Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on December 20, 2020.
The most pivotal decision facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason is whether to retain quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for 2021. Assuming he wants to return, of course.
At his postgame press conference following Sunday night’s loss to the Cleveland Browns, Roethlisberger talked about the thought process behind making the decision, and seemed to be leaning towards coming back in 2021, though seeing him get emotional with Maurkice Pouncey on the bench after Sunday’s game might suggest otherwise.
“Well, it’s gonna start between me and God. A lot of praying, and then, you know, a lot of talking with my family,” he said. “I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back, if that’s the way we go. There’ll be a lot of discussions, but now’s not the time for that.”
March 17, 2021: The Date to Remember
But that time is coming soon—just a few weeks after Roethlisberger turns 39 years of age.
March 17th marks the beginning of the new league year. That’s when his $41.2 million cap charge becomes official; then, on the third day of the new league year, he has a $15 million roster bonus that comes due. At that point he will have received almost all of the compensation due under his current contract, as his salary for 2021 is a relatively paltry $4 million.
It seems almost inconceivable that the Steelers will go forward with Roethlisberger eating up $41-plus million in a year in which the salary cap could go as low as $175 million.
Assuming that doesn’t happen, there are a number of possibilities. Roethlisberger could retire before mid-March, which would save the Steelers $19 million and trigger a $22.5 million dead money charge on the team’s 2021 salary cap. That’s an enormous number, but very similar to what the Steelers absorbed in 2019 after trading disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown.
There is a potential sticking point that comes with retirement, however, The Steelers could ask Roethlisberger to repay $12.5 million of his bonus money (for not fulfilling the final year of his contract), though it seems unlikely the Steelers would take a hardline stance, which might force them to …
… release Roethlisberger and make him a free agent. That would open the door for Big Ben to sign with another team, though even if another team wants him, Roethlisberger doesn’t seem like the type who would want to learn a new offense and adjust to new surroundings for one last hurrah. (In fact, if the Steelers decided to let go of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, that could move Big Ben in the direction of retirement.)
Last but not least, the Steelers could also sign Roethlisberger to a contract extension and spread out the impact of 2021’s salary cap charges. (To be sure, the organization has a long history of restructuring contracts to kick the salary cap implications down the road.)
The Steelers Have 19 Pending Unrestricted Free Agents
Yet regardless of what direction they choose, the Steelers can’t reduce Roethlisberger’s 2021 salary cap hit by more than $19 million. And because the Steelers have 19 pending unrestricted free agents (not to mention a handful of restricted and exclusive rights restricted free agents) there is going to be an exodus of players out of Pittsburgh this offseason.
Many of the unrestricted free agents are starters, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Others aren’t necessarily starters but still consequential, like slot cornerback Mike Hilton and fellow CB Cameron Sutton.
The situation is so dire that the Steelers could be forced to release a number of players currently under contract, just to get cap compliant. That’s a list that includes cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, as well as center Maurkice Pouncey and offensive guard David DeCastro.
But the first step is figuring out where things stand with Roethlisberger, at which point the dominos will begin to fall.
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