Wed Feb 17 3:37pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger is still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet despite optimistic overtones from both the team and its longtime franchise quarterback, Roethlisberger's return for an 18th season hardly looks like a given.
While stressing Roethlisberger ''did a lot of really good things'' in 2020, general manager Kevin Colbert on Wednesday stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing the idea of Roethlisberger being in the fold in 2021.
''We have to do what's best for the organization, do what's best for Ben,'' Colbert said. ''But there's a lot of work that needs to be done, not only with Ben but with the whole unrestricted free agent situation.''
The Steelers have 19 players heading to free agency, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker Bud Dupree. That doesn't include perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey or tight end Vance McDonald, close friends of Roethlisberger who have retired in recent weeks.
Roethlisberger currently holds a $41.25 million salary-cap hit in 2021, the highest of any player in the league. Both sides have taken turns in recent weeks talking about the need to lower that number considerably, particularly with the Steelers facing the difficult prospect of navigating a salary cap that might be $15 million to $20 million less than in 2020 thanks to a significant decline in gate revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compliance will require restructuring some of the more cap-unfriendly contracts and potentially cutting a couple of high-priced veterans, which puts Colbert in a tight spot.
How does he improve a roster he admits wasn't good enough to move beyond the first round of the playoffs in 2020 without having money to keep his top-end free agents, let alone land a few?
''We're making guestimates on what we can do to put the best team together, for our sake,'' Colbert said. ''For Ben's sake, what team can he anticipate being around him if we decide we can move forward together?''
That won't be known for a while, which makes for some tricky math. Roethlisberger is due a $15 million roster bonus in mid-March, well before the draft and just three days into the league new year. Any agreement likely would have to be reached before that date, when the roster makeup for 2021 will still be in flux.
Colbert praised Roethlisberger's performance, particularly during the team's 11-0 start. He faltered a bit down the stretch, though Colbert placed the blame on the entire offense, particularly a running game that finished last in the league in both yards rushing and yards per carry. Fixing it is a priority regardless of who is behind center.
''We need to be able to finish and having a strong running game helps teams finish (late in the) year,'' Colbert said.
He made it a point to praise Roethlisberger's return following right elbow surgery that cost him most of 2019.
''In the beginning of the year, we talked about watching what he was doing, because he was doing some incredible feats as we were building that 11-0 record,'' Colbert said. ''A lot of that is performing at crucial times.''
It fell apart against the Browns. The Steelers turned it over four times in the first half while falling behind by 28 points and never recovered. That left a bitter taste in Colbert's mouth. While Pittsburgh has reached the playoffs six times since losing to Green Bay in the Super Bowl a decade ago, the Steelers are just 3-6 in the postseason over that span.
''Any season that ends without a Super Bowl is not good enough,'' Colbert said. ''Whatever job I did putting together a 53-man roster in those given years was not good enough.''
Colbert is not getting worked up about his own contract, which runs through the end of May. The 64-year-old has hinted at retirement at some point but demurred when asked about his long-term status.
''Fortunately (ownership is) willing to work with me on a year-to-year basis,'' he said. ''Quite frankly that's all I deserve because we have to prove ourselves each and every year.''
Colbert expressed confidence in backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, the short-term (and possibly long-term) solution if Roethlisberger retires or plays elsewhere, though he stopped short of promising to sign Rudolph to a contract extension. Rudolph's rookie deal expires at the end of next season. Rudolph is 5-4 as a starter and played well in the 2020 regular-season finale against Cleveland while Roethlisberger sat out to rest.
''I think Mason wants to prove who he is,'' Colbert said. ''I know he'd like to play more.''
It could be in the preseason - which was wiped out last summer due to the pandemic - or the regular season. Or both. For a franchise among the most stable in the NFL, if not in all of pro sports, things are fluid in ways they haven't been for quite some time.
That fluidity would seem unlikely to include free agent J.J. Watt, whose younger brothers Derek and T.J. both play for the Steelers. Colbert declined to mention the three-time Defensive Player of the Year by name when specifically asked about the team's interest in bringing him on. He was more expansive about potentially keeping Dupree. The outside linebacker played on the franchise tag this season and collected eight sacks before tearing the ACL in his right knee on Dec. 2.
''We'd love to keep a Bud Dupree,'' Colbert said. ''Not just because Bud is a special player but with Bud and T.J. together, they're a special group.''
Tennessee Titans impending free-agent TE Jonnu Smith ranks fourth among tight ends with an average of 7.1 yards after catch over the last three seasons.
Fantasy Spin: Smith has the athleticism to be a matchup problem for opposing defenses, but he has never been in a high-volume role. He has TE1 upside depending on where he plays in 2021.
The Baltimore Ravens have agreed to re-sign DT Justin Ellis to a one-year deal worth $1.2 million with $400,000 guaranteed, according to a source.
Miami Dolphins impending free-agent DT Davon Godchaux would like to re-sign with the Dolphins this offseason, but agent Drew Rosenhaus said he is not sure if the Dolphins will be to offer what Godchaux will be looking for in free agency.
Seattle Seahawks WR Josh Gordon was released Thursday, March 4.
Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said the team plans to tender impending free-agent running back Phillip Lindsay a contract, but they aren't sure at what capacity yet. An original-round tender for Lindsay would allow the Broncos to match any offer he receives, but it wouldn't bring anything in return. A second-round tender, estimated at $3.4 million, could scare interested teams away or give Denver a high pick in return if Lindsay signs elsewhere. The 26-year-old was a surprise Pro Bowler in his rookie season after going undrafted and he managed 1,000 yards rushing in his first two years, but he took a major step back in 2020. Not only was Lindsay playing second fiddle to Melvin Gordon III, but he dealt with nagging injuries all season that limited him to 11 games. If he stays in Denver, he'll be a weak RB3/flex as a Gordon handcuff.
