The Backstory of Ben Roethlisberger’s Contract Extension—and How It Impacts Other QB’s Deals

Digging into the details of Big Ben’s contract, which provides some insight on where other quarterback contracts stand heading into 2019. Also, answering your questions on playoff potential for the Seahawks and the Chargers, the best fit for Ndamukong Suh and much more.
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The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have a somewhat complicated history. Last year was a complicated year. And negotiating a quarterback contract in 2019 can be complicated too.

So earlier this offseason, the quarterback’s camp thought it was best that Steelers owner Art Rooney II heard it from the man himself—Roethlisberger isn’t going anywhere.

In the meeting, Roethlisberger pledged to Rooney that he planned to play at least three more years, and in addressing his future with the boss personally, he set the stage for his fourth, and potentially final, contract with the team. Big Ben turned 37 years old in February, and he’s ruminated about retirement before, which made the gesture from player to owner more than just a goodwill offering.

At the outset of draft week, the Steelers and Roethlisberger pushed a two-year, $68 million extension over the goal line, marking yet another team moving into hard-to-chart territory with its franchise quarterback. The Saints and Patriots have been there a while, and the Giants and Chargers are coming right up behind them. Those five teams entered this offseason with their iconic signal-caller going into the final year of his contract. Thus far, just one of those guys, Roethlisberger, has been taken care of.

Do those teams have anything to worry about? The backstory of the Roethlisberger negotiation can actually help to educate you on that. And we’re going to use it to do that here.

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In this week’s Game Plan, we’re moving into OTA and minicamp season with an absolute vengeance. And you are too, based on the questions you asked. This week, we’re answering your thoughts on …

• The Seahawks’ needs coming off a playoff year.

• Ndamukong Suh’s future.

• Aaron Rodgers’s situation going into 2019.

• Why teams are investing in defensive backs over front seven players.

• The NFL’s practice rules.

This is the quiet season, which means there’s plenty of time to tie up loose ends. Some big ones are first up in this week’s column.

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Last summer, as the Packers finalized a four-year, $134 million extension with Aaron Rodgers, the Steelers broke off talks with Roethlisberger on a new deal. The market had taken another jump, and Pittsburgh wanted to press pause, get through the season and reassess in 2019. That decision, in the end, wound up simplifying the negotiation by taking emotion out of it.

First, Roethlisberger taking on another 16 games of injury risk last season took the idea that he would take any sizeable hometown discount off the table. Second, Russell Wilson’s contract negotiation, finished nine days before Roethlisberger’s, helped crystalize the fact that Rodgers’s deal was not an outlier, but another product of quickly moving market at the position.

Third, Roethlisberger’s desire to continue playing strengthened. He hired a full-time trainer and changed the way he readies for a season, maybe in part because of what he saw Tom Brady and Drew Brees accomplish as they approached 40. Accordingly, the idea of paying a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s age long-term, so long as you’re confident he’s committed to taking the kind of steps the QB has, isn’t the shot in the dark it used to be.

That final step of Roethlisberger telling Rooney that he was going to play three more years, at least, worked to energize the talks.

With all the above in mind, the negotiation became about simple math. By doing nothing, Roethlisberger could force the Steelers to franchise him in 2020 and ’21, which would cost the team a minimum of $27.84 million next year (120% of his ’19 cap number) and $33.408 million the year after that (120% of that). The two-year total comes to $61.248 million, and it’d be even more costly, with the bill likely exceeding $70 million, for the Steelers to put exclusive tags on him in those two years, in order to prevent another team from swooping in and signing him to an offer sheet.

Taking that into consideration, where Roethlisberger’s contract extension numbers landed isn’t coincidental.

• His new money average is $34 million, a half-million more than Rodgers.

• He’s getting $66 million the next two years—more than the amount two tags would’ve gotten him in ’20 and ’21, and it’s coming a year earlier.

• He was due $17 million this year. He’s due $19 million in ’21—a $2 million bump there.

The benefit for the Steelers? They get the certainty of a quarterback for the next three years, confirmed by Roethlisberger to Rooney in that meeting, and they get to avoid the possibility of Carson Wentz (who has the same agent as Roethlisberger) or Patrick Mahomes changing the market down the line like Rodgers did last summer.

Rather than drafting a potential successor at quarterback like they did last year, the Steelers aggressively moved up in the draft for a guy, in Michigan LB Devin Bush, who can help maximize that three year window—a nuance that, I’m told, of which Roethlisberger very much took note.

