Ben Roethlisberger has piloted the Steelers to an undefeated start, but his contract will become a problem for Pittsburgh this offseason.
The Steelers are off to an impressive 10-0 start, but that doesn’t mean big problems aren’t looming on the horizon in Pittsburgh. The contract status of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will put the team’s front office squarely between a rock and a very hard place this offseason.
It’s never good for any team when their franchise quarterback is poised to enter the last season of their contract. 2021 represents the final year of the two-year, $68 million extension Roethlisberger inked with the only franchise he’s ever known. The larger issue is that Big Ben is set to count for over $41 million against Pittsburgh’s salary cap next season.
That number is untenable for a franchise that is desperately trying to keep hold of high-end talent all across their roster. Bud Dupree and Juju Smith-Schuster are both slated to hit the open market after the 2020 season. Superstar edge rusher T.J. Watt will only have one year left on his bargain contract and could easily be looking for a lucrative long-term extension if he’s going to stay in Pittsburgh throughout the prime of his career.
In fairness to Roethlisberger, he is still playing like an elite quarterback. He’s not providing the Steelers $40+ million of value, but he’s not all that far off. He’s completing over 67 percent of his passes and has tossed 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions on the season. There are legitimate questions about whether or not he still pushes the ball downfield often enough to be considered an elite quarterback, but it’s unreasonable to argue with his effectiveness this season. to put it bluntly, he’s still a Pro Bowl quarterback that the Steelers need to find a way to retain. If Big Ben walks, Pittsburgh immediately becomes a pretender, rather than a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
So what can the Steelers do immediately?
The easy solution for Pittsburgh would be to convince Roethsliberger to extend his current deal in exchange for significantly lowering his cap number next season. That move isn’t free of danger. Roethlisberger isn’t going to accept a bargain contract. He might not want $40 million, but he’s still going to want to be one of the highest-paid players in the NFL at his position.
Handing out that kind of cash to a quarterback in his age-39 season and beyond is a risky strategy for Pittsburgh. It’s entirely possible that Roethlisberger’s production will fall off sharply due to injury or age-related regression sometime in the very near future. That’s a risk the Steelers have to take.
What can Pittsburgh do for the long haul?
It’s time for the franchise to get serious about long-term planning at the game’s most important position. Retaining Roethlisberger is a necessity. The Steelers need to treat finding his successor this offseason with the same measure of desperation.
That could lead Pittsburgh to use their late first-round pick to add a new quarterback to the mix. Finding a ready-made starter at a pick that could easily end up as the last selection of the round will be challenging. Instead, Pittsburgh will be forced to settle for an imperfect prospect they believe they can groom into a high-end starter. Someone like Mac Jones, Jamie Newman, or Kellen Mond could be interesting options to groom behind Roethlisberger for a season or more.
The other option available to Pittsburgh’s front office would be to acquire a younger quarterback via free agency or a trade. On the open market, Jameis Winston could be an enticing option for an offense that likes to push the ball down the field.
A better bet would be for Pittsburgh to keep a close eye on the potential quarterbacks who will be pushed out of their jobs by rookies drafted in the top-10. The Jets will almost certainly let Sam Darnold go if they have a chance to draft Trevor Lawrence. A team like the Panthers might be convinced to part with Teddy Bridgewater if they fall into an elite prospect like Justin Field on draft night.
But what will Pittsburgh do?
The most likely outcome for the Steelers this offseason will be to kick the question of quarterback down the road for at least 12 additional months. Pittsburgh will almost certainly find a way to extend Roethlisberger’s contract at a lower cap hit for the upcoming seasons. Those negotiations might become contentious, but it makes too much sense for all parties not to get done in the end.
The probable mistake is that the Steelers front office will probably try to take another half-measure to find their quarterback of the future. Spending a middle-round pick on a developmental prospect is not the right move for a franchise that will need to make a change at the position very soon. With all due respect to Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs, that philosophy didn’t really work out for the Steelers in either instance.
Signing some sort of bargain option in free agency isn’t a recipe for success either. Bringing someone along the lines of Ryan Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh would be a valuable upgrade at the backup spot, but it won’t move the needle in terms of finding a franchise quarterback for the future. If Steelers fans enter the 2021 season without a clear understanding of who Roethlisberger’s successor is, then the franchise has not adequately addressed the issue.
The bottom line is that the clock is ticking loudly on Roethlisberger’s shelf life as a quarterback Pittsburgh can rely on to lead their team to the promised land of a Super Bowl title. The fact that his beefy contract manages to outweigh his 240-pound frame is set to cause the Steelers significant issues.