USA Today

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be among the most aggressive teams exploring the 2022 draft class in pursuit of their next potential franchise quarterback, league sources said, with the team conducting extensive work on the top arms available. For the first time since selecting Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall in 2004, the storied organization could be grabbing a passer in the first round.

That's not to say that Roethlisberger and/or Mason Rudolph will not be back in 2022 -- those decisions have not been made yet -- but it is clear to all in that organization that the Steelers need to be as educated on this quarterback class as any team in the NFL, with the potential of them investing significant draft capital to land the right one. There seems to be a growing consensus within the scouting community that five to six passers will merit at least consideration in the first round, with an expectation of three or more being selected on the first night among the evaluators I have spoken to.

The Steelers and Roethlisberger reworked his contract last year to afford some salary cap space after a poor finish to the 2021 season, with the future Hall of Famer lowering his pay from $19M to $14M in the process. Roethlisberger will be 40 next season and has not announced any intentions about his future; he remains an iconic figure in that organization and, with no clear-cut heir apparent on the roster, it's not out of the question he could be back in some capacity. (It's hard to envision a scenario where he is starting elsewhere.) But the Steelers realize from ownership on down that securing their next great QB is paramount, sources said. And while the specter of a possible Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers exists, no team could bank on that, putting a major emphasis on exhausting the evaluation of the youngsters who will be taken at the top of this draft.

While it's true that teams always keep an eye on quarterbacks in the draft, there is a different sense of urgency for organizations in certain drafts, and more of an expectation that they could be players for a passer in the top tier. Rudolph was selected in the third round in 2018, but he has yet to show he is an NFL starter, and abundant time and energy will be spent in the coming weeks on assessing and ranking this 2022 class.

Since the start of last December, Roethlisberger ranks 26th in the NFL in quarterback rating, and the Steelers have become a short-passing offense with the veteran getting rid of the ball quicker than any other quarterback. At this stage of his career, the ability to make killer plays off-script, under duress, is no longer there, and running out of the pistol with option looks is off the table as well. There are obvious limitations at this stage, though Roethlisberger did recently go five games without a turnover.

The Steelers already have a very strong sense about one of the more highly-touted quarterbacks in the class -- Kenny Pickett of Pitt, who trains at the same facility the Steelers use. Scouts are also high on Matt Corral of Ole Miss, Carson Strong of Nevada, Malik Willis of Liberty and Sam Howell of UNC, among a few others. Scouts continue to point to Strong as the potential biggest star of the bunch, and the quarterback with the highest ceiling, but there are serious concerns about a series of knee surgeries he has undergone, and pursuit of the best medical information and projections about future injury risk will be one of the major plot lines leading up to the draft in the spring.