What another Ben Roethlisberger season means for Steelers in 2021 and beyond

Why Stephen A. sees Big Ben as the Steelers' only option (2:52)

Stephen A. Smith emphasizes how important it is that the Steelers commit to Ben Roethlisberger for the 2021 season. (2:52)

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger isn't done with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and with a statement Wednesday morning, the Steelers made it clear they're not done with their franchise quarterback either.

"Ben Roethlisberger and I met [Tuesday] morning and we had a productive meeting," team president Art Rooney II said. "We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go. Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back to help us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to help us win a championship. We both understand the next step is to work out Ben's contract situation."

Rooney expressed the mutual desire of the two parties to have Roethlisberger return for one more season, but that next step is a big one.

Let's break down where things stand with the quarterback, who will turn 39 next month.

How did we get here?

The Steelers previously signed the then-37-year-old Roethlisberger to a two-year, $68 million contract extension prior to the 2020 season, and it included a $37.5 million signing bonus and a $30 million injury guarantee.

At the time, he was in the final year of a four-year, $87.6 million extension he signed in 2015. The 2019 extension carried a cap hit of $23.75 million in 2020, but that number skyrockets to $41.25 million in 2021 thanks to a $4 million base salary -- up from $1.5 million in 2020 -- and a $15 million roster bonus. Roethlisberger's dead cap for the 2021 season is $22.25 million.

What are the options to reduce that cap hit?

There are two viable ones. The Steelers could do a restructure and four-year extension that voids after 2021. That method reduces his 2021 base salary to $1.075 million and converts the remaining base salary and $15 million roster bonus into a signing bonus. Total, that saves the Steelers $14.34 million for the 2021 season. But that savings turns into dead money for the 2022 season.

The Steelers will still be on the hook for Roethlisberger's massive paycheck, but it spreads the cap hit over multiple years. The Steelers rarely give contracts with voidable years, but it could be the best compromise.

The Steelers could also reduce his cap hit by asking him to take at least a 70% pay cut. If Roethlisberger agreed to play for the veteran minimum, his cap hit would come in at just over $23 million. But asking a veteran quarterback to slash his pay for the good of the team would likely be met with dissension from the NFL Players Association.

Roethlisberger previously told The Athletic he didn't "care about my pay at all this year," and his agent, Ryan Tollner, told NFL Network on Tuesday night, "We are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help them build the best team possible." With that phraseology, though, Tollner isn't exactly promising his client will be open to taking a steep pay cut in the final year of his contract.

How concerned should the Steelers be about Roethlisberger's play at the end of the 2020 season?

The season didn't end well for the Steelers or for their quarterback, but general manager Kevin Colbert believes Roethlisberger can still play at a high level.

"Ben Roethlisberger did a lot of really good things last year and we anticipate that he could still do some good things moving forward," Colbert said last week.

But his numbers were down in his first season back from major elbow surgery. Roethlisberger's average intended air yards ranked toward the bottom of the league at just 7.1 yards per attempt. His average of 4.6 completed air yards was fifth lowest among NFL quarterbacks. Only 32% of his attempts went for first downs, the lowest rate for a full season in his career. And his adjusted net yards per attempt was his lowest for a full season since 2013.

But it wasn't all Roethlisberger's fault. His average time to pass was just 2.3 seconds, the lowest for any qualifying quarterback in the past four seasons. Part of that is the offensive line play dropped and often didn't give him much time in a clean pocket.

With Maurkice Pouncey's retirement and Al Villanueva's likely departure in free agency, the Steelers are looking at a young, rebuilt offensive line for the 2021 season. If they get the right pieces in place, that could benefit Roethlisberger.

He also had the highest rate of dropped passes in 2020 (5.6%). Roethlisberger didn't push the ball down the field for most of the season, but that was also a product of the scheme and the unbalanced offense as the run game disappeared. In his last three appearances, Roethlisberger's air yards per attempt jumped to 8.0, up from his 6.9 average through Week 14.

Some instances when he did throw it deep were off-target or short, but others he hit with the kind of pinpoint precision that suggests his elbow is plenty capable of holding up for another season. But to feel confident in his ability to lead the team to success in 2021, the Steelers need to give Roethlisberger better protection as his mobility continues to decline. And he needs a stronger run game to balance the offensive attack.

What's the future of the quarterback position?

The Steelers are still trying to figure that out. Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins Jr. will be free agents in 2022, and Roethlisberger's return gives them fewer opportunities to be evaluated in game situations. With any luck, the NFL will reinstitute some form of preseason games, giving the younger quarterbacks some game time, but it will still be a very small sample size.

Colbert and Rooney said they want to add to the quarterback room, and that could be done through the draft this year.

"I think when you look at our room, we obviously are going to have to add somebody to the room here this offseason, and so we'll look at all the opportunities we have to do that," Rooney said in January.

With the promotion of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, the Steelers hired QB coach Mike Sullivan, who worked with Eli Manning in a stint with the Giants. He'll play a vital role in developing Roethlisberger's successor.

Roethlisberger's return gives the organization more flexibility to take a mid- to late-round quarterback in the draft to evaluate. At worst, a quarterback selected in the 2021 draft could be a viable backup for the 2022 season if the Steelers don't retain Rudolph or Haskins.

What does a Roethlisberger return mean for the rest of the Steelers' free agents?

There's not much money to go around for the 19 unrestricted free agents. In discussing Roethlisberger's contract a week ago, Colbert stressed the balance of doing what's best for the quarterback and the organization.

In publicly stating their desire to bring Roethlisberger back, the Steelers believe they can still win now with him, but it means there's less money to surround him with new weapons and a stronger line.

With less than a month until the start of a new league year (March 17), the Steelers are still over the projected cap by more than $20 million. In addition to retaining Roethlisberger, the organization will also be tasked with putting together a massive extension for outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

With big-ticket items like that on the payroll, finding money to re-sign players like OLB Bud Dupree and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely. The Steelers could be in play to re-sign free agents like cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, but it will likely come at the cost of releasing a few expensive veterans, players such as cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steve Nelson.