When Ben Roethlisberger got emotional after last weekend’s playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, it sparked speculation that the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback knew he had played his last game. But according to a new report from Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, “there is optimism within the organization that Big Ben will be back in 2021.”
Indeed Big Ben—who would be entering an 18th NFL season in 2021—seemed to be leaning towards coming back at his postgame press conference last Sunday, saying, “I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back, if that’s the way we go….”
Steelers Will Have a New Offensive Coordinator
Already a lot has happened since then, with the Steelers letting go of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett. The Steelers reportedly plan to elevate quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, which could impact Roethlisberger’s decision on whether or not to return.
Sure, there would be some continuity, as Canada served as QB coach in 2020. But there will no doubt be significant changes to the offensive scheme, and if Canada’s coaching history is any indication, a lot more motion and shifting will be involved.
Roethlisberger’s decision-making could also be impacted by the possibility that Pittsburgh will lose many (if not most) of its unrestricted free agents, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Matt Feiler, running back James Conner, right tackle Zach Banner and third-string quarterback Josh Dobbs. One of Roethlisberger’s best friends on the team, tight end Vance McDonald, is entering an option year and unlikely to be retained.
The Albatross of Ben Roethlisberger’s Contract
There’s also the matter of Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, which is set to count $41.2 million against the team’s 2021 salary cap. If Roethlisberger does return, the Steelers will likely sign him to an extension to reduce his impact on this year’s cap, but no matter what transpires, Big Ben will count at least $22.5 million against the cap this year.
That’s going to make it much more difficult for the club to retain its own free agents, much less sign anyone new, especially if the salary cap goes down to the pre-prescribed minimum of $175 million.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers have until mid-March to decide whether he will be coming back for 2021, as he has a $15 million roster bonus that comes due on the third day of the new league year (which is set to begin on March 17).
If Big Ben retires or is released, current backup Mason Rudolph would become the starter, unless the Steelers used a premium pick to select a new quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s a strong year for quarterback prospects, but with the No. 24 pick in the first round, the Steelers may not be in a position to draft any of them.
As for Rudolph, he is entering the last year of the rookie contract he signed in 2018, which is set to pay him a salary of $1,014,018. He is scheduled to count $1,247,867 against the 2021 salary cap.
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