PITTSBURGH — Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earned a $5 million roster bonus on Friday, which could have served as an artificial deadline for a contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But no deal is imminent between the team and Roethlisberger, who has one year left on his current contract. Now that Roethlisberger is locked into the $5 million, both parties can take their time.
Extending Roethlisberger is an easy decision, and his last extension in March 2015 came together smoothly. But this negotiation has a new set of factors to navigate.
The quarterback market has mushroomed in such a way that neither side could have expected. When these sides last negotiated, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the league in average payout per year (APY) at $22 million, followed by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ($20.75 million), Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco ($20.1 million) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees ($20 million).
Roethlisberger came in right behind Rodgers at $21.9 million.
Since then, seven quarterbacks have signed deals worth $25 million or more per year. The top four are above $27 million, led by Rodgers’ $33.5 million and Ryan’s $30 million. That’s a massive swing reflective of a rising salary cap and a position that continues to grow in importance.
APY is hardly the only factor in negotiations — guaranteed money trumps all in most cases — but asking Roethlisberger to take less than, say, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ($27 million) is a tough sell, especially when Roethlisberger is on record saying many quarterbacks without Super Bowl-level credentials are getting elite-level contracts.
Roethlisberger also has indicated he is willing to work with the Steelers, telling ESPN in July that it’s important as a quarterback to leave money for others, such as center Maurkice Pouncey, his running mate who just signed a two-year, $22 million extension.
Before free agency, the Steelers got two of Roethlisberger’s trusted linemen, Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster, signed for multiple years. But that doesn’t mean the Steelers can bring their coupon book to the table. Roethlisberger has provided 15 years of stability, his top two playmakers are now gone and the team is all-in on him as he approaches his late 30s.
A good barometer might just be the 2020 franchise tag numbers, which one league source estimates will be around $28 million, depending on the salary cap. Reaching or exceeding that number would place Roethlisberger in the top tier.
Sure, he is better than Kirk Cousins, who gets $28 million per year, but Cousins had the power of free agency, which Roethlisberger is unlikely to test.
The Steelers traditionally guarantee the signing bonus only, which was an issue for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger would be in a position to challenge that format — or, at the least, load that contract up with aggressive roster bonuses.
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Roethlisberger’s age is a factor (he turned 37 on March 2), even though quarterbacks are flourishing for longer now. Big Ben himself led the NFL in passing during his 15th year in the league, and Brees played at a steady clip of $25 million per year in his late 30s. Brees’ salary isn’t a huge number for a top-3 passer, which the Steelers might try to utilize as a parallel.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner, have time on their side and could even take this into the summer, if they choose. Roethlisberger wants to keep playing, so if the extension will take him to 2022, the structured payout over the first two years will be crucial for him. And the Steelers figure to be pressed against the salary cap once again. They sat at around $8.5 million in space as of Monday, and that doesn’t count new deals for free agents Donte Moncrief and Mark Barron. They need to make a few moves to accommodate the quarterback’s new deal.
There’s no palpable tension here. This will get done.
But there also is reason to believe that if Roethlisberger’s side was taking some massive discount, it already would be completed.