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Robinson: Time nears for Steelers to decide on Roethlisberger extension

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders during the third quarter against the Jets on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Steelers added an extra salary cap expert, Samir Suleiman, to pair with Omar Khan, the football administrative director who has interviewed for general manager jobs. The extra manpower might be needed to assist general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin in sorting out what figures to be the Steelers' busiest and most-complicated offseason in a long time.

And it all starts with Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger's $17.895 million chews up approximately 14.5 percent of their projected salary cap. Failing to extend his deal, which is due to run two more seasons, could leave the Steelers in the untenable position of having to shear off valuable players — role players and possibly a starter or two — just to stay under the cap.

But how long a deal does Roethlisberger get? He'll be 32 next season, and how many seasons — and how much money — do they dare commit? Quarterback megasalaries are ruining the cap situations of many teams, and the Steelers already have a huge cap overload to negotiate.

Talk about paying the price for success. Just look at these 2014 cap figures, as calculated by websites Spotrac and LaMarr Woodley, $13,590,000; Ike Taylor (who recently restructured), $11,942,000; Lawrence Timmons, $11,816,000; Troy Polamalu, $10,887,500; Heath Miller, $9,466,500; Antonio Brown, $8,47,000.

That's about $84 million for seven players, leaving only about $40 million for the remaining 46, plus the rookie class and all the players who will attend training camp.

The Steelers can't do business that way. And they certainly can't keep doing business the way they've been doing it. Part of the problem they've faced for multiple seasons is they keep restructuring — or, as Colbert says, they keep adding to the credit card bill — and all this accrued interest is catching up with them.

One answer would be lopping off a big salary or two, taking the cap hit for that year (as they did with James Harrison this season) and then moving on.

The Steelers could let Troy Polamalu go and free up about $8.2 million of cap space, but that's unlikely because Ryan Clark probably won't return.

Clark is one of at least 17 players, including five current or former starters, who are in the final seasons of their contracts and probably won't be back: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Al Woods, Greg Warren, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones, Guy Whimper, Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Jonathan Dwyer and Richard Gordon. Keisel could return but only at a steeply reduced salary.

How the Steelers' 2014 cap shakes out likely starts with Roethlisberger. The question is whether he'll give them a hometown discount to make it happen, especially when the Steelers are paying full retail for so many others.

You'll know by early March. If No. 7 doesn't have an extension by then, it will be a sign the Steelers are going to let him play out the final two years of his deal — and then they'll really be entering the great unknown.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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