So what does this say about where Brady, Brees, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning stand going in 2019? Let’s take a look.

Tom Brady

Minimum franchise number (120% of ’19 cap number): $32.4 million.
Cost of two tags: $71.28 million
The skinny: I’ve been told repeatedly there isn’t any issue here, but Brady’s last two contracts (in 2013 and ’16) were done right around the time of the combine, so being past that point is notable. Brady can sit tight and get a correction on being under market the last few years by forcing the team to tag him, but history tells us it won’t come to that. (And there’s been some speculation that the team can’t redo his deal until the one-year anniversary of last year’s restructure. That’s incorrect. The one-year rule applies to restructures, not extensions.)

Drew Brees

Minimum franchise number: N/A
Cost of two tags: N/A
The skinny: Sources say that Brees’s 2018 deal included a no-franchise tag provision, just like his previous deal did, so he can go to the market next year. There’s no reason to believe he’d leave, though, and he didn’t press the team last year when he could have. The Saints have to hope he’s as ambivalent this time, especially given that a star-studded ’17 rookie class will be eligible for extensions for the first time.

Eli Manning

Minimum franchise number: $27.84 million
Cost of two tags: $61.248 million
The skinny: It’s not just Eli—the Manning family has no history of taking less than what the market dictates. The Giants drafted Daniel Jones sixth overall. Still, Pat Shurmur told me two weeks ago that he told Manning that it’s his job “to do what he has to do to get himself ready for the season and help us win games. And then along the way, Daniel just needs to be smart enough to learn as much as he can from him.” And GM Dave Gettleman mentioned the “Green Bay model” (in which Aaron Rodgers sat for three years) post-draft. So while it seems like the writing would be on the wall that it’ll be Jones’s team in 2020, it’s hard to rule anything out here.

Philip Rivers

Minimum franchise number: $27.6 million
Cost of two tags: $60.72 million
The skinny: Rivers said Monday he’s comfortable going year-to-year contractually. What does that mean? Last summer I asked Rivers about Brady’s desire to play until he’s 45, and Rivers told me—“Y’all can have that. I have no desire to get there.” But I’m told the Chargers are comfortable that Rivers will play this year and next year. After that? There’s less certainty. But there’s no questioning Rivers’s passion for football (see: his commute), and so it’s possible he keeps going beyond ’20. Which leaves a relatively affordable tag as an option next year for a team in a title window. At any rate, two sources said the team and player’s camp agreed months ago to table talks until after the draft, so discussions are still at a very early stage.

It’s not lost on anyone that this is all kind of crazy. By this time next year, all these guys will be as old or older than Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino were when they retired. When Brett Favre got to this age, retirement questions hung over him every offseason. And in each case, we’re talking about teams doubling down on the future of these quarterbacks.

It’s a new day now, and Roethlisberger’s contract is Exhibit A. We’ll see if there’s an Exhibit B coming in the next few months.

On to your mail …

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From Ben Goldstein (@bengoldstein91): The Seahawks seem to be gearing up for another Super Bowl push with the re-signing of Wilson and a large draft class. What is the one key piece they are missing for that Super Bowl title?

I’d say it’s a dominant pass-rusher, especially with the departure of Frank Clark. Pete Carroll’s shown an ability to find guys who can play in the secondary, over and over again. And guys like Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers give the Seattle defense a lot of promise on the back end.

But for Carroll’s defense to work, the front four have to generate heat. We know Jarran Reed is there, and he’s playing for a contract. Who else can? It’s a question they’ll have to answer. Maybe it’s new Seahawk Ziggy Ansah, who has those traits but also has a bum shoulder that scared most suitors off. Maybe first-round pick L.J. Collier is ready to go. Regardless of how it happens, they need to find some answers there.

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From NYGfaninCLT (@clt_ny): How far can the rookie contract craze go? Will a team trade a franchise (caliber) QB on a rookie deal to move up in the draft for another? For example, could LAR balk at $35m/yr deal, trade Goff and use the money to spend on position players? PHI/Wentz? TEN/Mariota?

I still believe there’s a good chance Wentz gets a deal between now and Week 1. I don’t think Goff will, just because of the Rams’ cap situation, and the Titans are playing wait-and-see with Mariota. And therein lies how the further escalation of quarterback contracts could create an issue.

The best guys are going to keep getting paid. Wentz will. Patrick Mahomes will. But what happens with guys who are a level down? That’s a question that a lot of teams are asking. The Cowboys’ negotiation with Dak Prescott hasn’t been, and won’t be, an easy one. The same, you’d think, might go for Mitchell Trubisky in a couple years, if he doesn’t make huge leaps forward.

