Money Matters: New Horizons

The Steelers didn't just check off the most important item of their off-season to-do list when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signed a new eight-year, $102 million contract last week. They also accepted a new challenge, as they now face the task of building the future roster around their marquee signal-caller.

Even if the basic principles that have guided the front office for years remain intact, the obvious practical implications of carrying the league's second-highest-paid player loom large.

Whether or not the signing changes anything fundamental about the team's approach, the contract itself is a significant departure from the deals they've handed out in the past. It's not just the money, either, although Roethlisberger now makes almost twice as much as any other Steeler ever has, and his $25.2 million signing bonus is more than twice as much as they've ever handed out up front. The bigger point of departure, to my mind, is the deal's length.

The Steelers have tended to give out shorter contracts than a lot of other franchises. Top players have in recent off-seasons been limited to five-year deals. You have to go back to Roethlisberger's rookie contract to find their last six-year contract, and they've signed no one for longer than that in this decade. They've paid competitive rates for their players, but have used shorter deals to reign in the guaranteed money required, and mitigate risk. They've certainly been willing to pay their players, as their healthy payroll year after year attests, but they've been reluctant to marry themselves to individual guys.

The Roethlisberger contract takes that risk head-on, and declares in no uncertain terms that he's the keystone upon which they intend to build for quite a while. They've got some building to do, too, looking over the roster situation in near-future years. It starts with the offensive line, obviously, but they're due for a bit of a general youth movement at a number of positions.

If you have any doubt that the Steelers face some major decisions about building the future roster around their franchise quarterback, consider that only eleven players currently on the team are signed beyond the 2009 year: Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Santonio Holmes, Ike Taylor, Aaron Smith, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Mewelde Moore, Chris Hoke, Kendall Simmons, and Sean Mahan. That's it. No Hines Ward, no Heath Miller, no Willie Parker. No James Harrison, no Deshea Townsend, no Larry Foote. No Jeff Reed. None of the team's four captains from 2007 appear among that list of names. This isn't the roster of some far-off future I'm talking about; it's the roster two years from today.

Of course, when all's said and done, there will be more familiar faces still around than that. Max Starks' name could be added still this off-season, and young stars like Miller will get new contracts before then. William Gay, Daniel Sepulveda, Matt Spaeth, Gary Russell, and Darnell Stapleton will be entering their restricted free agent years. Other young players like Bryant McFadden, Willie Colon, Nate Washington, Chris Kemoeatu, and Anthony Smith may have landed extensions of their own, by then. Any number of veterans like Reed, or Parker, or Harrison could stick around on a third contract.

But, any way you slice it, the next three drafts figure to contribute a large number of players to the roster—many more than could have been absorbed from recent drafts into such a veteran-laden team, if they use their selections wisely. That's good, because carrying Roethlisberger's salary will require that the rest of the roster get a little bit cheaper, and the best way to accomplish that without sacrificing quality is to get younger. The quarterback in Pittsburgh will now take the cap room of basically two strong starters at most other positions, so they'll need to fill an average of one more starting position with a cheap rookie contract than they have been.

The cost of those strong starter contracts have certainly been on the rise, too. I doubt that the Roethlisberger contract will impact their positional valuation too terribly, although pass protection should become a higher priority as they look to draft their next batch of stud linemen. What it could easily do, though, is pull the level of contracts they hand out up a notch or two. Players see what the guys around them are getting paid; Pittsburgh has long been successful at keeping their top-end contracts on the team at about the same level, and having a highly-paid quarterback complicates that.

I expect to see the top contracts on the roster jump from the $5-6.5 million a year range in which they fell prior to the Roethlisberger deal, up to the $6-8 million a year range in pretty short order, more rapidly than simple contract inflation around the league would explain. Heath Miller will provide an interesting test case, as he's the next young, premium, core player due for an extension, and whether or not he ever figures more frequently in the passing game, his agent will surely point to the $6 million a year being made by Daniel Graham as a starting point. Holmes comes due the year after, when young deep targets will probably command $8 million a year even if they don't catch 90 balls a season.

These aren't problems facing the front office, so much as they're challenges. It's expensive to keep a legitimate franchise quarterback because the advantage one provides is so enormous, and so irreplaceable. The Steelers have enjoyed one at a bargain rate for four seasons, and even squeezed a championship out of that window. With eight more years of a big leg up on 80% of the competition, they've got quite a window to find that trophy some company, if they play their other cards right.

Steel City Insider Top Stories