I get the Steelers’ decision to put the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, making him the NFL’s highest-paid running back next season at slightly more than $12 million.
He was going to be an unrestricted free agent. By tagging him, the team assured he will play here in 2017.
He was the Steelers MVP last season, the primary reason they made it to the NFL’s Final Four. His groin injury early in the AFC championship against the New England Patriots might have been the biggest reason they lost, although Tom Brady surely would tell you it was a combination of the Steelers’ lousy pass rush and lame coverage.
But I don’t get why the Steelers gave Antonio Brown a four-year, $68 million contract extension through 2021, making him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. He still had a year remaining on the five-year, $42.5 million contract extension he signed in 2012.
I think back to before the 2007 season when All-Pro Alan Faneca was going into the final year of his deal and was unhappy because the team wouldn’t make him the league’s highest-paid guard. Faneca was told he couldn’t expect to be the highest-paid because he didn’t have the leverage of being a free agent. He ended up playing out his contract in 2007 and immediately left to become the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman with the New York Jets.
I’m not sure why the change in philosophy with Brown.
I hear people say the Steelers had no choice with Brown because they have no other viable wide receivers. I disagree because I think Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers have a chance to be very good next season. But that’s irrelevant in this conversion.
It’s not as if the Steelers were going to lose Brown any time soon. If they couldn’t have worked out a more salary cap-friendly, long-term contract with him, they still would have had him next season. If they couldn’t do a satisfactory long-term deal with him after the 2017 season, they could have put their franchise tag on him for 2018. That’s at least two more seasons with Brown hooking up with Ben Roethlisberger, assuming Roethlisberger still is playing.
I can’t understand why the Steelers set aside those options and decided to make Brown a lottery winner now.
Clearly, the team isn’t troubled by Brown’s baggage, including his pouting when things don’t go his way, his lack of focus on the field at times and, most infamously, his Facebook Live video. Art Rooney II called it “little annoyances, with the emphasis on little” in January at his 2016 season wrap-up. Maybe Brown’s big contract will make him care less about his numbers and become more of a team player, although if he hasn’t matured by now, at 28, it’s hard to imagine he will change.
Clearly, the team also isn’t worried Brown will break down or lose his fabulous skills before the end of the contract extension when he will be 33. Rooney II was dead-on Monday when he said he can’t remember a harder-working player than Brown, whose work ethic is extraordinary. I, too, am not concerned about Brown still being effective in five years.
But Brown is a receiver, his touches in a game limited. Bell is more valuable to the Steelers because the ball is in his hands so much more. Roethlisberger is most valuable because he touches the ball every play. The New England Patriots have won most of their five Super Bowls in the Bill Belichick-Brady era without a highly paid receiver. They won this past season with a former lacrosse player from Penn State.
I’m thinking the Steelers would have been better off putting their long-term money into another position. An outside pass rusher comes to mind. So does a cornerback. I much would prefer to have a great cornerback than a great receiver. Yes, it has become a passing/offensive league. But somebody has to try to stop the passing, right?
Eight of the Steelers’ top-10 salary-cap hits belong to offensive players, according to Spotrac.com. Roethlisberger is No. 1 followed by Brown, Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Cam Heyward, Mike Mitchell, Marcus Gilbert, Ladarius Green and Ramon Foster. Heyward and Mitchell are the exceptions who play defense.
After the Brown deal and the Bell tag, the Steelers have a little less than $19 million left under the projected salary cap for next season, according to Spotrac. The Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette has reported the team wants to do a long-term contract with Al Villanueva. Stephon Tuitt is due for a raise that will put him somewhere in Heyward’s wealthy neighborhood (six years, $59.2 million). The team probably will bring back James Harrison and could bring back Lawrence Timmons if the price is right. It also must sign its draft choices.
All of that won’t leave much to bring in a free agent to help the defense, which was badly exposed by the Patriots in the AFC title game.
Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown had better be really good next season.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure that comes in that regard,” Brown said Monday.
Brown has no idea how much.