Canaries were brought into coal mines by miners as an early warning for impending danger due to toxic gasses. When the birds would get sick or die, miners knew they were in danger.
Running back Le’Veon Bell was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ canary. The three-time Pro Bowler was first franchise tagged in 2017, and again in 2018. Shockingly, instead of playing in his sixth season, he opted to sit out 2018 rather than take a 20% pay increase.
Was he right, was he wrong? The answer to that doesn’t matter. What matters: Who is next, when does it happen again, and what will the outcome be? Whether you want to hear it or not, a dust up over a Pittsburgh contract structure will happen again. The NFL is headed toward giving out more guaranteed years and more guaranteed money. This flies in the face of how the Steelers do business.
The dispute, by many accounts, was over guaranteed money and guaranteed years in the contract. Pittsburgh and the Green Bay Packers are the only NFL organizations that do not guarantee more than one season for players who are not rookies or quarterbacks. Fear is the driving force. These two organizations fear they will be on the hook for paying a player’s contract when that player cannot fulfill the contract because of injury, or because of degradation of skill, or because the player is such a disruptive force that the organization decided to move on.
The issue is the other 30 NFL franchises give players contracts that have future years guaranteed for skill or injury or both. In 2018, Minnesota Vikings handed quarterback Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed three-year contract worth $84 million that sent shock waves through the NFL. While that is an eye-popping sum, guaranteeing large portions of contracts is the norm for superstar players (or quarterback-desperate teams), regardless of the position they play.
Another prime example is Khalil Mack. Before the 2018 season, the Oakland Raiders traded Mack to the Chicago Bears. Chicago gave Mack a six-year extension worth $141 million with $60 million guaranteed at signing and $90 million in total guarantees. The massive contract included the first two years fully guaranteed and the third year guaranteed for injury. The contract set the bar for the outside linebacker position — and for future NFL stars at other positions.
Mack’s contract structure is not an aberration. Cornerback and wide receiver are two other highly sought positions, not only in the NFL but for Steelers fans. These three positions had the highest exclusive rights franchise tag value in 2018 outside of quarterbacks. Out of the top five highest-paid players at each of the three positions in 2019, only Steelers wideout Antonio Brown did not have more than one guaranteed year in the initial contracts.
While the Steelers do not have an up-and-coming superstar at cornerback, the team has one at each of the other two positions. Wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster led the Steelers in both receptions (111) and yards (1,426) in 2018 while T.J. Watt led the team in sacks (13) and forced fumbles (6). Both players were drafted in 2017 and remain under team control for at least another two seasons. Watt was a first-round selection, and therefore the Steelers may opt for a fifth-year option that would keep him under team control through the 2021 season. The Steelers could choose not to open any kind of negotiations with Watt until after the 2020 season.
Smith-Schuster, on the other hand, is headed for free agency after the 2020 season. Barring a disastrous 2019 season, Smith-Schuster and the Steelers are likely to open contract negotiations after the upcoming season. How will those negotiations go if Smith-Schuster puts up numbers in 2019 that are similar to or better than his 2018 totals? When the 2020 offseason rolls around, Smith-Schuster will be 23 years old and looking to get a substantial raise from his scheduled $1.3 million salary.
With Bell’s impending flight from Pittsburgh, will the Steelers leadership learn from that canary and change their practices, or will they fail to take heed of the dangers of not offering stars guaranteed money and years? Will the youngsters look to break the bank and demand the guaranteed money and years that Mack, Von Miller, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins received? Will Kevin Colbert continue down the path of how the Steelers have always structured contracts during his tenure? If Watt or Smith-Schuster have to travel down the same path as Bell, will they react the same way? If the contracts hit a snag and reports of their asking prices leak out (no doubt that will happen), will they be vilified like Bell was by Steelers fans? What happens when the Steelers want a prized free agent cornerback on the open market?