Steelers' aggressive quarterback moves provide jolt without breaking bank

Russell Wilson or Justin Fields?

A few days ago, that presented itself as perhaps the crux of the decision facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in addressing their severe deficiency at quarterback.

There’s a different answer now: Both of the above.

A day after trading Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles and introducing Wilson, 35, as the new starting quarterback, the Steelers pulled off another trade on Saturday that may have landed a quarterback of the future (if not sooner) in obtaining Fields from the Chicago Bears.

Talk about efficiently working the market. Wilson, signed as a free agent, merely costs the Steelers the veteran minimum salary of $1.21 million this season with the Denver Broncos on the hook to pay the remainder of his $39 million guaranteed for 2024. The 25-year-old Fields, drafted 11th overall by the Bears in 2021, was had for a conditional sixth-round pick.

That’s a bargain price for a first-round talent made expendable by the probability that the Bears will select former Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams with the No. 1 pick overall on April 25. Fields is due roughly $3.23 million in salary and a roster bonus for 2024.

Pittsburgh Steelers newly signed quarterback Russell Wilson speaks with reporters on Friday.
Pittsburgh Steelers newly signed quarterback Russell Wilson speaks with reporters on Friday.

Steelers GM Omar Khan can take a bow for his moves.

The Steelers dramatically overhauled Mike Tomlin’s quarterback room – and make no mistake, for the better – for pennies on the dollar in a league where the players at the game’s most important position typically eat up so much of the salary cap.

Pickett, drafted 20th overall in 2022 as the only first-rounder in a weak quarterback class, helped in his own way as his wish for a trade was granted. The embattled Pickett couldn’t stomach the prospect of being a backup to the embattled Wilson, which, absent possible injuries, still seems like it might have afforded a better path to becoming a starter again than being No. 2 to Jalen Hurts.

Yet such movement has been trending lately. The Atlanta Falcons signed Kirk Cousins, then traded former starter Desmond Ridder (another product of the ’22 QB Class) to the Arizona Cardinals. The Washington Commanders, pegged to take a quarterback with the No. 2 pick overall (maybe LSU Heisman winner Jayden Daniels), shipped Sam Howell (’22 QB Class) to the Seattle Seahawks.

The market for a Fields trade – Atlanta? Las Vegas? Minnesota? – didn’t materialize as the Bears might have projected but in a league where quarterback depth is a necessity there was still a market. And the Steelers pounced on it to land a multi-dimensional quarterback who took his lumps, but showed improvement as last season progressed and was hardly the biggest problem with the Chicago offense.

In: Wilson and Fields.

Out: Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, the third-stringer who emerged as the best of the Steelers quarterbacks just in time to spark a stretch run to a playoff berth.

And the QB upgrade costs less than $4.5 million against the Steelers salary cap (pending the addition of a third quarterback), allowing ample space under the record $255.4 million cap to add more talent. (See Patrick Queen, the new linebacker signed away from the Baltimore Ravens on a three-year deal reportedly worth $41 million.)     This, while the Steelers install a new offense under new coordinator Arthur Smith, the former Falcons coach, that seems to be a sweet fit for Wilson.

Smith, who coordinated a successful Tennessee Titans offense before landing in Atlanta, loves pounding away with the running game. He has the backs that can make it happen in Pittsburgh with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. He’ll employ a heavy dose of two-tight end formations to hammer home the point. And with that, he’ll live up to his track record for building an aerial attack with play-action passes – which happens to be Wilson’s strength.

Along the way, Smith can develop Fields, who can get ready for his fourth coordinator in as many seasons – yet has his best set-up for learning with Smith and a 13th-year vet in Wilson.

Of course, some will suggest that Fields should get a shot at competing for the starting job. Hold the controversy. That’s not happening, at least not yet, with Wilson poised to write a new narrative after his humbling experience in Denver.

Sure, things change. And as Wilson said it himself on Friday, “Every day you wake up, there’s something to prove.”

The Steelers will ultimately have a decision to make on Fields as it pertains to his fifth-year option for 2025 that balloons to $25.644 million. That will play out in the coming months, as will the conditional draft pick that would improve to a fourth-round choice in 2025 if Fields plays 51% of the offensive plays this season.

As it stands now, the Steelers at least have a potential star with the former Ohio State QB having much more upside than Pickett.

Wilson, meanwhile, was kicked to the curb by the Broncos despite the string attached of eating $85 million from the massive extension he signed a year before Sean Payton’s arrival. It was one thing not to be Payton’s guy. Yet for Payton to cut the cord before even one complete season – Wilson was benched with two games left in 2023 – had to be so insulting to a veteran who quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks to two Super Bowls, winning one.

A quick glance at Wilson’s passing stats from last season doesn’t suggest his skills fell off a cliff. He passed for 26 touchdowns and threw just eight picks, posting a respectable 90.8 passer rating. Yet that wasn’t good enough for Payton, who undoubtedly was bothered by one of the worst red zone TD rates in the league under Wilson (50.85%). Wilson also lost five of his 10 fumbles last season and was sacked 45 times, which wasn’t always about blocking breakdowns.

In any event, he gets a fresh start without any excuses. It’s set up in Wilson’s favor. The Steelers want him. The system fits. There’s no apparent QB controversy.

And Wilson is so bullish on the prospect of working with Smith that on Friday, he talked about playing into his 40s.

“I’ve got five to seven more years of ball that I want to be the best I can possibly be,” Wilson said. “Who you marry up with matters."

That was a not-so-subtle dig at Payton, given their marriage ended in such a quick divorce.

Of course, how the chip that Wilson has on his shoulder will translate into performance will be evident in time.

Asked about the lessons learned in Denver, Wilson said, “It’s kind of like relationships. Every relationship, you learn from … but you don’t want to look at the good things and the bad things that happened in a relationship and try to marry it up with this one. I go into every situation new."

Fields can likely express similar sentiments.

One thing for certain: There should be no lack of motivational fuel in the Steelers quarterback room.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Steelers' Russell Wilson, Justin Fields moves provide jolt