The Antonio Brown trade, at its core, is about money. It’s about a lot of things — power, respect, aging, and double standards all come to mind — but at the end of the day, this is a trade about money, which is why I didn’t think it was going to happen. I’m not sure there’s been a swap like this in recent memory, where a superstar player on a veteran deal was dealt away in the prime of his career without offering his team any sort of salary-cap savings.
In making this trade now, the Steelers are passing up the opportunity to keep one of the five best wideouts in football on their roster for $22.2 million of cap space for the opportunity to eat $21.1 million in dead money on their 2019 cap and let that guy play for somebody else. Organizations only eat that sort of dead money when they have a player commit some serious off-field discretion (Junior Galette, Ray Rice), or if they’re rebuilding and dumping underwater contracts from the previous regime (Marcell Dareus), and it’s usually over two seasons.
As a 30-year-old receiver who led the league in touchdowns last season, Brown is none of those things. For a team in the middle of contention with an aging quarterback to willingly turn 11 percent of its salary cap into dead money requires a very specific, strange set of circumstances to go wrong. To make that decision and net a pair of mid-round picks is potentially unprecedented.
When it just seemed like the Steelers were cranky about Brown, I assumed both sides would eventually work toward a resolution, mostly because it didn’t make financial sense for the team to tie up its cap space to let Brown go somewhere else. The point where things shifted was when Brown went onto social media and indicated that he also wanted a change of scenery. It wasn’t quite Terrell Owens doing sit ups in his driveway, but Brown going onto Twitter and calling out Ben Roethlisberger didn’t do his situation any favors.
In the process of trying to push his way out of Pittsburgh, Brown eroded the organization’s leverage. The Steelers spent the past two months publicly flailing, alternately leaking stories which suggested a trade hinged on getting a first-round pick before then suggesting it wouldn’t. They set a final offer deadline for Friday and then let that deadline come and go. After press conferences and media statements from various levels of the organization seemingly contradicting each other, they were forced to settle for third- and fifth-round picks from the only team that seemed seriously interested in bidding for Brown throughout the entire process.
Imagine going 12 months back in time to tell the biggest Steelers fan you know that Pittsburgh traded Brown for two picks on Saturday of the draft. Heck, imagine going back six months ago and telling the biggest Steelers fan you know that they would get worked in a deal by the Raiders.
The money problem
If you want to trace where everything went wrong in the relationship between the Steelers and Brown, it starts with one of the best contracts in modern league history. After Brown’s second year in the league yielded an 1,108-yard season, the team gave its former sixth-round pick a considerable raise by signing Brown to a five-year, $42 million extension with an $8.5 million signing bonus. The Steelers were only able to sign Brown after two seasons because he was drafted under the old CBA; had Brown been drafted after the 2010 campaign, the Steelers would have needed to wait for a third season before signing Brown to a deal.
In Year 4, Brown broke out as one of the top wideouts in the league with a 1,499-yard campaign. From 2013-16, Brown averaged — averaged — 120 catches, 1,578 yards and 11 touchdowns per season. Since he was under contract through the end of the 2017 season, though, the Steelers were able to pay Brown just $28.8 million over that four-year span, which is a little more than the annual average salary guys like Robert Meachem and Laurent Robinson were getting in free agency. Former Steelers teammate Mike Wallace hit free agency and netted a five-year, $60 million deal with the Dolphins which paid him $36.9 million over three seasons before he was cut after 2015.
Brown was making less than half of his true market value, and while most players deal with that during their rookie deals, he was struggling with it on his second contract. With the Steelers cap tied up thanks to years of subpar financial decisions, they repeatedly restructured Brown’s deal to create pockets of short-term cap room without giving him any notable raise. (For those unfamiliar with how the cap works, these restructures meant that Brown would receive most of his weekly base salary as an upfront bonus in March; he would take home the same amount of cash and get paid earlier, but the Steelers would be allowed to spread the cap hit for the restructured bonus over several years, creating temporary room.)
In part because of those cap concerns, Pittsburgh waited five years and for the final year of Brown’s extension to give its star receiver an extension. Most teams will say that waiting until the final year of a deal to hand out a new contract is organizational policy, with Pittsburgh among them, but the Steelers gave Roethlisberger an extension with two years left to go on his rookie deal in 2008.
