Play Money: Exploring Steelers QBs and NFL salary cap

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers are staring down the barrel of their highest draft position in years after another non-winning season. Should they draft a QB for the future, or just worry about the franchise passer they already have?

Everything with the Pittsburgh Steelers starts and ends with franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger; especially in the front office.

Pittsburgh endured a 25-year championship drought between their four rings under Terry Bradshaw and their two - almost three - under Roethlisberger. Now, after the Steelers have guaranteed their second-consecutive non-winning season, fans and media members alike are pointing at a possible impending end to his time in Pittsburgh - especially considering the team will have a high draft position thanks to their low record ranking.

Whether the team could actually thrive with an unknown at the helm instead of a proven winner aside, Roethlisberger is still under contract for two more seasons. Is keeping him around a while longer, or the rest of his career, in the best interests of the team's cap position?

Real Money

Roethlisberger, like most franchise QBs, is scheduled to be the largest cap hit for the Steelers 2014 ledger. The team will have to make a decision in his regard as they attempt to field a competitive 53-man roster next year despite already possessing a team cap figure of over $134 million.

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It is important to note the numbers listed here represent each player's hit against the cap, not their actual salary. Here is how the actual situations of the team's quarterbacks breakdown as they stand.

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The first number is the player's annual cap hit. The second number in red represents the amount of dead money attributed to the designated year. This dead money is a prorated residual from signing bonuses or restructured salaries in the past. The third figure in green is the player's actual salary for the year. This amount is not guaranteed and is the only money the team can eliminate from the books.

The Steelers have no wiggle room with Bruce Gradkowski or Landry Jones. Neither man is too expensive to release, but a significantly better player would have to be available to trump the affordability of either QB as backups. If Pittsburgh is going to clear any cap room in the QB department, it will be through Roethlisberger.

Release is the first word utter by most when it comes to off-season decisions. To release Roethlisberger at the end of the year would accelerate his dead money into 2014. The team would save $5.305 million against 2014, and the entire $18.395 million in 2015. The team could wait until June to release him, which would leave the dead money designations where they are while subtracting the base salaries, meaning the team would save $12.1 million in 2014 and $11.6 million. Either case would be good for cap figures, but would leave the team relying on Gradkowski, Jones and an unknown rookie or rehashed free-agent.

The next option to save money would be to restructure his deal as it is. The team could take money from his base salary up to his CBA-dictated minimum salary and convert into a bonus. The player receives the converted money up-front, while it is split evenly among the remaining seasons on the contract for cap calculating purposes.

For an example, suppose the Steelers wanted restructure $11 million of his scheduled $12.1 million base salary for 2014. His base salary would be reduced to $1.1 million, while the $11 million would be split evenly among the remaining seasons on his deal as dead money, including 2014. The Steelers would save $5.5 million against 2014's cap figure, but would escalate his 2015 cap hit to $23.895 million.

Any of these options would be beneficial for cap math, but releasing or trading him would be terrible for team chemistry and restructuring causes a risky situation for 2015. While coordinators, coaches and various skill players worry about their job security, the team will most likely want to maintain continuity at the quarterback position with a proven winner. This is the point in the conversation where the word 'extension' comes into play.

Play Money

Despite the various reports and rumors involving either Roethlisberger or the Steelers wanting a trade to happen in the off-season, the veteran quarterback continues to publicly opine his desire to retire in Pittsburgh. If both sides honestly want him here, offering him an extension this off-season is a legitimate option for both the team on the field, and the roster on the ledger.

When restructuring salaries into bonuses, teams are only allowed to prorate bonus quotients among the first five seasons of a contract. With two remaining, a three year extension is the most logical choice. With the contract now extended to five years, the same $11 million restructured in the last segment doesn't hit each season for $5.5 million in dead money, but rather for a more chewable $2.2 million annually.

The additional years also create the opportunity to restructure his 2015 salary to save money in a year expecting to see Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and others to become free-agents.

Here's an example of what a possible 3-year, $55 million (including $12 million signing bonus) extension would dictate. The figures in blue represent dead money created by restructures.

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In this situation, the team would save $8.8 million against 2014's cap, while only raising the 2015 figure to $20.595 million. The last set of numbers represent a possible restructure again in 2015, which would save $7.5 million.

The actual structure of any such extension will most likely be nothing like this. This scenario intended to represent competitive estimates. A smaller- or no signing bonus would lessen the load for the year's beyond 2015 as far as dead money is concerned, but would require larger base salaries. The going rate for franchise QBs has hit $20 million per season thanks to guys like Joe Flacco. This estimate falls just short of that, using the $12 million signing bonus as compensation, combined with any suggested 'home' discount Roethlisberger may afford the Steelers to keep him.

The elephants in the room when discussing any Roethlisberger extension are his health and the offensive line. With Roethlisberger now on the wrong side of 30, future plans will have to include some sort of target date for the player's retirement. If he expects to walk away before the end of the extension, the signing bonus would need to be reduced. If he expects to play longer body-willing, the team could use another extension in 2016 to stretch his total compensation more evenly along the length, saving money each year and dodging the weight of his retirement on the books to the pittance of a couple million.

Continuing the example from above with another restructure and two-year extension in 2016:

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Looking this far forward is a bit far fetched at this point considering the numerous injuries Roethlisberger has suffered so far in his career, and those yet to come. The only way another such extension comes into play is if the team wins another Super Bowl in the next few seasons - or as at least close. He is driven by a want to at least match Bradshaw's four, and he will most likely go until he is no longer physically able.

If the team remains in the top half of the draft order over the next few years, he could still play out his deal and hang up his cleats after 2018. As aging veteran defenders fall off the roster, the team will have the cap space in the final years of Roethlisberger's extended deal to actually pay him. The rookie wage scale dictated by the current CBA will result in a much more affordable young roster through future years.

Truth be told, the team could possibly afford the remainder of his extended contract after 2014 without further restructures, but that depends on the decisions made at other positions and the progression of the team as a whole.

As far as whether the team should take advantage of their top-15 pick this season and select a quarterback, the team again needs to rely on a target date for Roethlisberger's exit. If he will be here until 2018 when he will be 36 years old, the team would be better served to postpone taking another QB until 2016 or 2017, to maximize the five year length of first-round rookie contracts.

Bottomline

However the team chooses to deal with their star quarterback, they will have to make a decision this off-season. They can't afford him as it stands, and judging by their performance on the field, they cannot afford to lose him.

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