LATROBE, Pa. -- Ben Roethlisberger will be a Pittsburgh Steeler for life. I feel incredibly confident writing that sentence with the recent declaration by the Rooney family that there would be a contract extension this offseason.
Roethlisberger has never pondered playing elsewhere. The Steelers have never considered trading him. It's not a contemplation. It's not anything they could ever fathom. And by this time a year from now, I have no doubt Big Ben will be celebrating a contract that makes him among the NFL's five or six highest-paid players. But with the Steelers still wading through salary-cap issues, a few more pressing pending free-agent situations and Roethlisberger set to make $12.1 million this season and $11.6M next and cap numbers below $19M each of those seasons, this pending negotiation understandably has been tabled until after the season.
"For Art Rooney to come out and say it's certainly our intention to address this after the season, because we want to hopefully address some of our free agents who are going to reach free agency earlier," general manager Kevin Colbert said, "a commitment like that from the Rooney family is actually more iron-clad than a contract, in my opinion. And I think Ben understands that and appreciates it. And I'm sure he's disappointed, because like everybody, you want security as quickly as you can get it.
"But I also believe he trusts what Art has stated and what he's discussed with him about it. So hopefully we're able to utilize the money and cap space to secure some of our other players before they reach free agency. And then we will certainly deal with Ben after the season, because we are fortunate to have a franchise quarterback, and we want that franchise quarterback here for his entire career, and we still think there is a lot of life left in that career."
The Steelers already took care of one major lingering piece of contractual business a few weeks back, securing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the long term. His return from injury this season should anchor what has been an inconsistent offensive line. The Steelers have emerging edge presence Cam Heyward signed through 2015 by picking up his fifth-year option and will let that situation play out, I'm told, but plan to try to negotiate new deals with several other starters before then.
Linebacker Jason Worilds is being counted on to provide some of the pass-rushing punch LaMarr Woodley used to, and is on an expensive transition tag. Talks on a new deal this offseason went nowhere, but there still is some potential they could work something out before the season -- assuming the demands are not as high. Consistent kicker Shaun Suisham is up after this season (not that he's going to break the bank), and the Steelers want to extend him, sources said. And emerging corner Cortez Allen, a free agent after the season, is a key member of a transitioning secondary, especially with this likely the last year in Pittsburgh for onetime stalwart Ike Taylor. He too is a 2014 priority. So, as Colbert noted, there is work to be done.
None of those deals will come close to generating the amount of scrutiny as Roethlisberger's talks. And it stands to reason that by the time Pittsburgh extends its Super Bowl winning quarterback the price of top passers will escalate, with Cam Newton and Russell Wilson potentially getting new deals first. I wouldn't expect Roethlisberger's talks to start immediately after the season, but definitely before the start of next summer's camp.
So, it's inevitable Big Ben will make more than $20M a season, and the Steelers fully realize there is no real way around it. It's an eventuality. With Roethlisberger's relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley growing to the point he now refers to Haley as a "friend," I would expect another excellent season from the quarterback as new targets emerge. He has been incredibly durable by and large. He'll get paid and will remain in the black and yellow.
Recent draft classes need to step up
The Steelers make no secret about the key to this season -- the past few draft classes have to step up big time. It's amazing to me how often they and the rival Ravens are in a similar situation, whether it be competing for a Super Bowl spot or battling out of the .500 doldrums.
Both have transitioned from aging teams to much younger, and as Colbert quickly pointed out, he expects to have only four starters over the age of 30 (Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Taylor). Several younger players have had to battle injuries early in their careers, which has stunted their growth, but this must be the season for many of them with so many familiar faces and established leaders no longer in this locker room.
Pittsburgh is banking on big seasons from 2013 picks Le'Veon Bell (running back) and Markus Wheaton (receiver); Wheaton is having another strong start to camp and his role will increase greatly, several Steelers people said. They hope David DeCastro, a 2012 first-rounder, will be one of NFL's best young guards -- with Pouncey's return aiding that cause. And they need Heyward and Worilds to restore the bite to their front seven. And this year's first-round pick, Ryan Shazier, and last year's, Jarvis Jones, must become highly productive members of an overhauled linebacker group.
Potential must become production.
"The success of this team will be based on how quickly the young guys develop and the pace at which they progress," Colbert said. "And not only this year's draft class, but Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton, David DeCastro, Kelvin Beachum. We are a very young team, so, again, our success will be determined by the pace by which the young players progress."
I have a feeling more than a few of them make major strides in 2014. If they do, the Steelers, who finished strong last season, could be right back in the postseason.
• Several people told me ownership has made it very clear they aren't pleased with back-to-back years out of the playoffs, and that a third consecutive year could bring consequences. Stability is always the rule with this franchise, but so is sustained excellence. "We're never going to say we're a team in transition, because then you're selling your program short and you'll accept anything less than a championship," Colbert said. "Unless we win a Super Bowl we're disappointed, whether it's 8-8 or 14-2, and we lose the Super Bowl or don't get to the Super Bowl, it doesn't matter. It's still the same."
• Don't underestimate the impact new offensive line coach Mike Munchak is making. He is instilling more of a mean streak, bringing out the best in youngsters and could end up being a huge signing. The former head coach is super comfortable in this role and has a bevy of high picks to mentor. "He's a lot like Russ Grimm, when Russ was really bringing it," one longtime Steelers staffer said. "He has been huge for us already."
• The Steelers have no trepidation about the lawsuit brought against Pouncey and his brother for an alleged incident in a bar. Pouncey has told several members of the organization, adamantly, that he did not touch anyone and this is entirely fabricated and he expects to fight it through his lawyers. Don't mistake the Steelers' lack of comment on the matter as a lack of support for the center; they are simply allowing his lawyer to run point. Based on what I've heard, I would be very surprised if much comes of the suit.
• If you are looking for a deep sleeper -- and it's very early to do so -- several veteran Steelers told me receiver Justin Brown has made a very big impression thus far and could be a surprise. Brown spent last year on the practice squad but is already winning the confidence of the quarterbacks and could see a lot of work in the preseason to prove his worth. Receiver is a position somewhat wide open beyond top target Antonio Brown, and this club has done a heck of a job developing weapons in recent years.
• Free-agent receiver Lance Moore picked up the offense quickly this offseason in no small part due to his close relationship with veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. They were college roommates at Toledo, and, believe it or not, roommates again this offseason. "As soon as we signed him, he called me and said, 'What's your address, you've got a big box of all of my stuff on the way,' " Gradkowski said. "He moved in with us this offseason. It was a lot of fun." Also wasn't the worst thing in the world having another body around to help with the quarterback's 15-month-old baby.
•Coach Mike Tomlin said Bell, who left practice early, has a tight hamstring that needs to be further evaluated. He had no timetable yet for the player, who has struggled with health in his brief career.
• If there is a more jacked up coach in this league than Steelers assistant special teams coach Mike Sellers, I would love to see him. Sellers, a physical specimen as a fullback and special-teams stalwart with the Redskins (where he led the group under current Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith), was always a beast, but he looks like he could bench press most of the players on the team. He promised me he wouldn't get any bigger, but I'm not sure I believe him. If he doesn't stick with coaching, MMA might not be a bad move.