When they did give Brown his deal, they applied a cap structure which is generally unique to the Steelers. Most teams hand out extensions to star players by giving an upfront signing bonus and guaranteeing at least two years of base salaries, which makes it extremely likely a player will remain on the roster for those two seasons. For a star quarterback or a transcendent player like Brown, a team will either explicitly guarantee three seasons or structure the contract in a way that it would be virtually impossible to cut a player for cap reasons.
Instead, the Steelers have a policy of only guaranteeing the bonuses in the first year of their deals. Cameron Heyward‘s deal has $15 million guaranteed, with a $12 million signing bonus and a $3 million roster bonus paid in Year 1, but nothing else afterward. Elite guard David DeCastro has a $16 million guarantee, all of which is in his signing bonus. Even Roethlisberger’s most recent extension consists of a $31 million signing bonus with no other guarantees, although the veteran quarterback did get partial guarantees for injury only in years two and three.
After waiting for years to get his deal, Brown got $19 million guaranteed when he signed his deal, all in the signing bonus. Throw in a $910,000 base salary and Brown took home $19.9 million in 2017 as part of a four-year, $68 million extension. That’s good money, of course, but when DeAndre Hopkins signed his extension six months later, he took home $24 million in 2017 and still had a $12.5 million guaranteed base salary for the following season. Brandin Cooks‘ extension paid $11 million in Year 1, but the structure of the deal basically guarantees he’ll take home $63.5 million over the next four seasons. Brown only gets to that ballpark if he continues to be great.
The reason a player would be comfortable taking a deal with that sort of structure is because the large signing bonus generally shields them from being cut, even without a guaranteed salary. Heading into last season, for example, the Steelers had to choose between keeping Brown on their roster with a cap hit of $16.8 million or either cutting or trading him, which would have incurred $15.2 million in dead money. In that scenario, they would choose to keep Brown 999 times out of 1,000, but you can also imagine how that one-in-a-thousand example might be enough to antagonize Brown, if only because it just happened.
Pittsburgh’s last mistake — and a clear sign that it was not expecting to move on from Brown anytime soon — was when it restructured his deal last offseason. The Steelers owed him a $7.9 million base salary and a $6 million roster bonus, neither of which were guaranteed, but instead converted $7 million in salary and the $6 million roster bonus into a signing bonus. The move paid Brown that $13 million up front, with the remaining $915,000 coming during the season, and it cleared out $9.7 million in cap space in 2018. It’s the sort of thing you only do if you’re absolutely sure you’re not going to need to move on from that player the following season.
If the Steelers hadn’t restructured Brown’s deal, they could have traded him and owed $11.4 million in dead money. The deal would have represented a $7.5 million cap savings. Instead, because they used Brown’s deal to create more short-term cap space, they will owe $21.1 million in dead money on their cap for Brown this year, which is believed to be the largest single-season dead money total for a player in league history.
Given what has happened over the last decade, you might understand why Brown would feel financially disrespected, even on a deal with an average annual salary in new money of $17 million per season. There was no chance that the Steelers, who exploited one of the best bargains in football for years, were going to uproot their contract structure by giving Brown a new extension or even guarantee a future season with three years left on his current deal. Instead, they preferred to let someone else pay Brown.
It’s one of the same reasons why they weren’t able to come to terms with Le’Veon Bell, who says the Steelers only offered him $17 million guaranteed as part of a five-year, $70 million deal. That contractual policy is going to cost the team both of its star weapons in the same offseason, and its cap philosophy is going to make it feel the pain of that decision in one of the final seasons of Roethlisberger’s career.
Compare the Steelers to the team which has kept them from a return trip to the Super Bowl over the last eight seasons. The Patriots rarely restructure contracts, and when they do, it’s not the sort of maxed-out move the Steelers pulled with Brown. The only player on the Pats roster with a restructure cap hold of more than $1.3 million in 2018 or 2019 is Tom Brady. The Pats also had a similar bargain of a deal to Brown’s initial extension with the six-year, $54 million extension they handed to Rob Gronkowski after his second season in the league, but unlike the Steelers, the Patriots have sweetened Gronkowski’s deal by adding incentives to help keep their star tight end happy.
Oakland gets its No. 1 receiver
Of course, it’s tempting to lump the Amari Cooper trade in with this deal and point out that the Raiders traded Cooper and two mid-round picks for Antonio Brown and a first-rounder. It turned out that way in the long run, of course, but it’s the wrong way to think about things. The Raiders didn’t make the Cooper trade knowing that Brown would come available for a pittance. Comparing the relative merits of Brown and Cooper is irrelevant, because the Raiders never had a chance to choose between them.