Updating a previous report, free-agent DE Stephen Weatherly (Panthers) agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Minnesota Vikings Thursday, March 4, worth $2.5 million. The deal can be worth as much as $3 million with incentives.
Denver Broncos impending free-agent DT Shelby Harris will be a priority for the Broncos this offseason, according to general manager George Paton.
Denver Broncos impending free-agent S Justin Simmons' agent has had contract talks with the Broncos, and general manager George Paton said the goal is to sign Simmons to a long-term contract this offseason.
Updating a previous report, Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger signed a restructured contract Thursday, March 4. He agreed to reduce his pay to $14 million from $19 million in the final year of his contract and spread the cash payment through 2022, per source. The moves lowered his cap hit to $15 million in 2021, giving the team more flexibility.
The Pittsburgh Steelers officially signed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract for the 2021 season on Thursday. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Roethlisberger willingly reduced his pay to $14 million from $19 million in the final year of his deal, spreading his cash payment through 2022, according to a source. The move lowered Pittsburgh's salary cap hit by over $15 million, allowing them to make other moves to remain as competitive as possible. Big Ben was initially set for an exorbitant cap hit of $41.25 million. The 39-year-old will have one more shot at a championship and will likely retire after the 2021 season. Pittsburgh's offense could lose wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster this offseason and Roethlisberger is pretty injury prone, so he'll mostly be targeted as a fantasy backup as he heads into what will likely be his final NFL season.
Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald could return for an 18th season with the team, but head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Thursday, March 4, that the wide receiver's status remains a mystery. 'I don't know anything,' Kingsbury said in a news conference, adding it's been honor to work with Fitzgerald and hopes he plays five more years.
Fantasy Spin: Once an annual locked-in WR2, Fitz hit career season lows across the board last season at age 37 with 54 grabs for 409 yards and one TD and is off the fantasy radar outside of deeper leagues if he does play in 2021.
Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is not being 'shopped,' according to a source Thursday, March 4, but calls from other teams interested in trading for Wilson have been answered.
Fantasy Spin: Translation: The Seahawks have every intention of sticking with Wilson unless they're absolutely blown away by an offer. Then it would be a matter of Wilson approving the deal as well. It remains an ongoing offseason hot topic, but it's most likely Wilson and his QB1 talents remain in the Pacific Northwest.
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday, March 4, signed a restructured contract with the team and will return for an 18th season. Terms of the new deal were not immediately available. 'We are excited we were able to come to an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger on a new contract for him to return to the Steelers in 2021,' general manager Kevin Colbert said in a story posted on the team's website. 'We know that Ben can still play at a high level and do special things for this team. Our goal remains the same - to put together a roster that will compete for another championship. We are happy that Ben will be one of our leaders to help us accomplish that goal.'
Fantasy Spin: Roethlisberger's return boosts the fantasy value of the team's pass-catchers, but Big Ben's own fantasy value at age 39 is now in the mid-QB2 range.
Detroit Lions CB Desmond Trufant on Thursday, March 4, was informed by the team that he will be released at the start of the new league year later this month, per a source.
Chicago Bears WR Allen Robinson has totaled 131 receptions resulting in first downs since the start of the 2019 season, third most in the league according to Pro Football Focus data.
Fantasy Spin: Robinson's 12.4 yards-per-catch average in Chicago (three seasons) has dipped from his 14.1 average from his four seasons in Jacksonville, but he's caught 53 more passes in one fewer season with the Bears. The bottom line is that Robinson possesses one of the league's strongest all-around WR skill-sets and is a legit fantasy WR1 if he can finally get better QB play.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce leads the league with 145 receptions resulting in first downs since 2019, according to Pro Football Focus data.
Fantasy Spin: Kelce is fantasy gold. He has been a top-two fantasy tight end in each of the last five seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. He's a legit top-25 pick as the first non-RB or WR off the board in drafts.
Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who shares the same agent as Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, said on the Huddle and Flow podcast that, "I highly doubt (Deshaun Watson) will suit up in a Texans uniform again. He's extremely serious." The Texans and Watson are in a standoff, with Houston saying they will not trade the 25-year-old signal-caller. But Watson remains steadfast in his trade demands and wants out of Houston. Eventually, something has to give. If this continues to play out, the Texans may have no choice but to find the best available offer for the star quarterback. Watson was still a top-five fantasy QB without All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins in 2020, so he should be drafted as an elite quarterback again in 2021. A trade out of Houston could make him even more attractive.
The New Orleans Saints restructured kicker Wil Lutz's contract on Thursday to create $1.74 million in salary cap space, according to a source. New Orleans continues to maneuver around the lowered 2021 salary cap, but they still have plenty of work left to do as the new league year approaches on March 17. The 26-year-old kicker made 23 of his 28 field-goal tries in 2020 and also was successful on 57 of his 58 extra points last season. The Saints offense should be pretty solid under either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston in 2021, which should at least make Lutz a low-end fantasy kicking option. Lutz finished as the No. 9 fantasy kicker in most leagues in 2020.
Free-agent DE Stephen Weatherly (Panthers) agreed to an undisclosed deal with the Minnesota Vikings Thursday, March 4.
Free-agent LB Thomas Davis (Football Team) will sign a one-day contract with the Carolina Panthers March 11 to retire with the team.