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How Steelers transformed their quarterback room in 13 days

ORLANDO, Fla. — Omar Khan sat on a sectional couch in the glow of a sunny late March afternoon and answered reporters’ questions. The Pittsburgh Steelers general manager appeared relaxed. Four weeks earlier in Indianapolis, standing before the same group of reporters, Khan had seemed tense, reserved.

It was Feb. 29 when Khan was asked by the media assembled for the NFL combine about his team’s 2024 quarterback options. At that moment, Kenny Pickett was the only quarterback on the Steelers’ roster. Khan expressed “full faith” in the 2022 first-round pick.

Twenty-seven days later, as Khan sat on a terrace at the Ritz-Carlton for the league’s annual meetings, Pickett was gone, traded to Philadelphia where he’ll serve as the backup. Nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson and promising 2021 first-round draft choice Justin Fields were now the Steelers’ quarterbacks. Khan grinned.

“If you would’ve told me a month ago when we spoke in Indy that we’d be sitting here a month later, and that Russell Wilson and Justin Fields would be our quarterbacks? … Yeah, I’d be a little bit surprised.”

The Steelers, an organization long renowned for its methodical decision-making processes, had spent the previous month taking the most un-Steeler-like approach possible in a quest to end a seven-year stretch without a playoff win and perhaps give them a shot at a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

They had acquired not one but two splashy quarterbacks and traded away a once-prized first-round pick — though dealing Pickett had more to do with circumstance than any grand plan. Khan, coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II — all feeling the mounting frustration of a playoff win drought — ultimately opted to place full faith not in the status quo but in the unknown, and Wilson and Fields had been convinced to come along for the ride.

“We’re trying to win a Super Bowl this year,” Khan said. “Those decisions were made with the intent that they could help us this year.”


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1:51

Is a QB controversy inevitable for the Steelers?

Robert Griffin III explains why Russell Wilson has “much more pressure on him” to perform this season in Pittsburgh.

IN THE MOMENTS after the Steelers’ 31-17 wild-card loss at the Bills on Jan. 15, much of the public focus turned to the future of coach Mike Tomlin, who declined to answer a question about his contract in a postgame news conference. Behind the scenes, however, the Steelers were confronting the reality that it was their quarterback succession plan that needed to be adjusted.

Pickett, whom the team selected with the No. 20 pick as heir to the retired Ben Roethlisberger in 2022, spent the playoff loss in Buffalo on the bench. Pickett lost his job weeks earlier to Mason Rudolph, the third-stringer who capitalized on a Pickett ankle injury and the ineffectiveness of backup Mitch Trubisky to author the team’s best stretch of offense in two years. When Pickett returned to health but didn’t get his starting job back, league observers wondered whether the writing was on the wall for Pickett.

But multiple sources within the Steelers organization acknowledged the quarterback was placed in poor situations during his two years in Pittsburgh, and wasn’t given the adequate support required for a young quarterback. A flawed offense that sparked the 2023 midseason firing of coordinator Matt Canada was part of the picture, as was a shaky offensive line and an inconsistent group of skill players around Pickett.

The 2024 season represented a chance for Pickett to hit reset with an organization that could better position him for the role they selected him to hold. The Steelers hired former Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith as offensive coordinator, a move that reinforced a commitment to the run game and a balanced offense.

In his previous stint as a coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, Smith’s offenses had flourished with the duo of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, and there was optimism a play-action, run-heavy offense in Pittsburgh would play to Pickett’s strengths. Soon after he was hired, Smith traveled to South Florida to visit with Pickett, team sources told ESPN, and the pair hit it off.

But Pickett wasn’t going to be handed the starting job, and the Steelers were committed to adding meaningful competition in the QB room. Rudolph, who impressed the team with his work ethic and poise in the four-game starting stint, was an early favorite to re-sign with the team but a deal between the two sides never got close, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Rudolph agreed to a deal with the Titans on the first day of free agency.

The Steelers also considered reuniting Tannehill with his former offensive coordinator Smith, per a team source, and gave a cursory look at Kirk Cousins before quickly deciding signing him was out of their price range. Pickett remained Plan A.

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1:47

Tannenbaum: Russell Wilson is betting on himself with Steelers

Mike Tannenbaum and Dan Graziano break down why Russell Wilson is a great fit with the Steelers.

