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Steelers ensure Antonio Brown will be a franchise centerpiece for years to come

The Steelers showed Antonio Brown the money (and deservedly so), with a four-year extension that makes him the league's highest-paid WR.

When a franchise restructures a player’s contract multiple times, as the Steelers had done with Antonio Brown, eventually one of two things happens: Either that player’s usefulness dries up and the team bails, or that player proves he’s worth a longer and more lucrative commitment.

Brown, arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver the past four seasons, left no doubt that he belonged in the latter category. Pittsburgh rewarded him as such, extending his contract through 2021 at a reported rate of $17 million per season over its first four years (and $72.7 million overall)—enough to make Brown the highest-paid WR in football.

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Brown and the Steelers previously reached a contract extension, back in 2012, worth $43 million. Each of the past two off-seasons Pittsburgh had kicked extra money Brown’s way, in lieu of taking his contract beyond 2017. But relative to his place in the league’s receiver hierarchy, Brown was still underpaid. That is no longer the case.

Of note is that Brown’s contract extension came within hours of reports that the Steelers would place the franchise tag on RB Le’Veon Bell. It’s a clear luxury for Pittsburgh to have both Brown and Bell at its disposal, but the front office reached a crossroads with the two superstars this off-season.

All early indications show that the Steelers will continue to work toward getting Bell locked up long-term, too, but priority No. 1 was making sure that they did not reach the end of the contract road with Brown following the 2017 season. Now they will circle back and see what they can do about Bell’s contract.

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But Bell, who has battled injuries and suspension issues, represents much more of a risk at this point in his career than Brown, who will turn 29 in July. (No, the random Facebook Live incident does not qualify as a red flag for Brown.) The only game the receiver has missed over the past four years came in Week 17 of this past season, when Pittsburgh opted to rest him for its regular-season finale vs. Cleveland.

In that four-season stretch, Brown has produced 481 receptions for 6,315 yards and 43 touchdowns. Just three other receivers—Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas and T.Y. Hilton—have surpassed the 5,000-yard barrier in that same window; none has reached 6,000, although Jones likely would have had he not missed a significant chunk of the 2013 season.

Regardless, no matter how one chooses to slice it, Brown has developed from a sixth-round draft pick into one of the top wide receivers of his era. Add in his ability as a return man (he has nearly 3,000 return yards for his career), and it was almost inevitable that Brown reset the NFL’s wide-receiver market eventually.

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The next questions are: Where will the Steelers have to sacrifice if they are carrying the priciest receiver and running back contracts at the same time? Perhaps of even more pressing importance, will Ben Roethlisberger, 35 next week, still be the Steelers’ quarterback when Brown’s new contract expires?

What the Steelers guaranteed is that Brown, Bell and Big Ben will take another run at it in 2017, after falling to the Patriots in this past season’s AFC title game. And that Brown will be a franchise centerpiece for years to come.

Brown deserved the commitment. He has been an electrifying, game-changing presence for Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Now, he also holds the standard for all WR contracts to come.