Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Ben Roethlisberger

Gene J. Puskar

Gene J. Puskar

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) stands on the sideline as the team plays against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger’s elbow injury will cause him to miss the remainder of the season. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It’s been a busy week for the Steelers despite nothing really happening.

For the Steelers, it’s not what’s happening, but what isn’t. Namely, they haven’t done anything with Ben Roethlisberger’s contract yet.

The team is in a holding pattern, much like the rest of the NFL, as the league and NFLPA continue to hash out what the salary cap will be in 2021.

And until that is set – which might not be until the days before the new league year begins March 17 – teams are largely sitting on their hands.

For teams up against or over the cap, such as the Steelers, this is a necessity. While the team cleared about $14 million in cap space with the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, it’s still over the cap.

The league announced to teams last week that the cap floor has been increased from the $175 million negotiated before the season to $180 million now. That’s good news for cash-strapped teams.

But even at $180 million, the Steelers are still nearly $16 million over the cap.

That’s a big reason they haven’t done anything with Roethlisberger as of yet. They won’t ever use the dreaded “R” word – rebuild – but if the cap is $180 million, that is the situation in which the Steelers will find themselves.

They won’t be capable of re-signing any of their own free agents. And they won’t have the cash available to make any moves in free agency unless they cut bait with Roethlisberger and or some other high-priced veterans such as Joe Haden.

“It’s an ongoing process that just doesn’t involve him, but involves the players around him,” GM Kevin Colbert said. “I’m sure he’s going to want to see what kind of team we can keep together under our current situation. And hopefully we can make that correct adjustments to keep that group together as much as possible.”

In other words, if the Steelers aren’t capable of making any moves this offseason other than adding players in the draft, they won’t necessarily want Roethlisberger back, nor will he want to return.

Heck, with the retirements of Pouncey and McDonald, his two closest friends on the roster, Roethlisberger might not want to return even if the Steelers are able to make some additions.

At issue is what Roethlisberger will count against the salary cap. The Steelers have already told him they can’t carry his $41.25-million cap hit – created by the team’s restructuring of his deal last year to gain additional cap space for 2020. But if he is retired or released, he still counts $22.25 million against the team’s salary cap, creating only an additional $19 million in cap space.

That’s a lot of dead money.

To be clear, the Steelers still believe Roethlisberger is capable of playing at a high level – if he’s given some help in the form of a better running game.

If they have their hands tied by the salary cap, however, they might not be interested in bringing him back – even at a cap cost of, say, $28 million, if it just means the difference between winning seven games with Mason Rudolph or nine with Roethlisberger.

“Ben Roethlisberger did a lot of really good things last year. We’re anticipating he could still do some good things moving forward,” Colbert said. “Hopefully, there’s a way we can figure out and do what’s best for the organization and do what’s best for Ben. Hopefully, he’ll be able to see that and feel the same way we do. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, not only with Ben, but with the whole unrestricted free agent class and our whole cap situation, as well.”

Given all of this, it’s looking more like a 50-50 proposition Roethlisberger is back in 2021.

  • If Roethlisberger isn’t back, it will be Mason Rudolph who gets first shot at being the team’s quarterback in 2021. But don’t necessarily expect the Steelers to take a quarterback in the first round of the draft.

First, there are five quarterbacks who will likely be taken in the first round this year, but it’s unlikely any of those last until the 24th pick, which is where the Steelers sit.

Second, the Steelers don’t really have the draft capital to make a move to go up and get one of those five.

Finally, the Steelers still like Rudolph and want to see what they have with him.

Rudolph started one game in 2020, playing in the regular-season finale at Cleveland after the Steelers had clinched the division title. He threw for 315 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 24-22 loss.

“The game he started this year, it was probably the best game he played for us,” said Colbert. “Unfortunately, we came up a little bit short. But it was very encouraging to see Mason play like he did in a tough situation. Cleveland was desperate to win. It was at their home field. And we came within two points of beating them. That was encouraging.”

  • Pitchers and catchers have reported. Not that you would recognize many of the names who showed up at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

The Pirates are in a complete rebuilding mode. They’ll be lucky to win 60 games.

That’s why it’s funny when people talk about the Steelers rebuilding. They just won’t go that route, trading away good players for draft picks.

The equivalent of winning 60 games in the NFL is going 2-14. The Steelers have won fewer than six games just once since 1970. They believe in retooling on the fly.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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