“Arthur’s very optimistic about Kenny, and they communicated,” Khan said in February. “We will have some strong competition there, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Asked specifically about available players, including Wilson, Fields and Cousins, Khan added: “I’m not going to go into details about the conversations that we’ve had, but I can tell you that I have an obligation to look at every avenue that’s out there to try to make us a better football team.”

Five days later, the Denver Broncos announced their intention to release Wilson, and the best avenue revealed itself.


THE INTEREST WAS mutual from the beginning of free agency. As the Falcons zeroed in on Cousins, the Buccaneers re-signed Baker Mayfield, and the Raiders and Vikings appeared focused on drafting a quarterback, Pittsburgh became an attractive destination because it offered Wilson a legitimate opportunity for a starting job.

Once Denver provided Wilson with a letter permitting him to speak and meet with other teams ahead of his release March 4, negotiations could commence. The Steelers asked for an in-person meeting with Wilson, who told the Steelers he was also in the process of scheduling a visit with the New York Giants.

The morning after meeting with the Giants on March 7, Wilson flew to Pittsburgh for an in-person meeting at the team facility. Wilson FaceTimed with Tomlin prior to arriving at Steelers headquarters and had conversations with several of the team’s defensive leaders, including Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

“The level of respect for Russ was really apparent and made you feel good,” said a source close to Wilson during the free agency process.

Sweetening the deal for Pittsburgh was Wilson’s modest $1.2 million contract, with the Broncos picking up the rest of the $85 million cap charge from the five-year extension he signed with the team in 2022. Though the acquisition of Wilson would be an uncharacteristically splashy deal for the Steelers, it was also an inexpensive one.

But Tomlin was also impressed by Wilson’s drive, a significant factor in getting the deal done, a league source said.

“The most attractive component of his profile, to me, is his quest for greatness, his chase for legacy,” Tomlin said in Orlando. “… This is a guy that’s driven, and you want to work with people of that mindset. This guy’s got a vision of what he wants his career to look like, and he’s got a lot of work to do.”

Wilson didn’t ask for assurances about a starting job, according to a source familiar with the conversations, and the Steelers didn’t give any.

“He’s competed all of his life,” the source said. “He’s not afraid of it.”

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2:12

Stephen A. and Riddick get heated over Wilson’s impact on Steelers

Stephen A. Smith and Louis Riddick disagree on Russell Wilson’s impact on the Steelers’ chances next season.

Wilson departed Pittsburgh late on Friday, March 8, and the organization huddled all weekend before extending an offer.

“If [Wilson] gives [the Steelers] what he did with Denver, that will be more than enough,” a team source said. “Not asking him to come in and do anything different.”

The Steelers believed, one team source said, that adding Wilson “would have been a benefit to Kenny,” and the pursuit of Wilson would “kick Kenny into gear” and reignite the competitive fire that had made Pickett so attractive to Pittsburgh in the draft evaluation process.

Instead, it did the opposite.


WILSON POSTED THE video announcement at 11:36 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 10. Set to the Steelers’ signature hype song “Renegade,” Wilson’s 50-second video featured a slow-motion compilation of Terrible Towels waving at Acrisure Stadium, finishing with a Steelers logo as the music swelled and the chorus hit.

The jig is up, the news is out. They finally found me.

Wilson posted the video along with a short, yet clear message: “Year 13. Grateful. @Steelers”

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1:36

McAfee breaks down Russell Wilson’s newest workout video

Pat McAfee likes what he sees from Russell Wilson after the quarterback posted a workout video to social media.

To Pickett, the message must have seemed clear, too. The fanfare of Wilson’s late-night announcement, posted as he attended a post-Oscars party with his wife, Ciara, didn’t have the feel of a quarterback coming in to be a backup. The Steelers’ plan, communicated to Pickett upon Wilson’s signing, per a team source, was that Wilson would take the first-team reps, but it would be an “open competition.”

Pickett, per multiple sources, believed the Steelers were going back on their initial plan to give him the first-team reps, placing him at a disadvantage in any competition. Pickett expressed that he would rather play elsewhere and make a fresh start than compete from second place in Pittsburgh. On March 11, the day legal tampering opened in the NFL, and less than 24 hours after Wilson’s announcement, rumblings of Pickett’s anger began reverberating around the league, per sources who were involved in free agency negotiations for available quarterbacks. Four days later, the Steelers introduced Wilson in a noon news conference and then traded Pickett to the Eagles that same afternoon in a deal that included a picks swap.

