It’s unclear whether the Steelers want to keep receiver Antonio Brown, and it’s unclear whether he wants to stay. His contract provides clarity as to a variety of issues that will be relevant to the decisions that will be made by the Steelers and/or Browns in the coming weeks.
Here’s a look at specific aspects of Brown’s most recent contract that should be considered by the Steelers, by Brown, and by anyone trying to figure out what will happen next.
1. The structure.
Two years ago, the Steelers signed Brown to a four-year, $68 million extension. Consistent with the team’s refusal to guarantee money beyond the first year, the contract contained only $19 million in fully-guaranteed money, paid out in the form of a signing bonus.
By not including fully-guaranteed payments beyond the first year, the Steelers sacrificed any leverage that would go along with having the ability to void future guarantees. Instead, the Steelers can recover only the unearned portion of Brown’s signing bonus ($11.4 million at this point), for limited circumstances such as retirement.
2. The restructuring.
The Steelers routinely convert large base salaries into guaranteed payments as a cap-management device. Entering the second year of Brown’s contract, the Steelers switched $12.96 million of Brown’s $13.875 million base salary into a guaranteed payment, spreading $3.24 million over each of the remaining four years.
The Steelers can’t get any of that money back, but they’ll have to account for the remaining $9.72 million under the cap, whether he’s on the team or not.
3. The roster bonus.
Brown’s 2019 compensation package consists of a $12.625 million base salary and a roster bonus of $2.5 million. The roster bonus comes due on March 17. As a practical matter, that’s the deadline for making a decision on Brown for the coming season — unless they want to pay him $2.5 million for the privilege of making a decision later.
4. The remaining value.
If the Steelers choose to trade Brown, the contract is attractive. Beyond the $15.125 million he’s due to earn in 2019, Brown has a base salary of $11.3 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in 2021.
That’s a total of $38.925 million for three years, an average of $12.975 million per year. And that’s a good deal for whoever gets Brown — so good that he may want a raise from his next team, if a trade happens.
5. The cap hit.
Due to the $19 million signing bonus paid in 2017 and $12.96 million restructuring bonus paid in 2018, Brown has $21.12 million in paid but not allocated money. Which means that, if Brown is cut or traded before June 1, the Steelers will carry a $21.12 million cap charge for Brown in 2019.
He also can be cut before June 1 with a post-June 1 designation. This would keep his salary on the books until June 1, at which time the cap hit would fall to $7.04 million this year, with the remaining $14.08 million hitting the cap in 2020. The same thing would happen if Brown is traded after June 1; however, the Steelers will have paid him $2.5 million, which would be added to his cap burden for 2019.
6. The net cap gain (in theory).
Some have shrugged at the potential cap consequences for cutting or trading Brown before June 1 because, if he’s on the team, his cap charge will be $22.165 million. In other words, moving him before June 1 actually results in a lower cap charge for 2019. Of course, the Steelers wouldn’t have him on the roster, which means they’d have to replace him within the confines of a total cap reduced by $21.12 million.
Also, the “it will be cheaper under the cap to cut him” argument ignores the reality that the Steelers could have converted a large piece of the $12.625 million base salary to a guaranteed payment, easily carving millions off this year’s cap number, if he’s on the team. In other words, the cap number likely would have ended up being much lower than $22.165 million under normal circumstances.
7. The team’s leverage.
If the Steelers decide to keep Brown but Brown wants out, the Steelers will have a tough decision to make. Keeping him against his wishes could result in Brown holding out or, quite possibly, holding in.
In other words, he could show up for all mandatory activities and do the bare minimum, with the least amount of engagement and enthusiasm possible, avoiding a fine or a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
Of course, the Steelers could play hardball, ending years of apathy regarding Brown’s antics by pushing him hard, coaching him aggressively, and punishing him whenever he crosses the line. That could set him off, culminating in a T.O.-style four-game suspension and then, if the behavior continues, another one.
It therefore would be better for the Steelers if Brown just stayed away, but it’s unlikely he’d do it. There’s too much unpaid money to lose and too much unearned money he’d have to pay back if he stopped showing up.
Still, the situation has reached a point at which the team must make a decision as to whether Brown will be a part of it, and it needs to be a decision that takes into account all options and permutations and the consequences, intended and possibly unintended from whatever they do. Brown has decisions to make, too.
Perhaps, in the end, the best move could be for the team to cut the cord, bite the $21.12 million cap bullet, get what they can for Brown, and wash their hands of him for good.