Money Matters: Big Ben, Big Bank

Ben Roethlisberger (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Among the few unfortunate consequences for an NFL team that finds the ever-elusive franchise quarterback is the eventual need to pay him.

Along with the attention, accolades, and grief associated with the position comes buckets of cash. And as each Steelers victory casts his 2006 season more firmly as an aberration, Ben Roethlisberger creeps closer to his turn at the ATM machine.

Roethlisberger will have earned a total of about $18 million over his first four professional seasons. That's a bargain rate for any starting quarterback, let alone one who delivers the best rookie season at the position ever witnessed, and follows that up with a championship in his second year. Rookie contracts don't last forever, though, and with Roethlisberger slated to consume around $17 million in cap dollars over the next two years, next off-season presents the likely target for a long-term extension.

Market value for a top ten quarterback currently ranges between $10 million and $14 million per year. Peyton Manning set the bar in 2004 when he signed his seven-year, $98 million deal with a $34.5 million signing bonus, and a whopping $45.7 million paid out over the first three years. Tom Brady brought the market back down to earth when he accepted a six-year, $57.9 million deal a year later with $26.5 million in guaranteed bonuses and a $37.8 million three-year payout. Cincinnati settled somewhere between the two when they tore up Carson Palmer's rookie deal in favor of a ten-year, $122.5 million pact with $24 million in guaranteed bonuses and $41.75 million over three.

More recently, Drew Brees landed a six-year, $60 million deal on the open market with $30 million paid over the first three years. That deal featured just $8 million in literally-guaranteed money, but his MVP-caliber 2006 season convinced New Orleans to exercise a $12 million option on the five remaining years. Just this past off-season, Marc Bulger signed a six-year extension with the Rams totaling $65.05 million in new money, with $27.5 million in various guarantees and $31 million paid out over three years.

Jerry Jones could have thrown a monkey wrench into any negotiations with Roethlisberger by handing Tony Romo a monster contract, but at $67.5 million over six years, with $30 million guaranteed—most of it guaranteed base salaries—the mid-season accord they reached in Dallas only re-affirmed Bulger's numbers as the going rate. Romo and his agent enjoyed strong negotiating position with Dallas, as he stood poised to enter free agency after this year. The quarterback took a page out of Brady's book, however, and declined to push for maximum dollars.

While Roethlisberger boasts a stronger résumé than Romo, and might be expected to command more money, the Steelers retain a few factors in their favor. First, the Rooneys don't show an affinity for writing checks just to show off their deep pockets, and agents must know that they're not going to land an inflated windfall just because the owners like to make headlines. More than that, two years remaining on Roethlisberger's existing deal make for pretty good leverage. It would take payment of an $8 million bonus after the 2008 season to secure 2009, but that's still less prohibitive than the franchise tag, and less incentive for the player to ride things out to the open market.

It's probably going to take about the same $11 million a year that Bulger and Romo got to lock up Roethlisberger. Troy Polamalu, currently the team's highest-paid player, makes just 60% of that annual average, so the young signal-caller stands poised to become the richest player in team history by a pretty wide margin. The Steelers have a knack for getting these deals done with fewer guaranteed dollars, but sometimes that results in shorter contracts than other organizations hand out to marquee players. I could envision a five-year, $55 million deal with $19 million in guarantees fitting the bill.

You can count on a few standard practices with the Steelers' bigger contracts. Big bonus money tends to be split over the first two years, rather than paid as a lump-sum signing bonus. The first year will feature a low base salary, but in this case the higher cap value presented by Roethlisberger's existing deal for 2008—around $7 million, depending on his performance this season—could prompt them to pay out some of the guarantees as a first-year roster bonus. A $4 million roster bonus combined with an $8 million signing bonus and a $750,000 base salary in 2008 would amount to a first-year cap hit of $7.52 million, factoring in leftover prorations from the rookie deal. That's a very manageable increase, and the Steelers project to have some cap room to spare next year.

Follow that with a guaranteed $7 million option bonus in 2009, and you've got your $19 million in guaranteed bonuses. Pay some combination of roster bonuses and base salaries over the subsequent four years totaling $5.25 million, $8 million, $10 million, and $12 million, and you've hit $55 million over five years, with $25 million paid out over the first two and $33 million over three. Cap hits for the four subsequent years under such a structure would run $9.77 million, $11.35 million, $13.35 million, and $15.35 million.

Roethlisberger won't come cheaply, any way they slice it, but a shrewd organization like the Steelers must surely recognize the value of the position and the quality of the player, and find a number that works for all parties. For a team committed to building through the draft—and no organization in football adheres to that philosophy more stringently than Pittsburgh—letting a franchise player at a marquee position slip away simply isn't an option.

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