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Can the Steelers Financially Afford to Not Extend Ben Roethlisberger This Year?

While many teams might be wondering if they can afford to extend the contracts of their respective quarterbacks, the Steelers are wondering if they can afford not to.
While many teams might be wondering if they can afford to extend the contracts of their respective quarterbacks, the Steelers are wondering if they can afford not to.Karl Walter/Getty Images
Andrea HangstContributor IIJanuary 14, 2014

Generally, the Pittsburgh Steelers opt to extend the contracts of their quarterbacks when there are two years left on the player's existing deal. While not always the case, it has been the standard operating procedure of the team as far as current starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is concerned.

But now, it appears Roethlisberger may not get his extension this offseason, with Steelers president Art Rooney II sounding noncommittal about setting a timetable for this to happen, saying, "I certainly expect that at some point we will do a contract, whether it's this season, or after next season or after the season after that, but I think Ben will be playing here beyond the current contract."

The matter of Roethlisberger's contract isn't about how long he'll be playing football in Pittsburgh or a reason to reignite the trade rumors that sprouted up halfway through the 2013 season. Rather, it's more about the salary-cap implications of not extending Roethlisberger this offseason that are of the greatest concern.

Key Steelers Salary Cap Numbers for 2014
Projected 2014 Cap$126.3 Million
2014 Steelers Cap, as of Jan. 1$136.7 Million
2014 Steelers Cap Space-$10.4 Million
Roethlisberger 2014 Cap Hit$18.895 Million
via Spotrac.com

Roethlisberger is set to make $12.1 million in salary (per Spotrac) for 2014—a small payday to be sure for a two-time Super Bowl winner. His total cap hit for the year, however, is $18.895 million, the highest on the team. Generally, contract extensions in Pittsburgh are for the purposes of restructuring and turning salary into bonuses and pushing money to future years.

This, however, has been the cause of season after season of salary-cap stress, stress that restructuring doesn't alleviate but, like the money, instead is pushed into a future season.

With the Steelers projected to be around $10.4 million over Spotrac's assumed $126.3 million salary cap for 2014, a combined extension-restructure for Roethlisberger could have helped alleviate that situation. Without it, however, the Steelers will have to find other ways to trim the fat if they opt to extend him in 2015 instead.

If linebacker LaMarr Woodley is released with a June 1 designation, the Steelers will save $8.4 million
If linebacker LaMarr Woodley is released with a June 1 designation, the Steelers will save $8.4 millionVincent Pugliese/Getty Images

The most obvious involve linebacker LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor, who have the next-highest cap hits for the Steelers in 2014. 

Woodley, who signed a six-year, $61.5 million deal in 2011, hasn't lived up to his contract. He's missed 14 games with various injuries since getting the new deal and hasn't reached the double-digit sacks he was averaging before it. 

The issue here is about timing. If the Steelers decide they no longer need Woodley's services, they can release him. However, doing so without a June 1 designation means the Steelers would be on the hook for the $13.59 million he would be due in 2014. The cap hit would be the same.

However, if they give him the June 1 release designation, Woodley would only have a cap hit of $5.6 million this year and $8.5 million in 2015. Though his release wouldn't single-handedly put the Steelers under the salary cap for 2014, it gets them quite close. It would also allow them to further develop 2013 first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones and, ideally, re-sign Jason Worilds and make him Woodley's rightful replacement.

Cap Relief for the Steelers in 2014
Projected 2014 Cap$126.3 Million
Steelers Cap Situation-$10.4 Million
LaMarr Woodley Cap Savings (June 1)$8.4 Million
Levi Brown Cap Savings$6.25 Million
Ike Taylor Cap Savings$7 Million
New Steelers Cap Situation$11.25 Million
via Spotrac.com

With Taylor, things are a bit more straightforward financially. He has a 2014 cap hit totaling $11.942 million, with $7 million of that making up his salary. However, that $7 million is not guaranteed, meaning that the Steelers instantly shave that off their salary-cap figure by releasing him. However, doing so isn't as straightforward from a roster perspective.

The Steelers aren't exactly teeming with defensive backs, or cornerbacks in particular. This could make Taylor a candidate for a pay cut, which of course helps Pittsburgh's financial bottom line. Also, in concert with releasing Woodley, cutting Taylor would create two major veteran voids on Pittsburgh's defensive roster. 

This might be the year for the Steelers to bite the bullet, however, and break away from some of these older players who are not playing to the level of their respective paychecks. The league is slipping ahead of the Steelers, and their management of the salary cap over the last five-plus years has helped cause this situation. After two straight 8-8 finishes, the Steelers might be willing to make a few seemingly bold moves to help the team improve in both the short and long terms. 

The matter of Ben's contract is more of a salary-cap one, and not about his job security in Pittsburgh.
The matter of Ben's contract is more of a salary-cap one, and not about his job security in Pittsburgh.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Simply giving Woodley a June 1 release designation and cutting Taylor outright will save the Steelers around $15.5 million for 2014, putting them comfortably under the salary cap. Releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown—something almost guaranteed to happen—shaves yet another $6.25 million off of the payroll. 

The Steelers could also request a pay cut from safety Troy Polamalu, who has a total cap hit of $10.887 million in 2014, which includes a base salary of $8.25 million. It is the final year of Polamalu's contract, however, and a reduced salary would almost ensure that 2014 would be his last season playing with the Steelers. 

What all of this points to is there being little need for the Steelers to have to extend Roethlisberger's contract this year in order to fix their salary-cap problems. Rooney has already made it clear that the quarterback will get an extension, it's just a matter of timing. The Steelers can clear cap space this year, rework certain key areas of their roster and save Roethlisberger's payday for 2015.

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