With Mike Tomlin’s Steelers extension signed, the Russell Wilson vs. Justin Fields QB battle begins

One significant order of Pittsburgh Steelers business is squared away for the 2024 NFL season. Another is just beginning the sorting process, even if the franchise continues to insist otherwise.

That’s how Pittsburgh is moving into its most pivotal practices of the offseason, getting ahead of this week’s full-squad minicamp — and a quarterback battle between Russell Wilson and Justin Fields — by signing head coach Mike Tomlin to a three-year extension that will take him through the 2027 season. With Tomlin’s previous contract expiring after 2024, the new deal was a pressing item on ownership’s agenda, eliminating speculation about Tomlin’s job security as he enters what could have otherwise been framed as a lame duck season.

Now the franchise has removed one major lingering question mark, freeing Tomlin and his staff to focus on a decision that could define the Steelers this season.

Wilson or Fields?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Justin Fields, left, and Russell Wilson (3) participate in the team's NFL OTA's football practice in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Justin Fields, left, and Russell Wilson (3) participate in the team's NFL OTA's football practice in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Russell Wilson (3) is the favorite to enter the 2024 NFL season as the Steelers’ starting QB over Justin Fields. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first the Tomlin contract. It will no doubt frustrate some of his critics, who continue to point to his lack of a playoff win since the 2016 season and zero Super Bowl appearances since the 2010 season. That hasn’t undermined ownership support for Tomlin, whose supporters in the building are quick to point to the team’s winning records despite mediocre-to-poor quarterback play dating back to Ben Roethlisberger’s final NFL season in 2021. Tomlin managed to string together moderate success in spite of deficits created by injuries, poor offensive scheming and a rotation of lackluster quarterbacks. All of this culminated in the in-season firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the jettisoning of the entire quarterback depth chart in the offseason.

Boiled down, ownership ultimately saw the struggles as shared mistakes between the coaching staff and front office, but also solvable with patience and fine-tuning. That’s what paved the way for Arthur Smith’s addition at offensive coordinator, which is expected to take Pittsburgh back to a run-dominant style that came to define the team’s toughest and most successful editions during Tomlin’s reign. It also opened the door for the Steelers to reach for a win-now veteran quarterback in Wilson, accentuated by a less-developed-but-higher-upside swing at Fields.

Neither has a contract beyond 2024, setting up an interesting quarterback room dynamic next season. That tension moves the spotlight to this week and the question of Wilson versus Fields. It’s a debate that the Steelers have repeatedly tried to quell, first with Tomlin stating in March that Wilson had the “pole position” on the starting quarterback spot, and then again with leaked suggestions that Fields could have a role in kickoff returns and still didn’t have a commitment of situational packages designed for him. Taken from a wide vantage, the message in Pittsburgh has been clear: Wilson is the starter that the coaching staff wants, while Fields is an intriguing talent the front office has coveted since he was a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Both things can be true without controversy entering the conversation, but neither solves an untenable reality that is just starting to unfold. And that is the simple fact that Wilson and Fields are playing this season for a long-term contract in 2025 and beyond. That’s something that can really only be accomplished from the top of the QB depth chart.

Right now, Wilson has that slot. But Fields has made clear he aims to compete for it, setting up a minicamp and training camp that will be one of the NFL’s most-watched storylines into September. This is the scenario Pittsburgh set up when it signed Wilson to only a one-year deal, then traded for Fields and subsequently declined his fifth-year option this offseason. The two moves will ramp up competition between the two players, whether the Steelers want that to be a part of the team narrative or not.

So how does that set up this week?

It puts Smith at the center of any debate, since he will be the one who influences how first-team reps are divided at quarterback. And make no mistake, those reps will be tallied by onlookers by the end of this three-day camp, which kicks off Tuesday. Not to mention a tedious cataloguing of every throw, completion, big play, small mistake or point of leadership. And beyond those numbers, there will also be a focus on how each player operates Smith’s scheme. Specifically, whether Fields takes part in any exotic red-zone packages, which would be the most likely path to still getting him onto the field if Wilson does indeed keep a hammer lock on the starting job.

That said, it’s debatable whether any of it will matter in the long run for Fields, who despite being a more dynamic athlete is far less developed as a passer than Wilson. Not to mention a less established veteran presence, with Wilson having been through the highest of Super Bowl peaks with the Seattle Seahawks and then the lowest of valleys with his failure with the Denver Broncos. For an offense that is young and making a transition to a new coordinator, Wilson fits the bill as the type of quarterback a coaching staff leans upon when it’s trying to win now. Which the Steelers and Tomlin absolutely are.

In a way, that makes this minicamp and the next few months more about Fields than Wilson, since he almost certainly will have to present something exceptional and consistent in every opportunity. That’s what it will likely take for Fields to wrestle away the starting quarterback job, barring an absolute collapse in performance by Wilson. Thus far, Fields has presented an attitude that he’s preparing to make that kind of challenge, stating clearly in his first comments with the team that he sees the quarterback spot as a competition. While he has softened the language in the ensuing weeks — most recently calling Wilson a “mentor” and a “great teammate” — everything coming into this week … and also between this week and training camp … will likely prove to be wasted oxygen.

This will be a quarterback competition if Fields can make it into one. With Tomlin’s contract extension in the books, it moves to the front burner of unresolved items. The resolution starts this week.

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