Antonio Brown got what he wanted — a new team and a new contract — and the Pittsburgh Steelers got rid of a headache that had become a migraine for one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.
The Steelers will trade the four-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, a deal that can’t be formally completed until the new league year opens on Wednesday.
If that sounds underwhelming, consider this: The Raiders reportedly rewarded Brown with a three-year contract for $50.125 million, with $30.125 million guaranteed and $54.125 million in maximum value.
Simply put, the Steelers got fleeced — by Brown and the Raiders.
But this saga isn’t that simple.
1. Bad business: The Brown trade signals that the Steelers’ way of doing business finally went bust.
Their refusal to give guarantees on contracts greater than a signing bonus has now cost them running back Le’Veon Bell and Brown.
In return for a pair of All-Pro performers still in their prime, the Steelers will be compensated with a pair of third-round picks (one for Bell leaving via free agency) and a fifth-rounder.
It begs these questions: Why were the Steelers willing to restructure Brown’s contract last spring for salary cap relief, but wouldn’t give him more guaranteed money? Why did they refuse to give Bell more guaranteed money but are willing to swallow $21.12 million in dead cap space for Brown?
Those are questions for which team president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have to answer.
Jason Fitzgerald, a self-described NFL salary cap and contract expert and creator of overthecap.com, tweeted this: “For the Steelers I don’t know how you spin this as anything more than a disaster. They spent over $29 million in new money for basically one additional year that resulted in no playoffs and got taken to the woodshed by Brown starting in week 17. For all that, they get a 3 and a 5 back.”
2. Hands tied: The Steelers had no choice but to trade Brown.
Anything to the contrary is wrong.
Brown’s behavior last year was nothing short of selfish, and his walking out on his team in the final week of the season was totally unacceptable.
The Steelers couldn’t bring him back into their locker room.
Brown forced their hand, with his words and his actions. That he voiced his demands for a new contract and a play-only-by-my-rules mantra on social media and exclusive interviews on HBO and ESPN sabotaged his trade value.
As I wrote back in January, the Steelers might not be better without Brown, but they’ll be better off.
3. Still the Raiders: The immediate reaction is that the Raiders won this trade, getting one of the game’s top receivers without having to give up one of their three first-round draft picks.
Brown, who will be 31 in July, has had six consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, and is still performing at a high level.
But he’s going to a team that traded both Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper and finished 4-12 last season, one that has yet to determine where it will play home games in 2019 before moving to Las Vegas in 2020. The Raiders are something of a mess.
Brown met his perfect match.
4. Ship to Bay: The Bay Area has become a reservoir for Pittsburgh malcontents, to borrow a phrase Pitt media relations czar E.J. Borghetti once used for a number of Panthers football players trying transferring to a certain school.
When the Pirates traded five-time All-Star outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants in January 2018 for a relief pitcher and a minor-league outfielder, team chairman Bob Nutting was eviscerated.
The Steelers deserve the same ridicule for their return on Brown, even though the circumstances are drastically different. What’s interesting is that both Brown and McCutchen ended up getting three-year, $50-million contracts, even though it took two trades and free agency for McCutchen to get his deal.
5. What’s next?: By trading Brown, a bona fide No. 1 NFL receiver, the Steelers now have a major need at the position.
The onus is on JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the team in receptions, to become their top target without the benefit of having Brown on the opposite side of the field.
The hope is that James Washington can have a breakout season in his second year, and fulfill the role of a secondary target and downfield threat.
But after drafting receivers in the second round in each of the past two drafts, it’s become a priority once again. The Steelers have targeted the position in the first round before with some success in Plaxico Burress and Super Bowl 43 MVP Santonio Holmes.
They also have found gems in later rounds in Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders (third), Martavis Bryant (fourth) and, of course, Brown (sixth).
But with their top two receivers so young, the Steelers might want to search for a veteran in a free-agent market that features 31-year-olds Demaryius Thomas, Golden Tate and Michael Crabtree.
No matter what they do, the Steelers are done with Antonio Brown, for better or worse.