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Steelers have a revelatory deadline approaching in Russell Wilson-Justin Fields QB conundrum

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin will talk. General manager Omar Khan will talk. Even Steelers ownership will likely talk.

But the money will scream.

That’s what the Steelers faithful should understand as the quarterback position takes shape in Pittsburgh. Regardless of who is getting the public nod right now as the entrenched starter — and thus far, that’s Russell Wilson — the long-term intentions of the franchise are going to be telegraphed at the negotiating table.

Barring a total collapse, either Wilson or Justin Fields is going to get a contract extension that speaks more loudly than anything said publicly about the competition in the coming days and weeks. And right now, only Fields has a deadline that really forces any kind of early decision. Specifically, a fifth-year option that must be triggered by May 2 if Pittsburgh wants two years of control with Fields. If that date passes without the 2025 season being picked up by the Steelers, Fields will be eligible for free agency next offseason. And at that point, the only recourse the franchise would have to keep him in the fold would be either a franchise tag or extension.

The cost for that extra season of control certainly won’t be cheap, with Fields’ fifth-year option qualifying for a $25.66 million payout — thanks to playing-time thresholds he exceeded as a starter for the Chicago Bears. But a Fields franchise tag would be much worse, with the 2025 quarterback tag projection currently hovering around $42 million. If the Steelers were to trigger the option, it would be a total commitment of more than $28.8 million over the next two seasons for Fields. It's a number that would suggest he’s viewed as the likely starter next season, effectively putting Wilson back into the free agent pool after the expiration of his current one-year deal.

If the Steelers decide to pick up the fifth-year option on Justin Fields (right), it would put teammate Russell Wilson in an uncomfortable spot. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
If the Steelers decide to pick up the fifth-year option on Justin Fields (right), it would put teammate Russell Wilson in an uncomfortable spot. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) (Michael Reaves via Getty Images)

That means the Steelers will have to tip their hand in very short order when it comes to exactly how much they like Fields as a potential future starter. It stands to reason that if the Steelers pass on picking up that option, Wilson will be firmly entrenched as the team’s starter heading into training camp. In effect, he’d likely have to do something to lose the job, with Fields functioning as a traditional supporting backup role rather than being measured against Wilson in a true competition.

Why Steelers picking up Justin Fields' option seems unlikely

From the outside looking in, odds are against the Steelers picking up the Fields option due to three factors. First, it’s fairly expensive for a player whose trade interest was tepid at best for the Bears, not to mention one who was also viewed by trade partners as a backup-level player for their franchises. It stands to reason that if NFL teams view Fields as a backup right now (and that was the suggestion telegraphed by his trade market), he’ll still be viewed as a backup if he spends the 2024 season sitting on the Steelers’ bench.

The second factor? Picking up the option would put Wilson into an awkward position of only having a one-year commitment from the Steelers, while his presumed backup has two years of guaranteed money and a very strong financial suggestion from the team that he’s the future. That’s not the kind of thing you want to invite into a quarterback room.

And then there’s the third factor: The reality that the Steelers won’t have done any significant on-field work with Fields prior to the May 2 deadline to the trigger his fifth-year option. Tying themselves to an additional $25.66 in guaranteed salary in 2025 is a major dice roll without having gotten a close look at Fields’ fit in the scheme and locker room.

All of which makes it understandable when the Steelers leaked to various media outlets after the Fields trade that Wilson was still considered the team’s starter. It's a stance that was backed up very carefully by Tomlin at the NFL owner’s meetings in Orlando, when he said Wilson had the “pole position” on the starting job but that Fields would have a chance to “compete.”

“We’ve been very transparent about the pecking order — at least to start,” Tomlin said. “I think that provides clarity for all parties involved. Russell is a veteran. He’s got a proven process of readiness. He’s been in this league a long time. He’s capable of rallying troops, receivers, tight ends, running backs, etc. He’s just got a lot of experience in terms of what it takes to be the guy over the course of a 12-month calendar and I think that that’s something that a younger guy like Justin could learn from.

“[Establishing a pecking order] provides clarity for all parties involved as they do some of the informal things that collectors do this time of year, whether it’s coming together to work out and destinations and things of that nature. Rest assured when it’s time to compete, Justin will be given an opportunity to compete, and we’ll allow those guys to sort themselves out.”

Clearly, the language of that statement speaks to the job being a far more open competition than was initially reported at the time of the trade. Which makes sense, given how impressed the organization was with Fields heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. But Tomlin’s remarks don’t reflect how the fifth-year decision could impact that pecking order. In a way, they’re actually suggestive that the Steelers have already made a decision in their minds that they won’t be exercising Fields’ option. Largely because there’s little chance that a “Wilson first” depth chart would be believable with Fields slated to make $25.66 million in 2025. But the Steelers also haven’t made any public commitments about Fields’ option, either. Which means that right now, they’re keeping all avenues open.

The reasons for that could be more layered, too. Pittsburgh could still negotiate a one-year extension hedge with Fields for the 2025 season that would be cheaper than the $25.66 million he would be owed if his option were triggered. That would be similar to the path taken by the Green Bay Packers and Jordan love last offseason, when the two sides agreed to a one-year pact that replaced his fifth-year option, but only initially guaranteed Love $13.5 million. The key difference with that deal? Love was slated to be the starter in 2024 and had an opportunity to hit the escalators that could drive his salary to a total value of $22.5 million. For a Fields deal to be similar, the Steelers would still effectively be framing him as the team’s starter in 2025. Without question, it’s a bit of a conundrum. Especially if Fields’ option isn’t triggered and he somehow takes the starting job from Wilson and runs with it in 2024.

But that’s a bridge much further down the road. For now, the Steelers have to make a clear commitment to either Wilson or Fields in the coming months. And that May 2 deadline for Fields’ option will speak very loudly about what that commitment is … and which player should feel good about it.