A story broke this morning that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger had made it known to the organization that he would be open to a trade in 2014. Since that time he has denied he ever made such a request, but I do think it’s an option that should at least be discussed.
The Steelers are one of the older teams in the NFL. They had a tremendous run from the mid 2000’s through 2011 but the last two seasons have been disappointing and the writing is on the wall that the team, as currently constructed, is not going to go back to the playoffs. The Steelers currently have six starters over the age of 30 and of their top 10 2014 salary cap charges, six will be over 30 next year.
Pittsburgh has been both a victim of their own success and also of poor cap management. When you are as good as the Steelers were you will almost always encounter difficult salary cap situations since your best players will always need to get paid, but the Steelers have consistently refused to face reality when it came to some of their players in recent years. While they have been willing to let Wide Receivers leave the organization (Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace were all considered above average players) the remainder of the team was pretty much kept intact.
In order to be cap compliant the Steelers have been nothing but a restructuring factory simply deferring charges until later and later has pretty much arrived. It seems as if much of the planning has only been with the current year in mind, not that different than the Dallas Cowboys. Many of the recent signings have never gone back to back years without a restructured contract. Now it will be time to release many of those players.
My estimates have Pittsburgh about $7.5 million over next years’ salary cap with 40 players under contract. The release of T Levi Brown (a no brainer) and S Troy Polamalu (a very difficult move since he’s a Steelers legend) will give the team about $7 million in cap room. From there they will need to make a decision on TE Heath Miller and CB Ike Taylor. Releasing both would open the team up to $20 million in cap space but this is an organization that has never been about free agent signings but instead building through the draft, so they wont have immediate need for the money. That said having cap room when you re-sign your quality draft picks down the line is important.
With the possibility of releasing Miller, Polamalu, and Taylor very real, plus the fact that starters Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Emmanuel Sanders, Jason Worilds, and Fernando Velasco are all free agents the Steelers could finally be at the point of a major shakeup. This should bring up the thought of whether or not Roethlisberger is the man to lead the team through this change period.
This should not be a financial decision. First of all Ben is a cheap QB. His salary the next two years is just $12.1 and $11.6 million. That would make him attractive to other teams but should also make him attractive to Pittsburgh. While he does have bloated cap charges of $18.95 and $18.35 million due to the constant restructuring of his contract, trading Roethlisberger would still cost the Steelers $13.59 million in dead money. If the Steelers were really considering the option then the restructuring of his contract was a terrible mistake. Prior to his latest restructure the dead money on his contract was just $7.59 million.
If the season ended now the Steelers would have a draft pick in the top 8, but that would be behind multiple QB needy teams such as Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Houston, and Minnesota. The Rams could possibly have two top 10 picks while the Browns will likely have two mid round picks. That gives both significant ammunition to trade up with the Falcons or Bills, the two bad teams with no need for a QB.
Realistically I am not sure that trading Roethlisberger would give the Steelers the ammunition they need to grab a QB. A team that would want him would be one like the Cardinals who will likely be picking near the playoff area of the draft. That would give them more firepower than Cleveland but not the Rams. Even if it did you are essentially trading your franchise QB to package with another draft choice to draft a QB. That is a pretty steep price.
If the Steelers were to use a top draft pick on a QB the compensation in cash would be around $14 million with a $4 million cap charge. Both of those numbers would be basically a push on the QB spending for the team in 2014 under the scenario where Ben remains. If they were to simply trade him for another draft choice then they have a limited set of options to play the position next year.
In my opinion they would probably be best off keeping Ben on the team under his current contract and considering drafting a prospect with one of their top draft selections in 2014. As we have seen this season having a quality backup is something most teams desire and with the new CBA in place there is no reason why you can not have a player like Roethlisberger and a 1st or 2nd round draft pick on the team. You can then revisit trading him in 2015 when you may have more faith in where the organization is headed.
Unless the season gets to the point where they sneak into the 3rd draft pick and are in line to get one of the top QBs in the draft naturally I just can’t see trading him for what could end up being the 18th pick in the draft. Even then I am sure than Roethlisberger could at least mentor the player somewhat during his rookie season. Roethlisberger is not the problem with the Steelers salary cap and moving him is not going to change that situation one bit. A trade as things stand right now would be surprising to me.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.