In the aftermath of a very public flirtation between the Steelers and the Bills over a possible trade of Antonio Brown that fell through, where do the Steelers go from here?
The Steelers have until March 17 to trade Brown before his $2.5 million roster bonus kicks in. With the new league year starting March 13, one of the teams contending for Brown may realize their free-agent targets aren’t likely to commit, opening up theoretical cap space for a Brown deal. But that’s assuming there’s a team willing to take a leap of faith on Brown, who has cut off communication this offseason with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, himself a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on a contending team.
Brown can essentially opt out of any potential trade by pledging not to report to his new team, as he reportedly did with the Bills, and Albert Breer reports Brown is seeking an extension that would make him football’s highest-paid receiver. Those two factors combine to dramatically narrow the pool of teams available to the Steelers as a trade partner, which could in turn potentially drive down his asking price.
If Brown wants to play with a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback on a team with the cap space to satisfy his contract requests, it’s a short list: The Colts are the only team with cap space that’s better than the league average and a quarterback who has been to multiple Pro Bowls. As for teams with quarterbacks on the rise, Houston, San Francisco, Cleveland and the Jets each have more than $60 million in cap space at the moment.
The more likely scenario, in my estimation, is that Brown plays for the Steelers in 2019. With three years and $39 million left on his contract, there are provisions in the CBA which would require Brown to hand back more than $10 million in signing bonuses if he chooses to sit out the 2019 season rather than play under his current deal.
The Steelers would like to move Brown, but accepting less than a first-round pick—the Cowboys gave up a first-rounder for Amari Cooper in a trade with the Raiders—won’t sit well with a franchise that hates setting bad precedents in contract squabbles, and is already looking somewhat impotent after this Bills deal fell through. Pittsburgh has been known to be a player-friendly team, making it crucial to set boundaries and draw the line somewhere. Giving up Brown for a third- or a fourth-round pick would send mixed messages.
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