The Steelers are expected to extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract in the next couple of months, . Roethlisberger is entering the final year of a four-year, $87.4 million contract extension signed in 2015. He has a $23.2 million 2019 salary cap number composed of $6.2 million in signing bonus proration, a $12 million base salary and a $5 million third-day-of-the-league-year roster bonus due on March 15.
The Steelers haven't let Roethlisberger play out any of his contracts. Roethlisberger's rookie deal was extended in 2008 with two years remaining. He was entering his contract year when he signed his last deal. Pittsburgh's ideal timing on a new contract is before the roster bonus is payable.
Roethlisberger has had a change of heart about how long he would continue playing since hinting at retirement in some previous offseasons, much like Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre did in his latter years with the Packers. The two-time Super Bowl champion quickly announced he was returning for 2018 following an upset loss to the Jaguars last season in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Roethlisberger proclaimed he planned on playing another three to five years after quarterback Mason Rudolph was taken in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He indicated last week on his Pittsburgh radio show that he'll play "for as long as they'll have me."
Roethlisberger, who turns 37 in March, isn't showing signs of slowing down. He led the NFL this season in pass attempts (675), completions (452) and passing yards (5,129), all career highs. Roethlisberger threw a career-best 34 touchdown passes. His 16 interceptions were also the league's most, although his 2.4 percent interception rate was his lowest since 2014.
Roethlisberger has suggested he is more concerned about winning more Super Bowls than a record-breaking contract. He would like to keep his offensive line intact, which Pro Football Focus rates as the NFL's best. Roethlisberger reportedly has been lobbying for impending free-agent left guard Ramon Foster's return. He has also publicly stated that he would prefer for the Steelers to make an extension for seven-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, whose contract also expires after the 2019 season, more of a priority than his own. There isn't the same sense of urgency with Pouncey because he doesn't have a March roster bonus in his contract.
Stacking up to other star QB's deals
Roethlisberger will have an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is by following in Drew Brees' footsteps. There's a good chance Brees could have become the NFL's first $30 million-per-year player on a short term deal had he not given the Saints a financial break for the first time in numerous contract dealings with the franchise. The 39 year old took a two-year, $50 million contract with $27 million fully guaranteed to remain in New Orleans after refusing to exploit his leverage by exploring options with other teams.
The Saints are getting an excellent value with Brees, who is a having an MVP-caliber season, considering the developments that took place in the quarterback market during 2018. The top of the market increased by almost 25 percent with multiple quarterbacks (Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers) taking turns as the NFL's highest-paid player. The amount fully guaranteed at signing also jumped significantly (by more than 60 percent) with Ryan setting a new benchmark at nearly $100 million.
Roethlisberger is in a financial position to take some sort of hometown discount, although under no obligation to do so in an effort to help the Steelers, who missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season, as he enters the twilight of his career. He has made slightly under $190 million from his NFL player contracts, according to NFLPA data.
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The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million. Adjusting Roethlisberger's current $21.85 million average to the expected cap increase would mean an extension in the $29 million-per-year range.
Roethlisberger's previous contracts made him the league's second-highest-paid player when signed. The $33.5 million-per-year extension Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers received in the preseason is the current standard. Should Roethlisberger decide to pay lip service to the idea of leaving money on the table, an extension averaging approximately $33.25 million per year would put him in the same place in the quarterback salary hierarchy relative to where he was upon signing in 2015. At the time, Rodgers was the NFL highest-paid player at $22 million per year.
Envisioning a new Big Ben contract
Pittsburgh has $187.2 million of 2019 cap commitments with 50 players under contract. Under offseason accounting rules, the top 51 salaries (i.e. cap numbers) matter. After factoring in a full complement of players counting against the cap, the carryover of the existing $18.347 million in cap space and other adjustments, the Steelers project to have right around $17.25 million of room for the upcoming league year.
Pittsburgh can maximize the cap room created with a new deal by reaching an agreement with Roethlisberger before the roster bonus is payable. The roster bonus becoming a sunk cost on March 16 could give Roethlisberger the upper hand in negotiations.
The deal will likely have a large signing bonus regardless of how hard of a bargain Roethlisberger drives, since Pittsburgh veteran contracts typically have a vanilla structure. Roethlisberger's current deal had a $31 million signing bonus. With the exception of Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh deals don't have base salary guarantees. The guarantees in his 2016 and 2017 contract years were for injury only.
This structural preference may prompt the Steelers to sign Roethlisberger to a four-year extension running through the 2023 season, when he would be 41, in order to get the most cap relief. For example, there would be a $5,333,333 difference in 2019 cap savings with a $40 million signing bonus on the two-year extension some have suggested versus a four-year extension, because the bonus proration would be three years on the shorter deal ($13,333,333 in 2019) as opposed to five years on the longer one ($8 million in 2019). Pittsburgh's annual restructuring of contracts to free up cap space by pushing cap obligations into the future suggests there wouldn't great concern about any residual cap charges in 2022 or 2023 from the additional signing bonus proration if Roethlisberger is no longer playing.
A maximum of $7.97 million of 2019 cap room can be gained on a four-year extension where Roethlisberger gets a $40 million signing bonus. Roethlisberger's $5 million roster bonus and his scheduled $12 million base salary, except for his $1.03 million league minimum amount, would be converted to signing bonus. Under this scenario, Roethlisberger's 2019 cap number would drop to $15.23 million from $23.2 million. Obviously, the amount of cap room that could be created depends on the size on the Roethlisberger's signing bonus.
The cap space generated would help cushion the blow should the Steelers trade five-time All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who reportedly has a strained relationship with Roethlisberger and may have worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh. Brown's $22.165 million 2019 cap number is the largest in the NFL for a wide receiver. The Steelers would have $21.12 million in dead money, a cap charge for a player no longer on the roster, provided Brown was traded before he earned his $2.5 million fifth-day-of-the-league-year roster bonus on March 17.