The Pittsburgh Steelers made a rare NFL roster move this week.

General manager Omar Khan signed the team’s presumptive starting quarterback to a one-year deal for $1.2 million, the league’s veteran minimum. It’s almost never possible to get a starter for that price, but then again, it’s almost never possible for a QB to make $38 million in a season from a team he isn’t playing for.

That is what quarterback Russell Wilson will get from the Denver Broncos, who remain on the hook for nearly his entire salary in the upcoming season while the Steelers add the 35-year-old vet at a clearance-rack price. Days after Denver cut him loose, Wilson made a deal with the Steelers just before the start of the new league year and formal free agency. 

As a costly trade acquisition who signed one of the biggest contracts in sports history, Wilson was one thing. As a free agent who signed practically for free, he is an entirely different thing.

For Wilson to pan out in Denver in 2022 and last season, he needed to be one of the best quarterbacks in the world. For him to pan out in Pittsburgh, he only needs to be a mild upgrade on one of the NFL’s most dire QB situations. 

Of all the veteran quarterbacks available this offseason, Wilson was the one who sat in a gray area between a clear starter with upside and a veteran on his last legs. He played better in 2023 (26 touchdowns and eight interceptions), his second year in Denver, than in 2022 (16 and 11).

He likely has more in the tank than Ryan Tannehill or Joe Flacco, even as he lacks Chicago Bears QB (for now) Justin Fields’s or former Minnesota Vikings and new Atlanta Falcons QB Kirk Cousins’s upside.

The Steelers hope that Wilson is a bit closer to those two than the others in his 2024 caliber of play. But more than anything, they’re hoping the nine-time Pro Bowlers is better than the mostly disastrous QBs who have worn the black and gold in the past few years. 

Kenny Pickett does one thing well. Wilson does it better. 

Pickett, the team’s 2022 first-round pick, has shown strict limits in just about every facet of his game. But he’s avoided interceptions, and that counts for a lot.

Pickett posted a 3.23% pickable pass rate in 2023, a decent bit ahead of the league average of 3.67%. He couldn’t do much else well, but by not throwing pickable passes, Pickett let the defense keep the team in most games. (Of course, the Steelers only made the AFC playoffs because third-stringer Mason Rudolph went 3-0 down the stretch.) 

Wilson has the same strength, only he’s exhibited over a much longer period of time and at a generally higher level. His 2.65% pickable pass rate was ninth best among starting quarterbacks, and his actual interception rate of 1.8% was 10th. (Pickett’s 1.2% rate was second, even though he threw a higher percentage of pickable balls than Wilson did.)

Throughout his career, Wilson has done an excellent job avoiding the pick: Of the 50 QBs to start 50 games or more since Wilson entered the league in 2012, only seven have thrown interceptions less frequently than Wilson’s 1.8% of attempts. 

Wilson remains one of the more accurate passers in the NFL, but take that with a grain of salt. 

Wilson’s 80.7 well-thrown percentage was almost exactly the league average in 2023, and his 80.5% catchable ball rate was fourth. His completion percentage over expectation was 13th, right in between Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow and a few spots ahead of C.J. Stroud. 

It’s important to take those numbers with a heavy dose of context. The Broncos did not have Wilson air the ball out a ton, and his 7.5 average air yards were about a half-yard less than the league average. His check-down rate was a cartoonish 18.3%, the highest mark in the whole sport. 

highest checkdown rates

All of that inflated Wilson’s accuracy numbers, and it should leave us with two impressions of the veteran at the same time: One, he wasn’t exactly throwing darts to well-covered targets all over the field. But two, it’s not as if Wilson has lost the ability to put the ball where his receivers can get it. 

Can Wilson coexist with the Steelers’ offensive line? 

Pittsburgh’s pass protection has not been good for years. The Steelers have one of the worst pass-protecting left tackles in football in Dan Moore. His counterpart at right tackle, Broderick Jones, showed both exciting signs and worrying vulnerabilities in his rookie season after the team took him in the first round. The Steelers do not have a functional center at the moment and will need to draft one. 

You can see how this might be a problem. Wilson has always taken a lot of sacks, the byproduct of some lousy offensive lines with the Seattle Seahawks and his own tendency to hold the ball forever looking for a big play. (Wilson’s 2.89 seconds to release in 2023 were the fourth most in the NFL.) While playing behind a Denver line that allowed the fifth-worst pressure rate (40.9%), Wilson took a sack on 9.1% of his drop backs – the seventh-highest percentage in the league.

Pittsburgh’s unit was only slightly better, allowing the sixth-worst pressure rate (40.8%).

pressure allowed rates

One of the big tasks for new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith will be finding a way to get the ball out of Wilson’s hands before a leaky line gets him destroyed. 

Despite all of the potential red flags, Wilson at the veteran minimum is a no-brainer addition for the Steelers. 

Pickett has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. Wilson was considerably better than him in 2023, even as the veteran fell out of favor with Sean Payton and the Broncos. Wilson represents a much different (and higher) level of competition with Pickett than what Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky delivered over the past two years.

Pickett, Trubisky and Rudolph trio led the Pittsburgh’s offense to the seventh-worst passing success rate in the NFL (36.2%) last season.

So Wilson has to be considered the odds-on favorite to lead the Steelers onto the field in Week 1, but if he isn’t, that’s a good outcome for the Steelers because it indicates that Pickett somehow won a QB competition against someone who has remained a viable (if far from elite) NFL starter. In that event, the Steelers will be paying almost nothing for a decent backup as he heads toward retirement. 

For Wilson, too, the deal makes a lot of sense. He’s made enough money in his career that he has no reason to either be a long-term backup or play for a team that can’t make the playoffs. The Steelers are wild-card fodder, but they are at least in the mix until the end of every season. That’s the magic of head coach Mike Tomlin.

Pittsburgh affords Wilson the chance to not just play, but play in meaningful games toward the end of the year. It’s not Super Bowl contention, but it’s far from a bad gig. 

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