunity to keep Ben out of harm’s way as much as possible while seeing what they’ve got in the others.

to be continued






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