The Pittsburgh Steelers are at a crossroads, with longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at or very near the end of his career. But regardless of whether Roethlisberger returns for an 18th (and likely final) NFL season, team owner Art Rooney II says the Steelers will not make 2021 a “rebuilding year.”
“You know, we’ve got to look at the whole roster, obviously, in the context of this year’s salary cap and make decisions on it,” he told Steelers.com. “But I would just say that we’re going to try and build a championship team to go into next year. Whether we can do that or not remains to be seen, but we’re not going to sit here and say, okay, we’re three years away. I mean, we’re just not going to look at it that way. We’re going to put the best team on the field that we can next year and do our best to compete to No. 1, win our division, and then move on….”
In other words, there will be no change in regards to the team’s longstanding philosophy. As Bob Labriola of Steelers.com puts it, “There will be no plan for short-term pain in exchange for a hope of glory in the future. Seasons may turn out to be unsuccessful, but they will not be wasted.”
If Not a Rebuild, a Reset?
Yet there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the Steelers ought to deviate from their usual approach—at least for one year.
One of the key goals might be to absorb as much salary cap liability as possible in 2021, as opposed to continuing to restructure contracts to push dead money into future years.
In recent years the organization has restructured the contracts of many of the team’s highest-paid players, including Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. Now that all of those players are in the last year of their contracts, the Steelers may need to release one or more of them—or do extensions with voidable years—pushing some of the cap liability into the future.
That’s where the Steelers stand with Roethlisberger, who will cost a minimum of $22.25 million against the salary cap in 2021 (as compared to a higher cost for keeping him around).
The reality is that the Steelers are unlikely to be a Super Bowl contender with a declining 39-year-old Roethlisberger at the controls. The Steelers could take the year to find out more about what they have in former third-rounder Mason Rudolph, former Washington first-round selection Dwayne Haskins, and perhaps even a (likely) Day 2 rookie draft pick like Kyle Trask or Jamie Newman.
If a losing year is the result, well, recall that it was a 6-10 season in 2003 that allowed the Steelers to draft Roethlisberger in 2004, not to mention offensive tackle Max Starks, key components of two Super Bowl championship teams.
Pursuing a Potential Franchise QB in 2022
Anyway, the Steelers don’t have the draft capital to acquire one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 Draft. Pittsburgh’s first pick is No. 24 overall. It also has its own pick in rounds two, three and four, as well as a sixth and two seventh-rounders. In addition, the club is expected to receive at least one compensatory pick this year. That’s nothing like what a team needs to draft a top QB prospect, but those picks could be hugely helpful in improving the team’s talent on the offensive line and at running back, the greatest needs after quarterback.
Then in 2022 the Steelers might be in a better position to pursue a potential franchise quarterback in the first round of the draft, and not just because they will likely be drafting higher than No. 24 in the first round.
By one measure, the Steelers have four of the top 50 pending unrestricted free agents in the NFL, and all four players—WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, CB Mike Hilton, OLB Bud Dupree and LT Alejandro Villanueva—are likely to sign lucrative contracts elsewhere (though Villanueva might retire). As such it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Steelers received, say, three compensatory draft picks in 2022, with at least one in third round. That’s the kind of added draft capital that could allow the Steelers to trade up in the first round next spring.
Follow the Heavy on Steelers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content!