Thoughts on Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers

There has been a lot of speculation about Roethlisberger’s status with the Steelers and that speculation has gotten louder following Kevin Colbert’s comments today that did not exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for the future Hall of Fame QB. I think there are some misperceptions about the situation so I figured I would share are some thoughts on Ben and his future with the team.

Part of the problem in the Roethlisberger discussion likely comes from Roethlisberger himself. Following a disappointing exit from the playoffs.

The key word here is restructure which is very different than not caring about pay. In a restructure a team simply takes a players salary, subtracts out from it the minimum paragraph 5 salary, and converts the remaining amount to a signing bonus. This concept is likely one of the biggest areas that people get wrong all the time when discussing contracts.

Players never take a pay cut in a restructure. That is why they are usually more than happy to restructure and in most cases it is a right that the teams have at their disposal based on the initial contract. If anything the restructure is beneficial to the player in the long term. Its a pure salary cap thing.

The notion of a pay cut has to do with the massive salary cap number that Roethlisberger has. His $41.25 million salary cap number is the highest in the NFL, but most of that is made up of sunk costs. Of that $41.25 million, $22.25 million was already paid to him and would stick with the Steelers if he was cut. His actual salary of $19 million is tied for 11th in the NFL. It is the same salary made by Alex Smith this year and just a bit more than Teddy Bridgewater.

The reality is there is no lower he can really go in any realistic fashion. The drop from Bridgewater’s 15th ranked $18 million salary to number 16 is nearly $6 million to Taysom Hill, a backup in New Orleans. That is followed by NFL luminaries such as Marcus Mariota, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum. The only notable player on a salary that low is Deshaun Watson, whose salary is so low only because he received a massive signing bonus last year and then his salary explodes up next year.

Looking back at the players who were Ben’s contemporaries there is also no justification. Philip Rivers completed his contract with the Chargers in 2020 and never had to modify his contract. Eli Manning played out his entire contract with the Giants, earning $17 million as a backup in his final season. Roethlisberger’s status with his franchise is certainly as solid as those two players and I am sure believes he should be treated the same.

As far as the market for the older player it depends on what you think of the player. Roethlisberger threw for 3,800 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on a playoff team. Rivers was the same age when he left the Chargers and was around 4,600 with 22 TDs and 20 picks. Drew Brees was a few years older and missed 5 games while on a pace for around 4,300 yards. Tom Brady was 4,000, 24 and 8 in his last year with New England. All three signed for $25 million. That is probably the fair market number if you think he is a starter.

The only older name I can really think of that took a pay cut was Peyton Manning who dropped his salary from $19 to $15 million with a chance to earn that $4 million back in incentives.

If you think Ben is done then the salary is much lower. Cam Newton signed a contract with a max value of $7.5 million. Andy Dalton had a max value of $7 million. Joe Flacco had a max value under $5 million. The base pay of these deals was much lower than these max numbers.

But if you are the Steelers are you really going to go to your HOF’er and tell him he is worth $7 million or less? If you are doing that you are basically telling him to leave the team because you dont think he is a starter in the NFL anymore.

There are ways for the Steelers to create more cap room with the existing salary than just by a pure pay cut, but it would require the Steelers to either use void years or to put together a market extension for Roethlisberger. The Steelers are not a team that uses void years which is the only reason I could see the extension being a possibility. His salary would remain the same as it currently is and you would prorate the balance over the max of five years.

That would drop his salary cap number from $41.25 million to $26.91 million and leave the team with $14.34 million in dead money next year if they use the void concept or he retires. If they did a legit extension I would guess that you would be looking at a $25.585 million cap charge in 2022.

On a straight pay cut there would be no money in 2022 and his cap charge would be $22.25 million plus whatever his salary is. So at least $29.25 million if he played for $7 million and $37.25 million if he played for $15 million. It wouldn’t make sense for them to say they need a pay cut and void years for cap relief since he can point to getting to nearly just as low a number without a pay cut.

In hindsight the Steelers probably made two mistakes with the Roethlisbeger contract. The first mistake was only doing a two year rather than a four year contract extension. I guess this was an easy way to make him a $34 million QB while figuring that they could go to him in 2022 and offer a $25 million contract. Just for cap purposes alone it probably made more sense to work more on the extension as a $30 million per year longer term contract. It would have made this deal easier to work with now.

The second was the restructure to the contract last year. While at the time Covid was at it’s infancy and teams could not have expected this type of revenue decrease, Roethlisberger was coming off a big injury and they were putting a ton of dead money and/or a big cap number into this year. The better approach would have probably been to have considered modernizing their approach and using the void years last year. Has they done that his cap figure this year would have been around $30 million and there would have been room to get his numbers down even further or potentially use the June 1. The restructure though was probably necessary given their cap issues.

I think the closest situation to Ben is Brees last year. Brees looked as if father time was catching up to him but it was also clear that the Saints had no options other than Brees. The Steelers have no QB without Ben. The players on the market are names like Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Newton, Flacco, Jacoby Brissett, Jameis Winston, etc…The dead money from Roethlisberger plus the salary from one of these players is likely leaving them with around $27 million in cap charges, the same number that they can bring him down to this year with an extension or void years.

Brees came back as the best chance for the Saints for $25 million and in a game of chicken Roethlisberger for $19 million would seem to make more sense than the alternatives who are available.