With the Steelers’ season-ending skid and playoff debacle against the Cleveland Browns fresh in his mind, Roethlisberger made it known he was ready to attempt another Super Bowl run. After discussions, the Steelers determined they wanted that too, but not at Roethlisberger’s $41.25 million cap hit.
The two sides negotiated and came to a deal in March: Roethlisberger reduced his pay by $5 million for a $14 million salary in 2021 and added four voidable years to his deal, freeing up $15 million in cap space for the 2021 season.
And speaking in August, team CEO and president Art Rooney II didn’t rule out a scenario where Roethlisberger played beyond the 2021 season.
"It's not written in stone that this is his last year," Rooney told a small group of reporters at Steelers camp. "We're aware this could be Ben's last year. We hope it's a great one. That's as far as we can go with it right now. Obviously, if this is his last year, then next year we'll be making decisions on a quarterback, and we'll address it as the time comes up."
But with six games left in the regular season, the 39-year-old quarterback is telling former teammates and some within the organization that he expects this to be his final season, league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Steelers are 6-8-1 in their past 15 games including playoffs since starting 11-0 in 2020.
That leaves the Steelers without a clear path forward at quarterback -- something they delayed while the organization attempted to build a supporting cast for Roethlisberger’s final run.
Whom might the Steelers turn to under center? There isn’t an obvious choice, but there are plenty of options.
On the Steelers' roster
Mason Rudolph, 2018 third-round draft pick, under contract through 2022
Dwayne Haskins, 2021 free-agent signing, RFA in 2022
Rudolph is the only quarterback currently on the roster with a contract through 2022. The Steelers believed he had first-round talent when they drafted him in 2018, but that hasn’t come to fruition in the four years since. Rudolph split the starting job with former UDFA Devlin “Duck” Hodges in 2019 after Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. The Steelers brought in Matt Canada in 2020, initially as a quarterbacks coach to further help develop Rudolph. When Canada was elevated to offensive coordinator in 2021, the Steelers hired veteran quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan to lead the position.
Rudolph started one game for the Steelers this season, filling in against the Detroit Lions after Roethlisberger tested positive for COVID-19. Afterward, Mike Tomlin said Rudolph “gave us a chance to win,” but he was inconsistent and often threw off-target and high. Rudolph is expected to remain with the organization in 2022 and have an opportunity to compete for the job. The Steelers also have former first-round pick Haskins on the current roster, though he couldn’t beat out Rudolph for the No. 2 spot through the preseason and training camp. He has been inactive for all but one game this season. Sullivan praised Haskins for his development and attention to detail during practices, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to show growth in a game situation. During the preseason, Haskins had bright moments, but in his lone start, the preseason finale against the Panthers, he completed 9 of 16 attempts for 108 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The Steelers are currently projected to have the No. 13 overall pick, and according to ESPN’s FPI, they have a 28.6% chance to have a top-10 pick. This year’s quarterback class is underwhelming. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones stands out from the current rookie class, but while the rest of the group has experienced growing pains, it's still much stronger than the next group up. If the Steelers added a first-round quarterback to the room, they would be setting up for a longer-term rebuild -- something coach Mike Tomlin might not want to do after more than a decade of working with Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers take pride in homegrown talent, and there’s at least one option who checks all the boxes.
The Steelers let Pittsburgh native and Pitt quarterback Dan Marino get away in the 1983 draft, and it kept them from having a solid succession plan after Terry Bradshaw. Now, they could make a move to keep Pickett in town. A Heisman contender and ACC Player of the Year, Pickett helped lead the Panthers to the ACC championship game in his fifth season, and he threw for over 4,000 yards, 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions. And, his 79 career touchdown passes tie him for first in school history with Marino. Pickett is emerging as the Steelers’ best option in this class, but it's not a sure thing they can move up high enough to get him.
Howell, with a career 10,078 passing yards and 91 touchdown passes to go with 1,006 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, is a better version of Baker Mayfield. Willis has a strong arm as well as good mobility. Corral might go too high for the Steelers to make a play, but he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the class, with a 68% completion percentage for 3,339 yards and 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 597 yards and 11 TDs.
The Steelers prefer to draft and develop, but it’s not out of the question that they could make a push for a veteran quarterback. The Steelers already have some key players entering the 2022 season who will keep the team from undergoing a complete rebuild: T.J. Watt, Najee Harris, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Diontae Johnson, Cameron Heyward and Pat Freiermuth. The offensive line needs help in the offseason, and the Steelers will have to discuss big-ticket extensions for Fitzpatrick and Johnson, but the team could avoid a large-scale rebuild if it lands a veteran quarterback. And, the Steelers have the money to do it. Roethlisberger’s voided contract carries a $10.3 million cap hit in 2022, but they’re projected to have about $45 million in 2022 cap space, according to OverTheCap and Spotrac. That number could rise with the new TV deals expected to push the salary cap even higher. The Steelers could put together a blockbuster trade to acquire a big name or settle for a middle-of-the-road free-agent option and use their 2022 draft capital and cap space to bolster the offensive and defensive lines and secondary.
