Salvaging Saquon Barkley and the Mitch Trubisky Trio

NFL Offseason – What could possibly be more boring than the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback competition between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett?

How about a non-competition between Trubisky, Rudolph, and Pickett?

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers don’t do quarterback controversies. It’s hard to even imagine Tomlin at a podium patiently providing daily updates and parsing 7-on-7 results. So it sounds like Tomlin plans to take the “please disperse, nothing to see here” route.

Per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Trubisky took all of the reps with the first-team receivers during OTAs, Rudolph all the reps with the second team, and Pickett, the first-round pick and theoretical quarterback of the future, all the third- team reps. There’s nothing unusual about the hierarchy, but most coaches would mix things up by, say, giving the rookie an honorary 7-on-7 series or two with the starters.

“I think Coach has been very clear that Mitch is No. 1, working with the ones and doing a really good job with that,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said last week, per Kaboly. “Mason is No. 2, and Kenny is No. 3. And we are working that way based on experience, based on résumé. We have been clear that this has been a laid-out plan of how we are going to evolve and who our quarterback is going to be for the 2022 season.”

Ah, so the situation is expected to evolve. The Steelers are just starting from extremely, rigidly fixed initial conditions, as befits a team that has gone through just three coaches in over half a century.

Superficially, this is a dull competition between a reclamation project few believe in, an incumbent few take seriously, and a rookie prospect few are all that thrilled about. Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s still rather dull:

  • Trubisky’s upside is probably 2018 Trubisky: somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 yards, 24 touchdowns, 19th in DVOA, 17th in DYAR, a performance just good enough to make the Steelers a wild card also-ran thanks to their pass rush and offensive playmakers.
  • Pickett’s upside as a rookie is probably 2017 Trubisky: 2,000 to 2,500 yards and seven touchdowns in a half-season in a childproof offense, 29th in DVOA and DYAR. He could lead the Steelers to some victories as a student driver, again due to the surrounding talent. More on that in a moment.
  • Rudolph is only in the mix as a reward for four years of coffee and donut runs for the quarterback room. If the organization had any stake in him, they would not have signed Trubisky other drafted Pickett.

In some ways, the Steelers quarterback competition is like the dreary Denver Broncos competitions of 2016-to-February, with meh prospects, extra-meh veterans, and journeyman hangers-on competing to see who might be able to generate 19 offensive points on Sundays so the defense can win a few games.

The Trubisky Trio may not have spent OTAs jockeying for starter’s reps, but they did get lots of time to soak up Canada’s scheme. Apparently, Canada runs what is described as a motion-based offense, with lots of rollouts and play-action. Who knew? If Ben Roethlisberger tried to roll out last year, the Steelers would have needed to call three EMTs and an earth mover to roll him back in.

Rollout-heavy offenses are generally used to protect quarterbacks with quick feet but noodly arms. Such systems are also typically designed for iffy decision-makers because they limit the reads to half the field. It sounds like the Steelers are going from last year’s 7-on-7 youth league flag football offense to something closer to junior varsity in 2022.

I’m reserving judgment on Canada, whom many Steelers fans wanted to burn in effigy last year. (The reasoning was that Pappy Roethlisberger could still sling it, but Canada wouldn’t let him. Steelers fans don’t handle change well.) But if Canada manages to foist second-division ACC tactics on the NFL, then parlay even the most modest success into decades of job security, well, I admire his chutzpah. I can imagine pulling up Canada’s file before his sixth stop as an NFL coordinator in 2037 and reading, “Canada helped the Steelers reach the playoffs in Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, then coached Mitch Trubiksy to a 3,500-yard season in 2022, then joined Josh McCown’s staff in Houston and taught Davis Mills the tarantella*.” But maybe Canada is an undiscovered genius just waiting for his quarterback.

* (I grew up hearing this word pronounced as “DOT-n-dell” and expect you to read it in your heads as such.)

What the Steelers are doing with the Trubisky Trio is not unusual. They are just taking a more structured approach to a tried-and-true method for keeping a quarterback controversy in an icewater bath. Assuming all goes according to plan, Pickett will move past Rudolph in camp, with Trubisky in the EZ Pass lane to become the opening day starter. It’s easy to be cynical about such a plan—the Bears tried something similar last year, with disastrous results—but Tomlin doesn’t have to rely on save-his-job tactics. The Steelers are moving slowly because that’s their default organizational speed.

