These are Ben Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers. And don’t you forget it.
On the eve of the NFL Draft — and the 15th anniversary of his first-round selection — Roethlisberger signed a three-year contract through 2021 that should allow him to achieve his goal of spending his entire career with the Steelers.
According to ESPN, the $80 million deal includes a $37.5 million signing bonus and $30 million in injury guarantees.
Guaranteed money was the sticking point between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell refusing to sign the franchise-tag tender and the motivation for Antonio Brown to demand a trade and a new contract.
Those standoffs caused Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to say he is seeking volunteers, not hostages. The Steelers have no choice but to pay their franchise quarterback, and Big Ben has been paid more than $187 million over 15 seasons, including $126 million-plus since the Steelers last won a Super Bowl.
That’s a handsome ransom.
1. Holding hostage
The Steelers made no secret they wanted to sign Roethlisberger to a new contract, making his protection a priority by re-signing center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster.
That should have made Roethlisberger’s new contract a formality. And the deal Drew Brees signed with the Saints last year — two years for $50 million, with $27 million guaranteed — should have been their blueprint.
Instead, Roethlisberger waited until after Seattle signed Russell Wilson to a four-year, $140-million contract that changed the quarterback market.
Big Ben got exactly what he wanted.
2. Backup plan
When Roethlisberger hinted at contemplating retirement two years ago, the Steelers drafted quarterback Josh Dobbs.
A year ago, Roethlisberger publicly questioned the Steelers’ selection of quarterback Mason Rudolph with one of their two third-round picks.
That put the Steelers in a bad spot.
If they want to remain competitive, they have no choice but to accommodate their franchise quarterback. But they also want to develop a potential successor.
Now, with Roethlisberger expected to start the next three seasons, Dobbs or Rudolph becomes expendable. It will be interesting to see whether the Steelers bring all three to training camp or include one in a draft-day trade.
3. Banking on Ben
The Steelers will spin Roethlisberger’s new deal as one that clears salary cap space, given he was set to count as a $23.2 million cap hit in 2019.
That would have left only $6.2 million of cap space, and the Steelers still have to sign their draft class.
They are placing a premium on a 37-year-old quarterback to repeat his feat from last season, when he led the NFL in passing attempts, completions and yards (while hoping he doesn’t lead the league in interceptions) without the services of All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.
That investment into Roethlisberger makes me believe the Steelers will find him more offensive weapons.
4. Draft a playmaker
Despite losing Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have rising stars at receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back in James Conner.
Despite the Steelers’ assertions to the contrary, I can’t see Roethlisberger being satisfied with a receiving corps led by Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief and James Washington, with Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers in the slot and Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble at tight end.
Look for them to draft playmakers at both positions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go after a tight end earlier than a receiver, given they have historically found gems in the third round (Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders), fourth (Martavis Bryant) and sixth (Brown), and their best tight ends have been first-round picks (Eric Green, Mark Bruener and Heath Miller).
As much as it makes sense to surround Roethlisberger with more skill so they can score touchdowns, the Steelers should be focusing on improving their defense.
5. Strings attached
When Roethlisberger signed a five-year contract in 2015, he proclaimed it “an incredibly fair deal for both sides” and talked about adding Lombardi Trophies.
The Steelers believe their best chance at winning a seventh Super Bowl rests with Roethlisberger at quarterback, but they rewarded one whose leadership was repeatedly questioned by former NFL players and former Steelers teammates this offseason.
Steelers president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert disagreed and acquiesced to Roethlisberger’s wishes, which makes it hard to believe they are going to have any control over changing his behavior.
Big Ben made it clear who’s calling the shots.
But the clock is ticking. If this is his final contract, we have a time frame for the window closing on his career. These are Roethlisberger’s Steelers, no doubt, and that puts pressure on him to lead them to another Lombardi.