Mike Tomlin: Russell Wilson has 'pole position' on Steelers QB job; Justin Fields has 'opportunity to compete'

When the Steelers overhauled their quarterback room, it was reported that Russell Wilson would be the clear starter over Justin Fields, both of whom Pittsburgh acquired in March.

It turns out that it’s not that cut and dried.

Head coach Mike Tomlin spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first time since the Steelers acquired the two quarterbacks and traded former starter Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles. Per Tomlin, Wilson has “pole position” to start the offseason. And Fields will have an “opportunity to compete.”

“Rest assured, when it’s time to compete, Justin will be given an opportunity to compete, and we’ll allow those guys to sort themselves out,” Tomlin said, per Steelers Now’s Nick Farabaugh. “But I thought it was appropriate to describe it in a way for when we get started.

“Russell’s in pole position, and I think his body of work justifies that. And just from my conversations with Justin, he is excited about working alongside Russell and learning some of those veteran tricks of the trade from behind a guy who has been around for over a decade.”

That’s far from the undisputed starter status that was being portrayed around Wilson following Pittsburgh’s offseason moves. And it makes a lot more sense.

Russell Wilson has a leg up on the Steelers quarterback job, but he won't go unchallenged. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Russell Wilson has a leg up on the Steelers quarterback job, but he won’t go unchallenged. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Tomlin relishes competition

Tomlin said from the start of Pittsburgh’s offseason that he envisioned a quarterback competition in the fall.

“I think competition is good,” Tomlin said in February. “I think it’s good for all of us. I think it brings out the best in all of us.”

That was in reference to Pickett and long before the Steelers brought on Wilson and Fields. But there’s nothing about Pittsburgh’s offseason that suggests that Tomlin would move away from his philosophy of fostering competition.

Why would Steelers hand Wilson the job?

The Steelers didn’t go out and acquire Patrick Mahomes. They signed Wilson after the Broncos decided to pay him $39 million to not play football in Denver next season. Tomlin cited Wilson’s “body of work” in giving Wilson the leg up in competition. It’s been a long time since that body of work was relevant on a real live football field.

Wilson was excellent at his peak, a dynamic passer and playmaker who made nine Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. But he was bad in two seasons in Denver. In his first, the Broncos were on pace for a historically low-scoring offense late into the season. There’s a reason Sean Payton wanted him gone.

For Pittsburgh, his arrival amounts to a low-risk proposition on a cheap contract. But to expect him to be the undisputed starter over a 25-year-old Fields who still has upside didn’t make any sense. As it turns out, Fields will have a chance to win the job. Even if Wilson has a leg up on the competition.

And if he can learn from a veteran in the process, even better.

“Russell is a veteran, man,” Tomlin said. “He’s got a proven process of readiness. He’s been in this league a long time, and he’s capable of rallying troops, receivers, tight ends and running backs. He’s just got a lot of experience in terms of what it takes over a 12-month calendar.

“I just think that’s something that a younger guy like Justin can learn from.”

That’s a lot from Tomlin about Wilson’s process and nothing about his abilities as a football player in 2024. This remains one of the more intriguing stories of the NFL offseason.

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