The Steelers are starting to think about life after Ben Roethlisberger.
Well, kind of.
Pittsburgh drafted Oklahoma star Landry Jones in the fourth round of the NFL draft on Saturday, the highest the club has taken a quarterback since using the 11th overall pick on Roethlisberger nine years ago.
“I just think it was time to start grooming a new player, freshen up the room if you will,” quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said.
Jones smashed every significant passing record during his four years at Oklahoma, throwing for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns while starting 50 of 52 games.
Pittsburgh sent a third-round pick in the 2014 draft to Cleveland for the Browns’ fourth-round pick — one they received from Miami — and the chance to grab the 24-year-old Jones.
Earlier in the fourth round the Steelers picked Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas to provide some needed depth behind entrenched starters Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Pittsburgh added more help in the secondary when it chose Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne in the fifth.
The addition of Jones, Thomas and Hawthorne continued a pragmatic approach to the draft by the Steelers, who addressed their most immediate needs in the first three rounds, taking linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first, running back Le’Veon Bell in the second and wide receiver Markus Wheaton in the third.
All three are expected to get a chance to play in 2013. The same can’t be said for Jones, though Pittsburgh’s aggressive move to land one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history will certainly raise eyebrows.
Jones said he had no contact with the Steelers until his phone rang on Saturday afternoon. He considers himself a future NFL starter but has no issues coming in and learning the NFL behind a two-time Super Bowl winner.
“On every single team there’s going to be a quarterback that has your job,” Jones said. “You’re going to go in there, you’re going to be respectful and do all these things and compete as hard as you can.”
The Steelers have relied heavily on longtime backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch when Roethlisberger has been out of the lineup. Both are now unlikely to return after Pittsburgh signed Bruce Gradkowski to serve as Roethlisberger’s top sub and drafted Jones with an eye toward one day having a younger guy in place should Roethlisberger get hurt.
Fichtner said it is time for the 31-year-old Roethlisberger to become one of the guys who talks instead of the one who listens.
“There has been a great respect between Byron, Charlie and Ben,” Fichtner said. “I think this gives Ben an opportunity to share his experiences. That is an exciting time.”
Jones is already familiar with the Roethlisberger family. His wife, Whitney Hand, played basketball at Oklahoma with Roethlisberger’s wife, Carlee.
“My wife is pretty pumped about this whole deal,” Jones said with a laugh.
Even if it means Jones will have to wait his turn.
“I get to learn from one of the best quarterbacks to play the game,” Jones said.
Thomas and Hawthorne will get to say the same while studying under Polamalu, Clark and cornerback Ike Taylor.
The 5-foot-9 Thomas and the speedy Hawthorne give Pittsburgh a fresh start in the defensive backfield after the Steelers lost reserve safeties Ryan Mundy and Will Allen to free agency. The 32-year-old Polamalu and 33-year-old Clark are also entering the final stages of their career.
Pittsburgh defensive backs coach Carnell Lake likened Thomas to a younger version of 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders.
“I’m not worried about his size at all,” Lake said. “The kid has a 40-inch vertical and that kind of explosiveness gives him great range when it comes to making plays.”
Lake added if Thomas was two inches taller he would have gone in the first round. Thomas was a first-team All-Big East selection after his senior season at Syracuse, when he led the Orange with 88 tackles.
Though Thomas played primarily at safety he filled in occasionally at nickelback and corner and that versatility could be an asset in a remodeled secondary.
“I will play anywhere they want me,” Thomas said. “I just want to be on the field. I want to help out the Steelers.”
The Steelers are starting to think about life after Ben Roethlisberger.
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