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Steelers' Mike Tomlin says Russell Wilson has 'pole position' for starting QB job

ORLANDO, Fla. — (AP) — Russell Wilson’s resume and experience give him the edge over Justin Fields.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday that Wilson is considered Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback but Fields will get a chance to compete.

“We’re not resistant to competition, but as I’ve mentioned several times of late, I just think it’s appropriate to establish positioning. ... and the term that I’ve used is Russell has pole position,” Tomlin said. “And why do I use that term? Because during this time where we are not formally working, I just think it’s beneficial. His experience in the National Football League, his process has been honed and perfected.

“Talking about over a 12-month calendar, it’s not only good for him, it’s good for teams, it’s good for receivers, tight ends, running backs, etc. All the things that people really committed to winning do this time of the year, Russell has those resources, that structure. And so that’s why I say he has pole position. It just creates a synergy that I think is good for this time of year. When it’s time to compete and we get in training camp-like settings and we’re going to stadiums and so forth, obviously Justin be given an opportunity to show people.”

The Steelers revamped their quarterback room earlier this month, signing Wilson to the $1.21 million veteran’s minimum after the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback was released by Denver.

Kenny Pickett, the team’s first-round pick in 2022, asked for a trade after Wilson’s arrival, Tomlin said. So, Pittsburgh sent him to Philadelphia and acquired Fields, a first-round pick in 2021, from Chicago for a conditional sixth-round choice in 2025.

The Steelers also let Mason Rudolph (Titans) and Mitch Trubisky (Bills) leave in free agency.

The 35-year-old Wilson was 11-19 in two seasons with the Broncos after being acquired in a trade from Seattle. He bounced back from a dreadful 2022 season and threw for 3,070 yards, 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, but still lost his job to Jarrett Stidham after going 7-8 in coach Sean Payton’s first season last year.

Wilson led Seattle to eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title in 10 seasons with the Seahawks.

The Steelers lost a wild-card playoff game with Rudolph as their starting quarterback. Rudolph went 3-0 after replacing Pickett, who was 7-5 before going down with an injury. Trubisky started the other two games and went 0-2.

“When the free agency process began, we only had one quarterback on our roster and so we were looking at every available person on the market,” Tomlin said. “It was just part of our process. Obviously when we got into it, and after (Wilson) got permission to talk. ... the conversations were very fluid and natural. He did his appropriate research on us, and I think that’s probably one of the more impressive things about the process from my perspective. His level of preparedness in terms of knowing us and who we are and how he might potentially fit just really put us at ease over the process.”

Fields was 10-28 on lousy teams in Chicago but showed flashes of being a special player. He completed 60.3% of his passes and threw for 40 touchdown with 30 interceptions. Plus, he ran for 2,220 yards and 14 scores.

“He oozes talent and potential,” Tomlin said. “He’s worn the responsibility of being a franchise quarterback, but still he gets an opportunity to come into a community-like situation and learn from a guy that’s been doing it for over a decade. Man, there’s a lot of meat left on that bone and I’m just excited.”

EASY DECISION

Releasing Wilson costs Denver an $85 million salary cap hit over the next two seasons but Payton has no regrets.

Asked if it was difficult to move on from Wilson considering the Broncos are taking the largest dead cap hit in NFL history, Payton responded: “No.”

He paused, and then added: “I mean it’s always difficult when you take a cap hit like that. We spent time deciding how we were going to take that and then we move forward again.”

Stidham will get a chance to be Denver’s starting quarterback and Payton indicated the team is interested in trading with Arizona for the No. 4 spot in the draft.

“He’s definitely competing to be the starter,” Payton said of Stidham. “I don’t think we have a term ‘driver’s seat’ really. But he’s going to compete for that position. I know he’s anxious and excited to do that, and I’m sure there will be other candidates that will be competing with him.”

J.J. MCCARTHY’S BIGGEST FAN

New Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh reiterated that J.J. McCarthy is the best quarterback in a draft class that’s expected to see Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye selected before him.

Harbaugh and McCarthy led Michigan to a national championship last season so the coach knows the QB better than most.

“They could be adulating J.J. or being booed or being hit, and then this killer comes out,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, he’s got an extra gear especially when he’s being challenge. And you also see the big personality and (he’ll) do anything for another guy on the team. ... He’s incredible. Big market, small market, cold weather, hot weather, it wouldn’t matter. I’ve said it before. I think he’s the best quarterback in the draft. That’s my opinion. There’s great quarterbacks in the draft. He’s the one who plays quarterbacks the best.”

AIDAN’S TEAM

The Raiders signed veteran Gardner Minshew after he nearly led Indianapolis to the playoffs but the starting job is Aidan O’Connell’s to lose.

“You’re talking about a kid that has the mental toughness to play in the National Football League,” Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “Whatever happens and whatever we do, it has to go through Aidan O’Connell. Being honest with you because he’s earned that right.”

O’Connell completed 62.1% of his passes for 2,218 yards, 12 TDs and seven interceptions as a rookie, going 5-4 after replacing Jimmy Garoppolo.

RODGERS’ RETURN

Jets coach Robert Saleh expects Aaron Rodgers to be ready for organized team activities in the spring after the four-time NFL MVP tore an Achilles tendon in New York’s season opener.

It’s no surprise since Rodgers had already resumed throwing late last season and was considering a comeback if the Jets would’ve been in playoff contention.

Saleh said he had no reaction when speculation arose that Rodgers was being considered as a running mate for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign.

“I think it was viewed a little bit differently in the political world than it was, at least in our world,” Saleh said.

REPLACING FLACCO

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski knows the importance of having a capable backup quarterback. Joe Flacco stepped in and went 4-1, helping the Browns reach the playoffs last season after Deshaun Watson was sidelined by a shoulder injury. But Flacco didn’t get a contract offer. Cleveland signed Jameis Winston instead of bringing back the 2023 AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

“Your goal is to have your starter healthy for all 17 games and beyond but we know that’s a position that’s important for the team both in the meeting room, on the practice field, around the locker room so we feel like adding good players is a good thing at that position,” Stefanski said.

Winston, the No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay in 2015, spent the past four seasons as a spot starter in New Orleans, going 6-4.

As for Watson, Stefanski said his rehab is right on schedule. He and new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey visited Watson in Los Angeles earlier this month. “He’s right where he needs to be,” Stefanski said. “He has started throwing. Joe Sheehan, our trainer, went out and supervised some of his throwing. So we’ll see him in April when he gets back in and we’ll just continue that rehab.”

Stefanski did not offer any timeline on Watson in terms on when he’ll be full-go.

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