The Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 salary cap situation is not good at this moment. The Steelers can’t just maintain what they have and be cap compliant by the beginning of the league year on March 17. Their situation is not impossible to deal with, but there must be decisions made in regards to contracts as to whether they keep these players for 2021 or extend them beyond the coming season.
At the forefront of this problem is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Carrying a $41.25 million salary cap hit into this season has Roethlisberger as the largest cap hit in the entire NFL according to ESPN‘s Field Yates.
Looking at the players with the top cap hits for 2021 and there's so much uncertainty amongst the Top 7:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 27, 2021
1. Ben Roethlisberger: $41.25M
2. Matt Ryan: $40.91M
3. Aaron Rodgers: $37.57M
4. Drew Brees: $36.15M
5. Carson Wentz: $34.67M
6. Jared Goff: $34.63M
7. Mathew Stafford: $33M
Many Steelers fans are asking how Roethlisberger managed to get to the top of the league with his salary cap hit. “How could he do that to the Steelers and put them in such a bad position?”
Honestly, Roethlisberger’s salary cap number is inflated the way it is strictly because the Pittsburgh Steelers organization chose for it to be that way.
Going into the 2020 season, Ben Roethlisberger was scheduled to be a $33.5 million salary cap hit with 12.5 million being in dead money from his signing bonus, 8.5 million being in base salary, and 12.5 million being a roster bonus. Instead, the Steelers did a restructure for Roethlisberger prior to the 2020 league year. As a reminder, a restructure does not pay a player any more or any less, it just changes when and how they get paid in order to manipulate the salary cap number. For Roethlisberger, the Steelers converted $19.5 million of what would have been his $21 million salary into a roster bonus. By doing so, they were able to push off $9.75 million to the 2021 season.
Before Roethlisberger’s restructure last season, his salary cap number for 2021 would have been $31.5 million. This number would have dropped Roethlisberger out of the top seven in the above list and Russell Wilson would have taken the bottom spot. Although Roethlisberger‘s cap number of $31.5 million would have still not been desirable, it would have carried only $12.5 million in dead money rather than the now $22.25 million.
The fact Roethlisberger now counts so much more towards the salary cap is not his own doing. It was the Steelers that offered Roethlisberger the restructure in order to have more salary cap space for the 2020 season. This number being so high for 2021 was not something Roethlisberger planned on doing to the Steelers, but something that the Steelers did to themselves.
So what’s the answer? Is there any way that Steelers can save a little bit more without kicking the can too far down the road?
The $22.25 million dead cap hit is going to be applied to the 2021 salary cap regardless. The decisions the Steelers have to make will be in regards to the other $19 million Roethlisberger is set to make this season.
Of course, should Roethlisberger retire or be released, there’s the $19 million. But there is also another option. If the Steelers extend Rothlisberger for a couple more seasons, it could lighten his cap number for 2021 in what seems to be a crucial ‘cap crunch’ year for the entire NFL.
If I were trying to do a deal with Roethlisberger and work an extension, I would offer him an extra $0.5 million which would be paid in 2021 in order to extend him for two more years. Rather than $19 million, I would ultimately play Roethlisberger $19.5 million, $1.5 of which would be his base salary and $18 million would be his signing bonus. This would lower the Steelers 2020 cap number by $11.5 million and get Roethlisberger under the $30 million salary cap hit for this year. It would also put $6 million of dead money in each of the next two years for the Steelers. Of course, they would have to offer Roethlisberger a base salary in the next two seasons, which I would do around the same range as he would be making this season of $19 million. This number is not something I’m worried about getting into at this point because the Steelers can work that out and whichever way they want. Should Roethlisberger then retire following the 2021 season, he would just count $12 million in dead money against the cap which is certainly to go up for 2022. If he were to play again in 2022, his cap hit would be significantly lower at around $25 million if he were to make a $19 million base salary/roster bonus.
As you can see, the Steelers have options to deal with Ben Roethlisberger’s salary going forward. The only question they have to answer is if they want to stretch things out further or take the enormous salary cap hit all in one season in a year where the salary cap is expected to go down. If they do, remember it was their own decision to have Roethlisberger’s salary cap number be so high in 2021 based on their previous decisions to restructure.