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Ben Roethlisberger's Contract Puts Steelers in Major Bind Next Year

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the fourth quarter after being injured against the Seattle Seahawks at Heinz Field on September 15, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In what will likely amount to a death knell for their championship aspirations, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters today that Ben Roethlisberger would miss the remainder of the season with an elbow injury. The longtime franchise signal-caller will be replaced by Mason Rudolph, and expectations for Pittsburgh have plummeted from playoff contenders to probable AFC North bottom-feeders. It’s tough for Steelers fans to swallow, but unless Rudolph turns into a superstar or the defense takes an unprecedented leap to elite status, this season is pretty much a wash.

That’s not where their problems could end, though. Roethlisberger had a great statistical season last year, but anyone who has watched him play over the last decade and change will tell you that he wasn’t quite his best. He threw critical interceptions throughout the season, and was unable to push the team over the top in the last few weeks of the season as they teetered on the edge of a playoff berth. The start of this season has been ugly. Assuming there weren’t any complications with his elbow to start the season, Roethlisberger had just under six quarters of healthy football. In those six quarters, he completed 35 passes in 62 attempts for 351 yards and zero touchdowns with one interception. Not great. He failed the eye test on top of that, never once looking comfortable and regularly misplacing balls.

Now, he’ll miss the entire season, and the Steelers are on the hook for his $26.2 million cap hit with no production to be gained. Given his season-ending injury, declining play leading back to last season, and the fact that he’ll be 38 before he takes the field again, the Steelers will at least think about moving on from their franchise stalwart. But his contract will make that difficult.

Roethlisberger signed a rather large extension this past offseason, and the numbers don’t bode well for Pittsburgh going forward. The extension was worth $68 million over two years, with $37.5 million guaranteed at signing. His cap hit in 2020 will be an astounding $33.5 million, and a dead-cap hit of $25 million. Cutting him this year would not only be hasty but pointless, given his dead-cap hit is nothing less of $43.5 million in 2019.

If the Steelers want to get out of Big Ben’s contract, the time will be after the 2020 season, where they gave themselves an out in the extension he signed back in April. Should they choose to part ways, via trade or otherwise, Roethlisberger will only count for $12.5 million against the cap for the 2021 season. If they don’t, he’ll count for $31.5 million against the cap in his age-39 season.

The guaranteed money is already gone, of course, and Roethlisberger had $30 million in injury guarantees included in his extension should the end of his career come via the medical tent. But if Pittsburgh is looking to pull the plug quickly and usher in a new era of Steeler football, they’ll be waiting until 2020 at the absolute earliest, and even then it won’t be easy.