Evaluating this trade in a vacuum, it’s difficult to find an argument against the Raiders making the move. The draft pick compensation is a drop in the bucket for a team with three first-round picks, as new general manager Mike Mayock did well to resist Pittsburgh’s attempts to negotiate for a first-round pick through the media. The 66th and 141st picks are equivalent to the 41st pick in a typical draft by the Chase Stuart draft chart, while the traditional Jimmy Johnson chart has them add up as something closer to the 61st selection. Either way, if you want to invoke a recent Raiders trade, this is the same organization which used third- and fifth-round picks to trade for Martavis Bryant and AJ McCarron under Jon Gruden’s watch.
Financially, the Raiders entered the offseason with more than $60 million in cap room, so absorbing a new deal for Brown wasn’t going to be an issue. AB’s new contract is reportedly a three-year pact worth $54.1 million with $30 million guaranteed, which is a far cry from the zero dollars and zero cents that was remaining in guarantees on his Steelers deal.
In reality, it’s not even as huge of a contract as it might seem. Brown wasn’t going to take a pay cut, so any team trading for him was going to pay him a minimum of the $15.1 million he was due this season. We don’t yet know how his deal is structured, but with that $30 million number, it seems likely that he got a second guaranteed year as part of this new deal, which isn’t crazy by any means. You would figure that a team trading for Brown would expect to have him on their roster for at least two seasons.
The $54.1 million figure produces an annual average salary of $18,333,333, which also isn’t an accident, given that the largest annual average salary for any wideout is Odell Beckham Jr.‘s $18 million per year mark. Brown might have to hit incentives to get to that mark, but it appears that the Raiders added about $3.75 million per year to Brown’s existing contract. In a league in which Sammy Watkins got three years and $48 million in free agency last year — a mark which would translate to $51 million after a year of cap inflation — is giving Brown $54 million over three years really unreasonable? I don’t think so.
On the field, this move reminds me a lot of why the Cowboys traded for Cooper, actually. When I analyzed that deal, I wrote that the Cowboys were acquiring Cooper to help evaluate Dak Prescott in anticipation of a possible extension this offseason. Trading for Cooper also allowed the Cowboys to get ahead of a terrible wideout market, and while nobody could have anticipated that the Cowboys would go on a 7-2 run with Cooper in the lineup, there was logic to the move.
Here, Oakland has its own evaluation to conduct. Jon Gruden spent a year with Derek Carr, and while the results were uneven at times, Carr didn’t have a great receiving corps. He did get to throw 101 passes to Jared Cook, who had a career year, but Jordy Nelson looked well past his prime at age 33. Seth Roberts continued to lose the battle against drops. With Cook a free agent, Carr was staring down a Week 1 receiving corps of Nelson, Marcell Ateman, and Derek Carrier. I don’t need to tell you how Brown makes that better.
If the Raiders do decide to draft a quarterback in the first round, getting to play with Brown makes it way easier for Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins to adjust to the pro game. Few receivers in the league remain as skilled at getting themselves open against just about any possible kind of coverage. With limited weapons elsewhere in the lineup and a mediocre roster in the middle of a rebuild, Brown is well-positioned to get all the targets he could desire. It would hardly be a surprise if he became the first player to rack up 200 targets in a season since Julio Jones did it in 2015.
There’s also realistically a marketing element to this move. When I wrote about the Cooper trade, I mentioned that the closest billboard in Las Vegas to the Raiders’ future stadium featured Gruden and Gruden alone. After trading away Cooper and Mack in one season, it was a smart move to keep Gruden on the board, since he seemed to be the only one sure to make it to Las Vegas for 2020. Trading for Brown gives the Raiders a star to build around as they relocate to Sin City. People weren’t going to line up to buy Carrier or Ateman jerseys. Brown is a bona-fide superstar.
Is there a chance this goes all south? Of course, especially in Year 2. Remember that Gruden inherited Keyshawn Johnson when he took over the Bucs in 2002. The two won a Super Bowl together in Gruden’s first season with Tampa. Halfway during the subsequent campaign, Gruden’s relationship with Johnson became so toxic that the Bucs sent Johnson home and deactivated him for the final seven games of the year.
