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NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger’s New Deal Saves Steelers’ Salary-Cap Headache

  • The Draft Network
  • March 6, 2021
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The image of Ben Roethlisberger in tears on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bench during their wild-card loss to the Cleveland Browns won’t be the last time we see the quarterback in the NFL. While it was unclear how Roethlisberger would stay in Pittsburgh with the salary cap-strapped team, a couple of things were obvious: The Steelers didn’t have many achievable options outside of the aging passer, and Roethlisberger was prepared to do whatever was necessary to stay.

Everything came to fruition when both parties agreed to terms on a new contract Thursday; one that meant Pittsburgh gets to keep its long-time quarterback at a massive—really an unprecedented—discount. The new, $14 million deal saves the Steelers more than $15 million in salary-cap space for the upcoming season. Roethlisberger, whose current net worth is $100 million, took a $5 million pay cut to lower his previous 2021 salary (of $19 million). There hasn’t been a discount of this size for a starting player, let alone a starting quarterback, in recent memory—Tom Brady’s desire to stay in New England as long as he did was on more team-friendly contracts, not necessarily highly-discounted deals. Now, Roethlisberger gets a chance at redemption, and the Steelers can better plan for their future.

There’s hardly any value in this contract other than the huge savings for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger isn’t playing so much for the money now than for the last few chances at returning to peak NFL success. There was no other option for him than to take a pay cut if he wanted a chance at achieving that once more. Roethlisberger’s previous $41 million cap hit would have been the largest in the NFL next season. The Steelers now have roughly $3.6 million to use before hitting the league’s decreased cap, according to Over the Cap, and a slew of players facing free agency, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and a number of players along the offensive line. What does it mean for 2021 and beyond, specifically at quarterback?

The Steelers don’t seem to have a long-term plan under center; that’s okay for now. The market isn’t rich for talent Pittsburgh could immediately win-now with. When dissecting the Steelers’ other options—either looking within the organization at Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins, free agency, or a blockbuster trade—there weren’t many feasible outcomes. The Steelers could target a passer in the second tier of the 2021 draft class. 

According to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, that’s been discussed among NFL brass:

There is a sense among some other general managers that the Steelers could very well invest a fairly high draft pick on a passer. The name I hear the most in scouting circles is Florida's Kyle Trask.

I've known Kevin a long time and the more I see of this kid the more I see him in a Steelers uniform,’ one GM told me. ‘He looks the part.’”

The COVID-19 affected salary cap could increase over the next couple of seasons and allow the Steelers to bring in their next franchise cornerstone. If the salary-cap ceiling does rebound quickly, there really isn’t a lose, lose here. Unless Roethlisberger has a miraculous season and turns back the hands of time, he’s a veteran stop-gap. He just turned 39 and will be the second-oldest quarterback behind Brady, with the assumption New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees retires. While Roethlisberger showed brief signs of his former self—impressive in its own right after a season-ending injury in 2019—he’s still a shell of himself with some of his lowest marks across the board in the last decade and a career-low yards per attempt (6.3), excluding his shortened 2019 season.

Pittsburgh will have trouble contending again with Roethlisberger as the starting quarterback, but it can at least work to strengthen other areas of the offense before truly ushering in a new era. The Steelers can establish a more effective run game by bolstering their backfield; it’s something we hear often from the organization but haven’t seen since Le'Veon Bell’s last active season in Pittsburgh in 2017. Better production out of the backfield will take a little pressure off Roethlisberger; but with the receiving corps and offensive line in flux, it’s challenging to gauge Pittsburgh’s success ahead of the 2021 season. The Steelers, however, came out of the winning end on this deal.

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