Ben Roethlisberger played fairly well in 2020 considering he's 38-years-old and coming off surgery to his throwing elbow. He helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to 11 straight wins right out of the gate. Then things fell apart for both Big Ben and his team; the defense lost a few key contributors and couldn't pick up the slack while Roethlisberger's inability to throw the deep ball became readily apparent and an easy weakness for opponents to take advantage of. The Steelers lost four of their final five games and fell in the first round of the playoffs.
Roethlisberger still wants to play in 2021. That is a bit of a problem because his cap hit is simply enormous as of now. The longtime Steelers signal-caller will count for $41 million against the cap if he's on the roster next year. Matt Ryan is the only other quarterback in the league with a cap hit north of $40 million next season. That is an untenable number regardless of the circumstances, and it's even more so when considering Pittsburgh has several important free agents to re-sign and Roethlisberger was no better than a top-15 QB last season. In other words, there is no universe in which Big Ben's play equals that cap hit.
The Steelers know that and (presumably) so does Roethlisberger, which is why the team and player will meet in the offseason to renegotiate the contract and lower the cap hit. Given Roethlisberger's legacy with the franchise and the fact that the Steelers do not have an heir apparent ready to go, it feels quite likely the two sides will reach some kind of accord that doesn't take money away from Roethlisberger but provides relief to the cap sheet.
ESPN's Dan Graziano isn't so sure. On Get Up this morning, the NFL reporter noted that even if the Steelers extend Roethlisberger, they can only lower his cap hit by $14 million, bringing it down from $41 million to $27 million. But if he decides to retire or (in an even more drastic measure) Pittsburgh cuts him, he would only count for $22 million against the cap. Essentially, the Steelers could create up to $14 million extra in cap room with an extension and $19 million by jettisoning Roethlisberger entirely.
Graziano is merely pointing out the possibilities in this segment, so it isn't an official report or anything of the like that the Steelers would do anything to get that extra $5 million. The organization can strongly suggest to Roethlisberger that it is time to hang up the cleats, but ultimately, if Roethlisberger decides he wants to come back, he'll be back.
Because there's no chance the only team he's ever known will cut or trade him just to save $5 million. The NFL is a ruthless business and all that, but the optics of cutting Roethlisberger to save what is, in the grand scheme of it all, a paltry sum would be very bad. Just ask the Lions how fun it was to be cheap with a franchise legend and the kind of backlash that resulted.
The Steelers do need all the money they can get this offseason. Bud Dupree will be a free agent and is valuable piece of the defense, a unit that will make up the foundation of any competitive football played in the Steel City for the foreseeable future. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, and Sean Davis are all starters who will hit the open market too. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are eligible for extensions this offseason and will both command gigantic salaries.
But merely $5 million isn't going to make or break any of those signings, nor will it permit the Steelers to go out and find a better option at quarterback in free agency. If Big Ben wants to play next season, he'll be in Steelers black and yellow. There's no doubt about that.