Ben Roethlisberger agreed to a new 1-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, saving Pittsburgh about $15 million in cap space for the 2021 season. With the new deal, Big Ben’s cap hit went from the most expensive in the league to a “modest” $25.9 million. Roethlisberger now holds the 11th-biggest cap hit in the NFL.
With Big Ben dropping on the cap hit list, Matt Ryan rose to a spot that he likely doesn’t want to be in. Ryan is now the most expensive player from a salary cap standpoint in the league. Ryan will count as $40.9 million against the cap in 2021.
Heading into free agency, Ryan is one of just two players with a cap hit above $32 million, and the other is reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. The Atlanta Falcons will dedicate more than an additional $3 million for Ryan than the Green Bay Packers will for Rodgers, who has a $37.5 million cap hit.
Even worse, Ryan’s cap hit will increase by about half a million in 2022. The following season, the Falcons signal caller’s cap hit will begin to decline but only to $36.6 million for 2023 (all these totals are according to Spotrac).
Every quarterback contract in history, especially recently, has set a precedent for the next signal caller in line for a major deal. For Falcons fans, it’s worth wondering if Roethlisberger’s new contract will begin a fad of quarterbacks agreeing to take money off their deals late in their careers in an effort to create salary cap space and make one final push for a championship. Could Ryan do the same?
As is true with almost every offseason question, it’s not clear. However, it’s definitely not happening before the 2021 season. Ryan is three years younger than Roethlisberger, so wanting the Falcons quarterback to make a similar financial sacrifice as Big Ben this year is unrealistic.
The Steelers are also in contention whereas the Falcons aren’t at the moment. Pittsburgh collapsed at the end of 2020, but there’s still a feeling around the organization that if the team can add defensive depth and fix the running game (two major issues in December) the Steelers can beat anyone in the AFC. Opening up $15 million in cap space with Roethlisberger’s new contract will help Pittsburgh address those issues.
While Ryan taking a pay cut would help, the Falcons have too many holes to approach Ryan in a negotiation and say ‘with $10 million off your deal, we can fix this and we’re Super Bowl contenders in 2021.’
The Falcons also have a new front office, which complicates a restructure attempt. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has been in Pittsburgh through Roethlisberger’s entire tenure, and has arguably been his biggest supporter even through the dark days (to put it very lightly) of Big Ben’s personal life. The prior relationship made a new contract this spring relatively painless.
But while it’s not going to happen now, a restructured contract for Ryan next spring or in 2023 doesn’t seem impossible. Of course, that will all depend on how he plays this fall and how much closer the Falcons get to the playoffs and Super Bowl. Whether the NFL can have a normal preseason and full crowds at games starting in September will also impact how bad the $41 million cap hit looks for 2022.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers agreeing to a new deal to save a significant chunk of salary cap space sets a precedent that could be very important for the Falcons. But for now, the Atlanta front office must maximize its draft stock and what little cap space the organization has for free agents this year to prove to Ryan a restructured deal is worth doing for 2022.
That’s assuming, of course, Ryan remains the Falcons starting quarterback for the next two years.