“I just thought it was time,” Pickett said upon his introduction in Philly. “I felt like it was time for the things that transpired. Wanted to get a chance to go somewhere else and continue to grow my career.”

Khan was conciliatory in response, saying, “Kenny’s a good football player, a good quarterback. I think he’s got a big future in the NFL still. Things just kind of evolved.”

Once news of Pickett’s Pittsburgh departure broke Friday afternoon, buzz around the league started building about the Steelers making a deal with the Chicago Bears for Fields.

The Steelers had been monitoring the cost to acquire Fields as they evaluated options to compete with Pickett, though it was only after Pickett had expressed his desire for a fresh start, a team source said, that the Steelers began actively engaging the Bears in talks.

Chicago, intending to move the three-year starter as it prepared to select a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in April’s draft, was willing to give Fields some say in his next destination. The Steelers were one of four teams on Fields’ radar prior to the start of free agency, along with the Vikings, Raiders and Falcons, a source familiar with Fields’ thinking said.

Fields “thought highly of Tomlin,” one source close to the quarterback said.

As with Wilson, the Steelers’ interest was mutual. Tomlin had attended Ohio State’s pro day in 2021 and wasn’t shy about praising the dynamic quarterback.

“You know who we came to see,” Tomlin said to Fields prior to the quarterback’s workout that day.

And though Smith took the job in Pittsburgh expecting to work with Pickett, Fields’ profile, one similar to Wilson’s, as a dynamic, mobile quarterback with a big arm, also fits Smith’s play-action-heavy system.

Less than 30 hours after trading Pickett, the Steelers executed the trade for Fields, acquiring him for a 2025 sixth-round pick that could be upgraded to a fourth if Fields plays more than 51% of snaps in the 2024 season.

Bears general manager Ryan Poles ultimately followed through on a combine pledge to “do right by Justin,” dealing Fields to Pittsburgh over at least one better offer from a team with an established quarterback starter, a Bears team source said.

As the trade was being finalized, the Steelers reached out to both Wilson and Fields, informing them that Wilson will have the “pole position” entering 2024. The 25-year-old Fields, they said, was added and would learn behind the 35-year-old Wilson. But, as Tomlin suggested at league meetings in Orlando, that doesn’t mean the door is completely closed on a quarterback competition.

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2:00

McAfee likes Russell Wilson’s fit with the Steelers

Pat McAfee and Darius Butler react to Russell Wilson signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Rest assured when it’s time to compete, Justin will be given an opportunity to compete,” Tomlin said. “And we’ll allow those guys to sort themselves out.”

Wilson publicly welcomed Fields to Pittsburgh on X, posting a photo of the two shaking hands after a Broncos-Bears game along with the message, “let’s get it,” and tagging Fields. “QB room bout to be [fire emojis].”

Although the acquisitions are financially low risk for the moment — Fields’ will earn $3.2 million this season, but the Steelers have to decide on his $25.7 million fifth-year option for 2025 by May 2 — the stakes couldn’t be higher for any of the central figures in the episode.

Wilson stabilized his career with a modestly successful 26-touchdown, eight-interception season in 2023, but his two-year tenure in Denver called into question whether he can be an elite passer or fuel another Super Bowl run. Wilson must prove he can thrive again, and in a new offense directed by Smith.

Fields showed flashes of talent in three seasons with the Bears, but not consistently enough for Chicago to devote its future to him. He’ll need to demonstrate he can continue to develop under Smith in 2024, and in what figures to be a backup role.

Khan and Tomlin, the key orchestrators of the deals, are on the hook to turn the Steelers into a postseason factor again, if not a Super Bowl team. Even with a better QB situation and a top-notch defense returning, Pittsburgh’s ESPN BET over/under for 2024 sits at 8.5 wins, reflecting middling perceptions within an AFC North that again seems to be a gauntlet.

The impact of the headline-grabbing maneuvers executed over 13 days in March won’t be fully known for at least 11 months.

“I owe it to the Steeler Nation to do everything I can to try to get to the Super Bowl,” Khan said. “Every decision that we make and that we talk about, every move that we make and talk about is based on that.

“Sometimes we make moves, we make decisions, sometimes we don’t, but it’s always with the intent of doing what we can to get the second week in February.”

Jeremy Fowler and Courtney Cronin contributed to this story.


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