Amounts listed are the cap hits the Steelers would incur if they acquired the player in either a pre-June 1 trade or a post-June 1 trade. Figures are courtesy of OverTheCap.com:
Aaron Rodgers, Packers, pre-June 1 trade: $19.3 million cap hit; post-June 1 trade: $26.9 million cap hit
Russell Wilson, Seahawks, pre-June 1: $11 million cap hit; post-June 1: $24 million cap hit
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers, pre-June 1: $25.6 million cap hit; post-June 1: $25.6 million cap hit
Derek Carr, Raiders, pre-June 1: $19.9 million cap hit; post-June 1: $19.9 million cap hit
Kirk Cousins, Vikings, pre-June 1: $35 million cap hit; post-June 1: $35 million cap hit
Deshaun Watson, Texans, pre-June 1: $24.2 million cap hit; post-June 1: $35 million cap hit, plus three years left on his contract
Outside of Watson, these options essentially have one year left on their current deals. Given his upside, cost and his team’s current trajectory, Wilson, who is under contract through 2023, makes the most sense. He was unhappy prior to the season, and Schefter reported Wilson would consider a trade to the Cowboys, Saints, Raiders or Bears. The Seahawks eventually smoothed things over, but at 3-8 and with a stint on injured reserve, Wilson’s season hasn’t gone according to plan and he could ask for a trade.
Like Wilson, Rodgers was also unhappy with his situation, but the Packers reworked his deal and voided the 2023 year, making 2022 the final year of his contract. However, Rodgers carries a $46.1 million charge against the Packers’ salary cap in 2022, guaranteeing the team would have to either move on from him or sign him to another extension. If another team trades for him, it would almost certainly rework his contract and give him new money and an extension. This season, his team is an NFC Super Bowl favorite, and he’s in the midst of another MVP-caliber season. But, never say never. Rodgers and Tomlin did a little flirting in the weeks around the Steelers' Week 4 game against the Packers, with each complimenting the other in news conferences and smiling at each other when Tomlin called a timeout to keep Rodgers from quick-snapping on the Steelers’ defense. Rodgers also talked about his appreciation for Pittsburgh on the Pat McAfee Show, further raising eyebrows. Still, Rodgers seems more content than he did a few months ago, making it less likely he winds up in black and gold.
Garoppolo, who began his career as a backup in New England, became a lame-duck quarterback the minute the San Francisco 49ers drafted Trey Lance No. 3 overall in May. He’s not as flashy as Rodgers or Wilson, but he’ll likely have a lower asking price than the top-tier options. Since helping the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2019 with 27 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, Garoppolo has been average at best. In an injury-shortened 2020 season, he had seven touchdowns to five interceptions, and this season, he has 13 touchdowns to six interceptions. Lance is the obvious future in San Francisco, making Garoppolo a prime trade target.
Two other tradable veteran quarterbacks to keep an eye on are Carr and Cousins, who both have one year left on their deals. Both the Raiders and the Vikings appear at a crossroads with their respective quarterbacks and coaching staffs. The Raiders (6-5) already fired Jon Gruden, while Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are approaching the hot seat with the Vikings sitting at 5-6. If ownership decides to start fresh in either situation, the Steelers could make a play for Cousins or Carr, although Cousins is the most expensive of the bunch.
And, there’s Watson. He hasn’t played a game this season and has told the Houston Texans he intends never to play for them again and he would like to be traded. He also faces 22 civil lawsuits by women who accuse him of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. A no-trade clause allows him control over a destination, if the Texans are willing to trade him. Despite a flurry of activity before the trade deadline, Watson stayed put. But, until the civil cases are resolved, Watson comes with numerous unknowns, including the possibility of NFL discipline pending the outcome of the league’s investigation.
Winston is the most viable longer-term solution for the Steelers among their free-agent options. Prior to his injury in New Orleans, Winston appeared poised to get his career back on track. In seven appearances, Winston threw 14 touchdowns to three interceptions, completing 59% of his passes. The Steelers had an opportunity to sign Winston when he became a free agent in 2020, but general manager Kevin Colbert said in April 2020 the team didn’t make any offers to any veteran quarterbacks, and Winston ultimately went to the Saints.
Dalton and Bridgewater are just OK options, and at best, would compete with Rudolph for the starting job as a Band-Aid until a stronger quarterback draft class materializes.
Like the quarterbacks in the free-agent class, these options are most likely temporary fixes -- but are intriguing nonetheless. Trubisky, a former first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, is backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo on a one-year deal. His best season came in 2018 when he threw 24 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, and while his tenure as the second-overall pick was disappointing, he has the potential to rejuvenate his career in the right circumstance.
Once Washington’s fourth-string quarterback, Heinicke has been pretty solid as the Washington Football Team’s starter after Ryan Fitzpatrick went down. He even helped his team overtake a Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in Week 10. He’s under contract in 2022. Washington isn’t likely to part with him, but he’s worth keeping an eye on.