Ben Roethlisberger may be returning for his 18th NFL season, but the Pittsburgh Steelers could have their sights set on his potential replacement.
In the latest update to NFL.com analyst Charley Casserly's 2021 mock draft, the Steelers are pegged to select former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields at No. 24 overall.
"Even though the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger are planning to continue their partnership, I don't see the veteran playing much longer," Casserly wrote. "In a stunning turn of events, Fields slides all the way to No. 24 (obviously, it won't be a surprise if he goes much earlier than this) and Pittsburgh pounces at the chance to land a talented successor for Big Ben. Sitting behind a future Hall of Famer for a year is a prime spot for the Ohio State prospect."
Fields currently has a 6.42 prospect grade, according to NFL.com, and is projected by many to be the second or third quarterback selected after former Clemson star Trevor Lawrence in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.
Fields appeared in 12 games as a true freshman backup for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2018 before transferring to Ohio State and immediately taking over as the Buckeyes' starter after being granted a waiver from the NCAA in 2019.
The 21-year-old was a Heisman Trophy finalist, second-team All-American and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, while also leading Ohio State to the College Football Playoff during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, which included a loss in the National Championship Game this past season.
On Wednesday (February 24), Steelers team president Art Rooney II confirmed he met with Roethlisberger on Tuesday (February 23) and both sides plan to continue discussing adjustments to the veteran quarterback's contract situation.
"Ben Roethlisberger and I met yesterday morning and we had a productive meeting" Rooney said in the statement shared by Steelers Director of Communications Burt Lauten. "We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go. Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back to help us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to help us win a championship. We both understand the next step is to work out Ben's contract situation."
Roethlisberger is in the final year of his current deal, which includes a $41.2 million cap hit, though a contract restructure and extension may lower that total by a maximum of $14 million, ESPN reports.
The former two-time Super Bowl winner could also accept a pay cut to the veteran minimum, which would place his cap hit at just over $23 million.
Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, said "we are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help [the Steelers] build the best team possible," in a statement shared to NFL Network on Tuesday night.
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette initially reported the meeting between Roethlisberger and Rooney on Tuesday, which he said "went well" at the time.
Last month, Roethlisberger, 38, told the Athletic that he's "pretty sure" he wants to play another season and plans to discuss his current contract with the Steelers, which includes a $41.2 million cap hit.
"I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year," Roethlisberger said.
The two-time Super Bowl champion said he thinks he "can do it and give us a real chance at winning" when asked about a possible return.
During a Zoom call last month, Steelers president and CEO Art Rooney II said the franchise is leaving the door open for Roethlisberger to return and make adjustments to his current contract.
"I think we've been up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn't have him back under the current contract," Rooney said via ESPN. "I think he understands we have some work to do there. We'll have more conversations internally, and we'll have more conversations with Ben, and we'll have to know what the cap number is to finalize some of those decisions."
Roethlisberger also told the Athletic last month that he doesn't "care bout my pay at all this year" when asked about possible re-negotiations. The 38-year-old quarterback threw for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 399 of 608 passing, while leading Pittsburgh to an AFC North Division Championship in 2020, before being eliminated by the rival Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Roethlisberger's primary receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, also said the veteran quarterback returning would be a key factor in his own upcoming free agency decision.
"I do want to play for a team that competes for the Super Bowl every year," Smith-Schuster told the Yinzhers Podcast., which also featured his mother, Sammy Toa Schuster, as a guest. "That's in the playoffs. Obviously, the Steelers are that. I do want to play for a great quarterback, not knowing what Ben's going to do. I do want to be paid a reasonable price for what I'm worth.
"In all consideration, I would love to stay with the Steelers. I would love to stay with them, but as of right now, we're just kind of up in the air, waiting."
Smith-Schuster also said it "means a lot" that franchise quarterback Roethlisberger would be willing to re-negotiate his current contract to free up cap space, providing the Steelers with more money to sign other players, during an interview with FOX Sports Radiolast month.
The 24-year-old said he'd "love to play with Ben for his time here" amid the quarterback's ongoing retirement decision.
The Steelers will have 19 players set to enter free agency on March 17.
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