It’s fair to say that it hasn’t quite worked out for Mitchell Trubisky in the NFL since being selected second overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was the first quarterback selected in a draft that also contained Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and while they have become stars (albeit one of them now embroiled in legal trouble), Trubisky lost his job and jumpstarted a franchise reboot due to his underdevelopment.
Does that represent a permanent ceiling to who he is as a quarterback or just a representation of how bad the chemistry was in Chicago?
TRUBISKY IN CHICAGO
Matt Nagy became the Bears' head coach on the back of helping Alex Smith achieve a career year in Kansas City under Andy Reid in their RPO-heavy offense. It seemed like the ideal system to help develop a talented yet raw and inexperienced quarterback, but it just never happened.
Initially, it seemed like the system was propping Trubisky up, and statistically, his first year under Nagy was his best. He passed for 7.4 yards per attempt, almost a full yard more than as a rookie, and posted a career-high 4.0% big-time throw rate on his way to 24 touchdown passes. Bears fans were optimistic. However, he never really improved. In four seasons in Chicago, Trubisky never earned a PFF offensive grade below 62.0 or above 68.4 overall.
|Year||Overall Grade||Big-Time Throw %||Turnover-Worthy Play %||Adjusted Completion %|
As much as people argue about the presence of momentum within games, it’s easy to ride momentum week-to-week during an NFL season. The routine makes it easy to settle into a groove and continue to build on the week before in both positive and negative ways. That’s why unsustainably good play can often last an entire year, requiring the hard break of the offseason to puncture whatever bubble was lifting a player so far above his baseline.
Nonetheless, that same phenomenon makes it very difficult to break out of a slump, as a player can get trapped in a rut with no obvious way out. If they don’t make a significant change in the offseason, they settle right back into that rut and just dig deeper.
That was Trubisky’s career with the Bears before he found a chance at a hard reset with a season in Buffalo. There, he got to sit behind Josh Allen and benefit from an environment that had contributed to one of the biggest leaps forward in quarterback development in NFL history, as Allen went from a raw collection of quarterback tools to a polished, elite NFL player in the span of three years with the Bills.
Some of that development is due to talent added around him, and the work of private quarterback coaches, but Brian Daboll and the position coaches in Buffalo also deserve a lot of credit. They also got to work with Trubisky without the distraction of regular season playing time undoing any good work.
It’s a sample size of just 32 dropbacks against his former team, but Trubisky looked very good in the brief glimpse we saw from him in Buffalo’s preseason. He threw for 7.7 yards per attempt and scored a touchdown, showcasing the physical tools that have always been there in his game.
The biggest thing Trubisky needs to remove from his game is the poor decisions. Even in college — in his one excellent year starting at North Carolina — his turnover-worthy play (TWP) rate was 3.7%, significantly higher than most top quarterbacks in the nation. In the NFL, his career TWP rate is 4.0%, which is more than the best marks in the league.
Unfortunately for Trubisky, the propensity for making mistakes is one of the most stable quarterback metrics around. Trubisky needs to find a way to fundamentally alter how many mistakes he makes with the football in his hand. That’s achievable, but not easy. Taking Allen as an example — he began his career with a 5.1% TWP rate as a rookie before cutting it to 4.0% in his second year and 3.4% across his last two seasons.
ENVIRONMENT IN PITTSBURGH
Trubisky should have options in terms of receivers in Pittsburgh, as rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin III are joining Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Anthony Miller to form what should be a formidable — albeit young — receiving group. Add tight end Pat Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris to the mix, and the quarterback shouldn’t be short of places to go with the football.
One area that will be a concern is the Steelers' performance upfront, as the Steelers' offensive line ended last season ranked 26th in the league despite being protected by Ben Roethlisberger’s league-fastest average time to throw. Multiple starters recorded PFF pass-blocking grades in the 50s despite blocking for less time than any other offensive linemen. While they have added James Daniels and Mason Cole to that group, the unit is still low on proven quality and will be tasked with a new role in 2022 with Trubisky under center.
|Projected 2022 Steelers O-Line||2021 Pass-Blocking Grades||2021 Run-Blocking Grades|
Though he has mobility and athleticism that abandoned Roethlisberger in his later years, Trubisky also averages 2.71 seconds to throw for his NFL career. That doesn’t sound significant, but it’s the difference between being the fastest in the league and ranking in the middle of the pack, which makes a material difference to Pittsburgh's ability to stop pass-rushers. Trubisky may have receiving options, but he is likely to see a significant volume of pressure — something he does not have a good track record of succeeding against.
For his career, Trubisky has a 35.0 PFF passing grade when pressured compared to 76.1 when kept clean. He drops from a 92.1 passer rating to 59.5 when heat is applied, and his completion rate drops by over 20 percentage points.
Pressure affects all quarterbacks, but Trubisky’s PFF grade under pressure for his career ranks in the 45th percentile, and his grade outside of the pocket in the 34th, far worse than his performance from inside a clean pocket.
A NEW TRUBISKY?
The bottom line is that Trubisky had a rare opportunity for a former quarterback bust — a year on the sideline to reboot as a quarterback in a new environment. Now, he needs to show he is also capable of making some fundamental changes to his game in a new NFL system.
How likely is that to happen? Given the consistency of his NFL performances over the years, not very likely, but there has never been a time in league history where quarterbacks have undergone such drastic changes to their game as in recent years. Trubisky has the physical tools to work with and has been exposed to a player that just made an even more drastic leap in Allen.
Can Trubisky play far better in Pittsburgh than he ever did in Chicago? It’s certainly possible, but perhaps more likely is that we see a small uptick that isn’t enough to hold off rookie Kenny Pickett for more than half the season.