A big group of fans engulfed around Kenny Pickett following a recent Steelers training camp practice. But just a few feet away, another group was circling around fellow quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was in no hurry to leave the fans who were pining for an autograph and a few seconds of his time.
"No," a smiling Rudolph said when asked if signing autographs ever gets old. "We're blessed to be here, to be in the NFL. I'm not taking it for granted. I don't think I ever did. But you go through free agency, and to be able a part of this franchise, you really enjoy every moment. The camaraderie with the guys, the informal time in the locker room, it's priceless. I really enjoy it."
Like Mitch Trubisky, the Steelers' other backup quarterback, it appeared far-fetched that Rudolph would be back in Pittsburgh at the end of the 2022 season. Once hailed as Ben Roethlisberger's possible successor, Rudolph was third on the depth chart last season. He was inactive for each of the Steelers' 17 regular season games and seldom got opportunities to throw in practice.
But after testing the market in free agency, Rudolph signed a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh -- the team that five years earlier selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft. Rudolph is one of just five Steelers still left from that 2018 squad; Cameron Heyward, Chris Boswell, T.J. Watt and Chukwuma Okorafor are the others.
"There's a lot of new faces," Rudolph said, "but a lot of new guys that you bond very quickly with. Just happy to be in Latrobe. I enjoy it more every year."
Rudolph has seen a lot of change during his half-dozen years in Pittsburgh. As a rookie, he watched as the Steelers endured a disappointing season. A year later, he was thrust into the starting lineup when Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2. Rudolph experienced several highs and lows as Pittsburgh's starter that included five wins, three losses, a concussion and his infamous brawl with Myles Garrett.
With Roethlisberger healthy, Rudolph started one game apiece in 2020 and 2021. He showed signs of promise in both games but was unable to lead the Steelers to victory in either contest. The Steelers then drafted Pickett following Roethlisberger's retirement after the 2021 season, then signed Trubisky in free agency. Those moves essentially ended Rudolph's time as Roethlisberger's heir apparent before it even started.
The Steelers' roster underwent significant change during those seasons. The team's record, however, largely remained the same. Pittsburgh went 9-7-1 during Roethlisberger's final season and were 9-8 last season following a 2-6 start. The Steelers are hoping to make a leap this year after what was a busy offseason for first-time general manager Omar Khan, who has built perhaps the Steelers' deepest team in recent memory.
"It's too early to tell," Rudolph said when asked to compare the 2023 Steelers with past teams he has been on. "I think we've got a great roster. The front office has done a great job compiling a group of guys that are all competitors."
The quarterback room is an example of that depth. It starts with Pickett, who isafter directing four game-winning drives during his rookie campaign. Behind him on the depth chart is Trubisky, a former Pro Bowler who has a winning record in his 55 career regular season starts. The quarterback room also includes Rudolph, who has 10 career starts under his belt. Rudolph also has the most experience within the Steelers' system.
"Continuity is great, especially when you have a young quarterback," Khan said when asked about the Steelers' quarterback room. "Mitch is just tremendous here. The three of those guys have a great relationship, and they have it with Sully (QB coach Mike Sullivan) and Matt (Canada)."
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Rudolph shared some insight into the Steelers' offensive plans under third-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada. While much of the narrative has been on the Steelers trying to generate more big plays, Rudolph confirmed that Pittsburgh's ground attack -- a major component in the team's second-half turnaround last season -- will continue to be a pivotal part of the offense.
"I think you kind of saw us start to be to run the ball a lot better last year," Rudolph said. "That's a point of emphasis, for sure. We know we've got the athletes on the outside to throw the ball and make those splash plays. The coaches have been taking about yards after the catch as an emphasis. We've got a lot of goals for ourselves, but we're excited."
Rudolph has his own individual goals for the upcoming season. By trying to reach his potential, Rudolph is hoping to do his part in helping the 2023 Steelers maximize theirs.
"I want to have as good of a training camp as I can," he said. "I didn't get a lot of reps, obviously, last year once the season started. I know these are at a premium, and I want to do my best to leave everything on the field."