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Robinson: Steelers' best financial option is to keep Roethlisberger in 2014

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass to Emmanuel Sanders during the second half against the Bills on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Let's look at a doomsday scenario.

It's Jan. 2, and Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan are weighing options after a second successive late-season collapse has elevated the Steelers into the top 10 of the draft. Several quarterbacks they believe are of franchise quality seem likely to be available.

Finally, someone says, β€œLet's do it. Let's rebuild. Let's go young. Let's trade Ben.”

Heads nod in agreement, until a voice asks whether dealing the second-most-successful quarterback in franchise history would free up the cap space necessary to permit the Steelers' first big push into free agency.

The answer is surprising.

Because Roethlisberger has restructured his contract three times since signing the $102 million deal in 2008, trading him would cost the Steelers approximately $13.6 million in dead money (cap space for players no longer with them).

Add an estimated $4 million cap hit for a first-round quarterback, and the 2014 cap charge for a starting quarterback becomes about $18 million β€” not much less than the $18.895 million hit they'll take next season if they do not rework Roethlisberger's contract.

All this illustrates how the Steelers' constant restructuring of starters' salaries is hurting them. Before his last restructuring, Roethlisberger's dead money would've been only $7.59 million, according to Overthecap.com.

Because Roethlisberger's dead money hit would be so substantial, it's easy to see why the Steelers are laughing off all those NFL Network reports of a possible trade. Their best move, it seems, would be to keep a quarterback who is still producing at a high level but sign him to a more cap-friendly deal.

Under his current deal, the final two years of Roethlisberger's contract pay him an affordable $12.1 million and $11.6 million in salary, but the combined cap hit is about $37 million.

For comparison's sake, Roethlisberger's 2014 cap hit alone is about $1.5 million more than Peyton Manning's and $4 million more than Tom Brady's. Currently, only eight NFL players in 2014 will have a larger cap charge.

The Steelers badly need to clear some salary cap room because they already have $132 million in 2014 commitments, a projected $7 million above the cap. They'll shear off about $6.25 million if they cut tackle Levi Brown, who hasn't played a down for them, but they'll need far more room than that.

The Steelers' bigger problem is the combined $57.7 million hit they'll take just for five other players: LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller. They could clear far more space by releasing Polamalu, whose $2.64 million dead money charge is only about one-sixth of Roethlisberger's, than they would by trading the quarterback.

Roethlisberger said a few days ago he'll do anything possible to remain a Steeler. As it turns out, how he could best help them is by simply doing that β€” remaining a Steeler.

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

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