The Steelers are caught between a rock and hard place because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract and a willingness to consistently push salary cap obligations into the future. Roethlisberger alluded to the situation after a 48-37 upset loss to the Browns on Sunday in an AFC wild-card playoff game.
"I still have a year left on my contract," said Roethlisberger. "I hope the Steelers want me back if that's the way we go. There will be a lot of discussions. But now is not the time for that."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin indicated after the loss he believes Roethlisberger, who turns 39 in March, can still play at a high level. Roethlisberger set NFL single-game playoff records with 68 pass attempts and 47 completions against the Browns, but also threw four interceptions. His 501 passing yards were the second-most ever in a playoff game.
Roethlisberger's contract and Pittsburgh's 2021 salary cap
Roethlisberger has the NFL's largest 2021 salary cap number at $41.25 million in the final year of a two-year, $68 million contract extension he signed in April 2019. The Steelers compounded the Roethlisberger problem last March when they lowered his 2020 cap number from $33.5 million to $23.75 million by converting $19.5 million of his $21 million 2020 compensation into signing bonus. Roethlisberger's 2021 cap number was raised by $9.75 million in the process.
The Steelers have one of the NFL's more challenging salary cap situations for 2021. Under offseason accounting rules, only the top 51 salaries (i.e. cap numbers) matter. Pittsburgh has $202.6 million in 2021 cap commitments with 36 players under contract according to NFLPA data. The $4.95 million of unused 2020 cap space has been carried over to the 2021 league year, which begins on March 17.
A complicating factor is the NFL and NFLPA setting a $175 million salary cap floor for 2021 with league revenues declining due to COVID-19. If revenues are better than expected, the 2021 salary cap could be higher, but will likely remain below the current level of $198.2 million.
Once there are 51 players counting and the carry over is taken into account, Pittsburgh's 2021 cap commitments should be around $208 million. At the $175 million floor, the Steelers are projected to be approximately $33 million over the cap.
Leaving Roethlisberger's contract alone is untenable. The Roethlisberger situation should come to a head no later than March 19: $15 million of Roethlisberger's $19 million 2021 salary is a roster bonus due on third day of the league year -- and $10 million of the $15 million roster bonus is guaranteed for injury.
Retirement or release
The easiest thing for the Steelers would be Roethlisberger retiring. With his salary off the books, $19 million of 2021 cap space would be gained, although there would be $22.25 million in dead money -- a cap charge for a player no longer on the roster -- because of the bonus proration. The $22.25 million would be the largest amount of dead money related to an individual player for one league year in NFL history. The existing record is Brandin Cooks' $21.8 million for the Rams this league year in connection with his trade to the Texans last April.
The Steelers could get an additional $12.5 million of cap relief with a Roethlisberger retirement. The NFL's collective bargaining agreement allows a team to recoup the remaining signing bonus proration in a contract from a player when he retires. The $12.5 million is the remaining proration from the $37.5 million signing bonus Roethlisberger received in the 2019 extension. It's hard to imagine the Steelers asserting those rights with Roethlisberger if his 17-year tenure in Pittsburgh comes to an end this way.
The cap relief for the Steelers is the same if Roethlisberger retires or is released before his roster bonus becomes a payment obligation on March 19. There is one difference. Recoupment wouldn't be an option if Roethlisberger is released.
A trade would yield the same results from a cap standpoint. It's the least likely of these three options. Finding a team with $19 million of cap room to accommodate Roethlisberger's 2021 salary that is willing to give Pittsburgh something of value for a one-year rental of a declining player seems unlikely. Even if Pittsburgh could find a trade partner, there's no guarantee Roethlisberger would be receptive to a change in scenery, and the end result in that case might be his retirement.
The Steelers have been one of the biggest proponents of pushing current cap obligations into the future with contract restructures. One thing the Steelers have been reluctant to do is add dummy or voiding years when restructuring contracts. That's the only way a Roethlisberger contract restructure can occur since 2021 is the final year of his contract.
The Steelers could add up to four contract years running through 2025 automatically voiding on the last day of the 2021 league year (mid-March 2022) in a contract restructure to create 2021 cap room. In the most extreme case, the Steelers could convert all of Roethlisberger's $19 million 2021 compensation into signing bonus except for $1.075 million -- his 2021 league minimum base salary -- before his $15 million roster bonus is due. The $17.925 million signing bonus would be prorated on the cap at $3.585 million.
Roethlisberger's 2021 cap number would become $26.91 million, consisting of the new $1.075 million 2021 base salary, the $12.5 million of bonus proration from the 2019 extension, the $9.75 million relating to the 2020 contract restructure and the $3.585 million of new bonus proration. $14.34 million of 2021 cap room would be gained through this maneuver. There would be a corresponding amount of dead money in 2022 because of the 2022 through 2025 contract years voiding next March.
The Steelers could ask Roethlisberger to reduce his $19 million salary instead as a way of gaining cap relief. The voiding/dummy years concept would likely be a part of the equation in any Roethlisberger pay cut because of Pittsburgh's cap woes.
The Broncos got Peyton Manning to take a salary reduction in 2015 when it was becoming clear he was a shadow of his former self. Initially, Denver wanted Manning to lower his 2015 salary by $10 million to $9 million, instead of the agreed upon $4 million reduction. Manning had an opportunity to make the $4 million back through incentives that weren't likely to be earned and therefore didn't count against the salary cap during the season. Manning earned $2 million of the $4 million by Denver getting to the Super Bowl. He made the other $2 million when Denver won Super Bowl 50.
Roethlisberger would have a right to be insulted by the suggestion of a pay cut. He has more gas left in the tank than Manning did, although he can no longer carry an offense with his arm. His $19 million is salary is actually less than the average yearly salary for starting quarterbacks this season. According to NFLPA data, that figure -- which includes quarterbacks on rookie contracts -- is $20,254,339.
An extension might be Roethlisberger's preferred option of addressing his contract, but Pittsburgh's least desirable. Obviously, this renegotiation would need to take place before Roethlisberger's roster bonus is due.
Ordinarily, a player gets some sort raise in the current contract year when extending his contract. The Steelers should insist that Roethlisberger's 2021 salary remain at $19 million.
The market for older starting quarterbacks is well defined at $25 million per year. Tom Brady ended his 20-year tenure with the Patriots by signing a fully guaranteed two-year, $50 million contract with the Buccaneers worth a maximum of $59 million through incentives as a free agent. Drew Brees signed a two-year, $50 million deal to remain with the Saints. Philip Rivers took a one-year deal worth $25 million from the Colts in free agency.
Converting the same $17.925 million into signing bonus as in the contract restructure while only adding a 2022 contract year at $25 million would create $8,962,500 of cap room.
Since the $17.925 million would be prorated over the 2021 and 2022 contract years, Roethlisberger's 2021 cap number would drop to $32,287,500. His 2022 cap number would be $33,962,500. There would be $8,962,500 of dead money in 2022 if Roethlisberger's career came to an end after the 2021 season. Adding up to three dummy/voiding years would mean more 2021 cap relief, but in turn increase the 2022 dead money.
Regardless of what happens with Roethlisberger for next season, the Steelers need to find a long-term solution at quarterback sooner rather than later. Pittsburgh has the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Alabama's Mac Jones and/or Florida's Kyle Trask could still be available at 24.
The top quarterback prospects should be gone by the time Pittsburgh selects. Pittsburgh should consider trading up if there is a quarterback they really like. The Steelers gave up a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick to move up from the 20th pick to the 10th spot in the 2019 draft to take linebacker Devin Bush. Moving to a similar place this year will certainly cost Pittsburgh more draft capital than it took to get Bush.