How Antonio Brown Defied NFL Contract Reality

Given the hard truths about the business of football, I didn’t think the star wideout could force his way out of Pittsburgh the way he did. My thoughts on the way the Steelers-Raiders trade went down, how it might play out and what it means for the future of NFL deals.
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Here are my 10 thoughts on the player who has dominated the NFL offseason so far, Antonio Brown, and what appears to be resolution with a trade to the Raiders.

1. This AB was dead wrong about that AB; I admit it and own it. I really thought, as someone who managed an NFL salary cap for ten years, that there was no way the Steelers would take on a $21 million dead-money charge by trading Brown, especially if they couldn’t get at least a first-round pick (which, given Brown’s petulance, they would never get). In the end, the Steelers traded one of the top players in the league for a third- and a fifth-round pick.

2. The trade compensation shows how badly the Steelers wanted to rid themselves of Brown. Five months ago Amari Cooper netted a first-round pick; even Golden Tate with an expiring contract drew a third-round pick. The Steelers now take on an extraordinary amount of dead money for middling compensation at best. However, while everyone (including me) is trashing the Steelers for getting fleeced in this deal, they are probably in their office high-fiving each other, saying “He’s gone!! Addition by subtraction.”

3. A Cap 101 lesson appears necessary regarding the $21 million charge Brown leaves behind. It is cap—accounting—not cash. It results from how the Steelers have structured Brown’s contracts (and all their contracts), loading up on signing bonus—which is prorated—to give them short-term cap relief, and not thinking about a disaster situation like this over the long term. Brown will now be the Steelers’ second-highest 2019 cap charge, behind only Ben Roethlisberger’s $23.2 million, while he plays for the Raiders.

4. The Brown mess should be a lesson to NFL teams in structuring contracts with pro-rated signing bonuses. I always tried to match cash and cap as much as possible in case things ever went south with the player, as has happened with Brown. Were Brown’s contract structured with, say, roster bonuses and guaranteed salary in a “pay as you go” model, there would be little to no residue remaining cap-wise, and the Steelers could have moved on seamlessly. A few teams that are doing a good job with the “pay as you go” model include the Bucs, Jaguars, Vikings, 49ers and Browns.

5. I just wonder how different Brown was with the Steelers in late 2018 and 2019 than he was in his previous time in Pittsburgh. Obviously, Brown has been high maintenance for a while, including when the Steelers negotiated his big contract, with tolerance from the front office and coaching staff. The tolerance ran out, but why? Did Brown really change that much? Was it because he called out Ben Roethlisberger? I wonder.

6. As for reports of Brown now receiving an upgraded contract from the Raiders with $30 million guaranteed, let’s hold the phone until we see the deal. Of course, that report did not come from the Raiders but rather from Brown and/or agent Drew Rosenhaus (more on him below). I will be interested to see (1) how much of an upgrade this deal is from what Brown previously had and (2) whether the guarantees are “real” or contingent on being on the roster on specified dates (which, of course, means not guaranteed).

7. As for Rosenhaus, the Brown resolution will be spun in a way to make Drew a hero to players who want out of their current situations. Rosenhaus hit the trifecta for Brown: He extricated him from the Steelers, he moved him to a place of his liking (as opposed to Buffalo), and he augmented Brown’s contract with the new team. And, knowing Drew, he was nevertheless able to maintain good relations with the Steelers, where he still has clients and will certainly have more to come.

8. As for whether Brown and Rosenhaus’s power play here becomes a playbook for others to follow, I think the number of players who could leverage a situation like this is very small. This is not the NBA, where players have the leverage of guaranteed contracts and, at times, input on roster decisions. In fact, there may be an unintended consequence from Brown’s antics, with NFL teams demanding stronger forfeiture language in their contracts in case a player would ever “pull a Brown.” Certainly, teams are taking note of this situation, evidenced by the lack of interest in trading for the elite talent of Brown.

9. The official trading period opens on Wednesday afternoon. I do find it interesting that media, including NFL media, report these trades as completed in advance of Wednesday. Could this deal fall apart? Well, it might destroy relations between the Steelers and the Raiders if it does, but that depends on whether it was truly agreed to with a firm commitment on both sides. I am not suggesting the Steelers will renege on this deal, but it would be a prudent business move to extract greater compensation if they haven’t given their final approve to the Raiders yet, which could possibly be the case.

10. I don’t see this ending well for Brown and the Raiders in Oakland or Las Vegas, if they even get to Vegas together. Picture this: Late October, Raiders are 3-5, Brown is complaining about not getting the ball enough and giving Derek Carr sideways looks. Jon Gruden turns to general manager Mike Mayock and says “How much more guaranteed money do we owe him?” Stay tuned.

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