We’ve been here before, by the way. Back when Brees, Rodgers and Joe Flacco got paid a half-decade ago, the same question was being asked, and the Bengals (Andy Dalton), Niners (Colin Kaepernick) and Dolphins (Ryan Tannehill) were able to find a second level for quarterback deals. But it wasn’t easy then, and it won’t be now.

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From René Bugner (Rainbowcave): Do you know if Sam Bradford plans to play in the NFL this season (if a team gives him a few million dollars) or is he about to retire because of health reasons? He would be a great backup option for some teams.

I poked around on this a little for you, Rene, with pro scouting directors and people who know Brady. And I don’t have an answer for you one way or the other.

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From Ben Tithecott (@BenTithecott): Can the Chargers win the AFC?

Absolutely, they can. I believe, as it stands now, the Chargers have the most well-rounded roster in the conference, and their top two draft picks have a chance to be real difference-makers. Given his athleticism and length, Jerry Tillery has a chance to be a force with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram flanking him. And Nasir Adderly could be a ballhawk in the Earl Thomas role in Gus Bradley’s defense.

To me, last year just scratched the surface of what the Chargers can be. The coaching staff returns intact, as does most of the roster. Barring a decline in Rivers’s play, and assuming some improvement on the offensive line, Anthony Lynn’s crew should be a force.

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From swanke (@swanke4sports): Rodgers—rebound or stays flat?

Rebound. Over the last few years, the program in Green Bay got stale, and Matt LaFleur’s staff has energized the place. A couple of their young receivers, Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, are heading into their second years with promise. Plus, I like their rookie tight end, Jace Sternberger.

Beyond all that, I do think Rodgers goes into 2019 with something to prove. The coaching change definitely puts the onus on the quarterback now, and I believe he’ll respond.

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From Jasson Henderson (@Jasson2pt0): Where is the NFLPA in terms of being open to more practice (development) for the upcoming CBA negotiations? The league became younger with the last CBA, but cut down the teaching time.

Jasson, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are allowances made for players in their first four or five years to take part in more offseason instruction. The coaches have taken an active role the last couple years in trying to get players more of it, with a belief that fundamentals are lagging. And in many cases, younger players are having to pay for more coaching (with less allowed in-house), which sometimes conflicts with what their teams are teaching.

Of course, ideally, you’d have more voluntary work available to players, without forcing anyone to be there. The problem, of course, is that coaches have abused that in the past, and in this sort competitive environment, it’s hard to make any sort of team activity truly “voluntary,” without a player risking losing ground. Some players are good enough where they can stay away with an issue. The great majority aren’t.

Which is all to say, it’s complicated.

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From Bucky (@BuckyThaG0d): Best fit for Suh?

I’d love to see him back on the Rams—he was a force in the Super Bowl, and it’d be cool to see what Wade Phillips would do with him, now that he has a year in the system under his belt. The problem is the Rams aren’t flush with cap space, and Suh doesn’t seem inclined to play on a discount next year.

So how about the Seahawks as a fit? Like we said earlier, there’s a need there, and Suh could be a force with Carroll turning him loose to get upfield. Also, Seattle’s got more than $25 million in cap space, so maybe they could afford both Ansah and Suh? That would be a pretty nice, if temporary, fix to the issue.

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From Bootleg Football (@BootlegFootball): A lot of discussion about coverage vs. pass rush this week, and which is more important. What's the view across the league? Is there a growing market for elite LBs who help both, and will that be reflected in contracts down the line?

I know some analytics-driven thought has seeped in with teams that the smart place to invest on defense is in the secondary, and that’s largely based on how players are deployed. Last year’s first-team All-Pro corners were Stephon Gilmore and Kyle Fuller, who played 97.1% and 96.3% of their team’s defensive snaps, respectively. The All-Pro edge rushers were Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt, who played 71.8% and 90.1% of their team’s snaps.

Generally, pass rushers rotate because of the taxing nature of that job, and the size of the players doing it. Defensive backs don’t, for the most part. So the thought then goes that you invest in your secondary, which allows you to scheme up a rush with more players involved up front.

One team we’ve seen do that: New England. Five of the 11 priciest cap numbers on their roster, and seven of the top 16 are attached to defensive backs. Which is pretty crazy, when you consider how the Patriots value financial balance.

See you guys Monday for MMQB.

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