Tomlin and the Steelers may also realize that their ability to reach the playoffs despite poor quarterback play thanks to sacks ‘n’ YAC can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get a false read on a quarterback who’s winning games by final scores like 15-10 and 19-13. If that quarterback’s a rookie, he becomes a folk hero, which brings a fresh set of thorny little problems. If Trubisky soaks up a few wins like those, fewer people will be fooled, and Pickett can enjoy the rare luxury of extra developmental time.

So don’t expect many headlines or fireworks from the Steelers quarterback competition.

And try not to think about how much fun a “motion offense” would sound if Malik Willis had been given a chance to run it.

Salvaging Saquon Barkley

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will be deployed in more creative ways this season than he was in years past, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY.

“There’s no telling which direction Saquon Barkley will be headed anymore,” Vacchiano wrote last week. “One play, he’s a running back, the next he’s a slot receiver, then he’ll split out wide or maybe go in motion from wherever he starts.”

Vacchiano’s report sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing we have heard every year out of East Rutherford. In fact, I wrote about Barkley being used as a receiver during a visit to Giants training camp way back before his rookie 2018 season. The Joe Judge regime may not have deployed Barkley as a receiver very often, because Judge thought of offense in general as something between a precursor to an awesome punt and a convenient receptacle for blame. But surely Barkley was used in the slot or as a wide receiver during the more blandly professional Pat Shurmur era, right?

Let’s find out. Here are Barkley’s targets and receiving figures when lined up at a position other than running back for his entire NFL career, per Sports Info Solutions:

Saquon Barkley, Lined up as a Non-RB
Year targets Rec yards
2018 7 4 63
2019 7 5 66
2020 4 2 14
2021 11 5 63

Barkley played just two games in 2020. It appears that Judge and Jason Garrett planned to use him as an all-purpose threat that year before he got hurt. I ran through Barkley’s snap counts at various positions and they align with his target rates: he lined up in the slot or wide a few times per game—particularly late last season, when the Giants were out of both receivers and ideas—but he would never be mistaken for Christian McCaffrey.

As a control, I grabbed Derrick Henry’s non-running back receiving stats, because Henry isn’t the type of running back who should line up all over the formation. Henry has two catches for 19 yards on five targets from non-RB positions since 2018. For further contrast, Austin Ekeler has been targeted 66 times for 48 catches and 562 yards from the slot or split wide since 2018. Barkley is more of a Henry than an Ekeler, but it does appear that the Giants could find more creative ways to use him.

The Giants targeted any running back aligned at a receiver’s position 19 times last season, netting 12 catches for 105 yards. Those are middle-of-the-pack figures. The Falcons led the NFL with 55 targets, but Cordarrelle Patterson isn’t really a running back. Here are the teams with the most targets of running backs in the slot or wide:

Most RB Targets, Slot or Wide, 2021
team targets Rec yards
ATL 55 37 410
CLE 30 25 232
WHAT 29 20 186
IND 29 20 146
DAL 28 20 123

Here are the teams with the fewest targets of running backs in non-RB positions:

Fewest RB Targets, Slot or Wide, 2021
team targets Rec yards
KC 5 5 86
SEA 5 2 4
CAR 6 5 35
NO 7 6 41
THE 8th 6 63
SF 8th 7 55

Some of the most creative coaches in the NFL are on the “fewest” list, so it’s important to not conflate moving a running back around the formation with “innovation” or “unpredictability.” The 49ers’ slash player happens to be listed as a receiver, for example, while the Falcons’ version was listed at running back. Still, it’s fun to look at the Seahawks, with their small battalion of running backs and thin receiving corps, and chuckle at Shane Waldron’s inability to have a lightbulb moment, or see that Matt Rhule’s staff responded to McCaffrey’s absence by just surrendering.

Anyway, most of the teams with high target totals employed designated third-down specialists or had dueling featured backs, or both. Among teams with unquestioned RB1s, Aaron Jones was targeted 23 times from non-RB positions last season, Najee Harris 20 times. So it’s possible to carve out an all-purpose role for a featured running back who doesn’t look like the traditional McCaffrey/Ekeler type. Twenty targets from the slot or wide are as likely to get the needle to flicker on Barkley’s career as anything else. And heaven knows the Giants don’t have anything better to do.

The only folks for whom Barkley’s receiving stats will matter are the Giants fans who remain ultra-invested in him (we know you are still out there) and fantasy gamers in search of reclamation bargains. Barkley is hanging around no. 23 overall in the way-too-early ADP numbers at Fantasy Pros. That’s probably where he belongs, by virtue of getting force-fed touches and opportunities for an awful team. But at least the new Giants regime is thinking about the best way to use him instead of, say, trading him for a conditional sixth-round pick. That should provide fantasy drafters with a little peace of mind.

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