Even if that happens, though, the Raiders will be out some money and a pair of mid-round picks. There’s nobody like Brown in this free-agent class, and there isn’t anybody who will move the needle more for their fanbase who also would have considered Oakland. There’s risk involved here, but it’s a risk the Raiders had to take.
Pittsburgh loses its No. receiver … right?
One of the reasons the Steelers will be able to make this trade and sleep at night is the presence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who doesn’t turn 23 until November and looks to be one of the most promising young wideouts in recent memory. Since entering the starting lineup in Week 9 of his rookie season, Smith-Schuster has averaged 91.8 receiving yards per game, which is fourth in the NFL behind Hopkins, Jones and Brown.
Hopkins and Jones are clear No. 1 options in their own offenses, while Smith-Schuster’s had to cede massive amounts of touches to Brown. Smith-Schuster has averaged 9.6 targets per game to Brown’s 11.3, let alone the 10.9 targets per game heading to Hopkins or Jones’s 10.3 per contest. Give Smith-Schuster a larger role, hand over some targets to second-year wideout James Washington, and the Steelers should be fine. Right?]
Jeremy Fowler says the Raiders always wanted Antonio Brown in their offense and they “were the last team standing.”
It’s not quite that simple. For one, plugging Washington in as a guaranteed starting wide receiver is dangerous. The Steelers have hit in the recent past on wideouts like Brown, Smith-Schuster, Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, but they’ve also used third-round picks on Dri Archer, Sammie Coates, and Markus Wheaton, none of whom developed into regulars. Washington caught just 42.1 percent of the passes thrown to him as a rookie; it’s still way too early to judge him, of course, but it’s not as if the 60th overall pick has done something to make us think he’s a plug-and-play starter Year 1.
Smith-Schuster and Brown aren’t exactly the same sort of receiver, either. Yahoo’s Matt Harmon tracked both of their seasons and found that Smith-Schuster lined up far more frequently in the slot, which resulted in way less press coverage. Brown was double-teamed more than 10 times as frequently as Smith-Schuster was. If Brown leaves, the Steelers will likely continue to let Smith-Schuster take more than half of his snaps in the slot, but the wildly talented third-year wideout will undoubtedly see more attention. The Steelers will also need to find someone capable of winning against press coverage on the outside without Brown.
Pittsburgh probably has to find at least one veteran wide receiver to chip in, which is going to be a pain given the aforementioned dead cap hold on Brown. The team has already mooted the idea of restructuring Roethlisberger’s contract to create cap room, but with one year left on the 37-year-old’s deal, any change is going to be an extension to keep Roethlisberger around while creating short-term cap space. The Steelers will eventually pay for their accounting, as they are with Brown here, but they should be able to create $6-7 million or so in cap space with a Roethlisberger extension, which could go towards a new wideout.
They’ll also probably run the ball more frequently in 2019 with Brown on the Raiders. They threw the ball on 67.4 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the second-highest rate in football behind the Packers. A more successful Steelers team will run the ball with a lead more frequently in the fourth quarter, but even after accounting for changes in game script, the Steelers should trust James Conner more than they did a year ago. Conner touched the ball 20.7 times per game last season, down from Bell’s 27.1 touches per game in 2017.
AB Gets an A?
I normally consider these grades from the team’s perspective, in part because it’s usually easier to understand how a team functions and thinks over the course of dozens of acquisitions and releases than it is to think about things from the perspective of a player who might only sign one or two deals over the course of their career. Every player in the NFL is vastly underpaid in a vacuum, but in the context of a league with a salary cap, the money matters.
From my perspective, it sure looks like Antonio Brown battled to get what he wanted and succeeded. He wanted to call out Ben Roethlisberger for disrespect and did so publicly, sparking an embarrassing comment from general manager Kevin Colbert about the Steelers having 52 kids under Roethlisberger. Brown wanted guaranteed money and a raise from an organization which regarded that as anathema, only to play his cards right and end up getting exactly that from another organization. He wanted to be respected and appreciated for his work.
No, his chances of winning a Super Bowl aren’t as high as they were a month ago. After going underpaid for the better part of a decade, though, you can understand why Brown would want to take advantage of what will probably be his last chance to get top-wideout money. The Steelers will still be good on offense in 2019, but without their star receiver and with Bell following him out the door, they might have cost themselves one last chance to win a Super Bowl with Roethlisberger at the helm.