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Did the Steelers get fleeced in the Antonio Brown trade? An internal discussion

I, a hater of draft capital but understander of pragmatism, have an internal debate about the Antonio Brown trade

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Late Saturday evening, two important developments transpired. First, the Steelers reportedly agreed in principle to trade Antonio Brown, ostensibly the last remaining indignant element in Pittsburgh’s fractured locker room, to the Oakland Raiders—which, you know, thank God. We’ve collectively spent the better part of two months watching in intrigued horror as the situation between Brown and the Steelers has devolved from tenuous but potentially salvageable to beyond disrepair, so very truthfully the conclusion of these acrimonious proceedings is good for our emotional well-being. We can now shift our attention to free agency, or to the draft, or to the Penguins’ dubious playoff prospects, or even to the Pirates, an organization from which we’re at least accustomed to unceasing disappointment.

The second development is the natural corollary to the first one, though I suppose its severity is a matter of perception: the Pittsburgh Steelers got worse. Antonio Brown is inarguably one of the two or three best receivers in the NFL, and he’s debatably among the 10 or so best receivers of all time. Last season marked the sixth in which he amassed 100 or more catches and 1,200 or more yards, and he paced the league with 15 touchdown receptions. He’s about to turn 31, yes, and his eventual decline is inevitable, but there is no evidence from 2018 to suggest that Brown’s falloff is imminent: he’s in remarkable shape, he’s been lucky to avoid significant injuries, and his skill set should age well. These factors, coupled with Brown’s innate familiarity with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense indicate that Antonio Brown almost certainly would’ve balled out in 2019 as a member of the Steelers.

From Pittsburgh’s perspective, the reported compensation in the Brown trade is underwhelming—third- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft, according to a variety of tuned-in NFL Knowers. For context, the Steelers received a third-round pick from the Raiders for Martavis Bryant last season, despite Bryant having previously served two suspensions and never fully living up to his lofty potential. In no universe does trading a player of Brown’s caliber make the seller better, and that’s especially true when the return involves draft picks.

So, for the sake of transparency, I’m on record as saying that I’m never a fan of trading established commodities for nebulous draft capital, because the draft itself is a total crapshoot. What’s conflicting me at present is balancing that bias with my understanding that, pragmatically, Brown needed to be moved. As such, I’m left arguing with myself:

Me: I will admit that the Steelers have managed to find some good players in the third and fifth rounds of the drafts—James Conner, Jesse James, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Javon Hargrave, and William Gay, to name a few—but it’s impossible to ignore the myriad duds they’ve uncovered during middle rounds of the draft. Dri Archer, never forget.

Also me: You could perform the same exercise for every team in the NFL. No scouting department can consistently beat the draft. The only way to combat the inherent uncertainty of the NFL Draft is to make as many educated guesses as possible. With the Brown trade, the Steelers now have 10 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft; they ought to be able to parlay that surplus into at least one serviceable player who can help them win this year and beyond.

Me: I’ll buy that, but the Steelers should have and very well could have done better. Brown is easily among the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL. Kevin Colbert said that he would not initiate a trade unless he received just compensation.

Also me: I believe Colbert’s quote was actually “best compensation.” The Raiders’ offer might have been the best offer the Steelers received.

Me: Okay, but the Steelers didn’t have to trade Antonio Brown. They’re on the hook for $20 million-plus regardless of where Brown plies his trade in 2019, so they easily could’ve just kept him on the roster and benched him every week. Better yet, they could’ve proceeded as usual, and if he refused to participate, they could’ve reasonably argued that he violated the terms of his contract.

Also me: So, you’re suggesting that the Steelers petulantly hold Brown hostage, banking on him voiding his own contract? In this case, the Steelers would receive no compensation and Brown would be free to sign with whomever he chooses, to say nothing of the thermonuclear bomb of animus that would’ve exploded in Pittsburgh’s locker room if Brown stayed on the team. A third and fifth plus Brown playing in Oakland beats the hell out of no compensation and Brown playing in New England.

Me: Let me ask you this point blank—did the Steelers receive fair compensation for Brown? Please be objective.

Also me: Based on Brown’s credentials, no, they did not. Brown’s “old” I suppose, but he looks as volcanic as ever. Besides, it isn’t as if receivers can’t excel mightily well into their 30s. Jerry Rice, a player to whom Brown has been favorably compared, recorded 1,500 yards in his age-31 season and had six additional seasons of 1,000 or more yards after that. The Raiders, perhaps more than any team in the NFL, should be acutely familiar with just how effective “old” receivers can be. Tim Brown compiled 7,000 yards there between the ages of 31 and 36, and Rice posted a 1,200-yard season in Oakland when he was 40 years old. None of this is necessarily to say that, because Brown has been so prolific to this point and because he fits a similar profile, his career trajectory will mirror that of Rice and Brown, both Hall of Famers. However, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Brown has multiple All-Pro seasons left in the tank.

Me: Mhmm.

Also me: BUT! Brown is a unique circumstance; namely, he vaporized his own stock through social media gaslighting, public appearances in which he exhibited thoroughly byzantine behavior, and, most notably, demanding that his new team be willing to re-negotiate his current contract. (I’ll pause to note that Brown tanking his trade-worthiness has no tangible impact on Antonio Brown; it only affects the Steelers.) If the price to acquire Brown was simply a pair of mid-round draft picks, every team in the league would have beat down the Steelers’ front door to get a trade done. Very probably a bidding war would have ensued. But because Brown was so strident in outlining his preferences, he was able to essentially dictate where he ultimately ended up. For instance, the Steelers apparently had a trade in place to ship Brown to the Bills, but Brown vetoed this transaction by threatening not to report. He presumably did this because the Bills suck turds and because Buffalo is a barren hellish moonscape, which is understandable, but it’s entirely possible that he could’ve leveraged what little executive recourse he had to nix trades for other reasons, such as if the suitor refused to redo his contract.

Me: Okay, but the Raiders seemed to check all the boxes for what Brown was seeking in a preferred destination: a stable quarterback situation, a warm climate, and a willingness to restructure his contract to his liking. This is the same organization that traded a third-round draft pick for Martavis Bryant and who traded away Khalil Mack, the consensus second-best defender in the NFL, specifically because they did not want to hand him a long-term contract, one that he obviously deserved. Clearly the Raiders wanted Brown just as much as Brown wanted the Raiders. I find it impossible to believe that the Steelers couldn’t have done better.

Also me: But no team was gonna trade a first-rounder for Brown.

Me: Who’s saying anything about draft picks? The Steelers have done pretty well drafting in the first round—defensive cornerstones T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward were both first-rounders—but this franchise is also responsible for enlisting the likes of Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns. If it was clear that a first-round pick was not on the table, couldn’t the Steelers have asked for a player? Gareon Conley, perhaps?

Also me: I appreciate the gripe about the compensation, but you’re being a little defeatist, no? You’re assuming that whatever players the Steelers select with the picks they received in exchange for Brown won’t pan out. You said yourself that the Steelers have drafted a number of quality players in the third or fifth round. Conner, Wallace, and Sanders have all made Pro Bowls! Brown himself was drafted in the sixth round...

Me: Ugh, please spare me the “but but but Brown was selected...” nonsense. In 2010, the year in which Brown was drafted, Brown wasn’t even the Steelers’ first pick of the sixth round! That honor belongs to Jonathan Dwyer. Finding a player of Brown’s caliber that late in the draft is a once in a generation happenstance. Listen, I respect the Steelers’ legitimately unparalleled ability to locate and cultivate top-tier receiving talent, but let’s not pretend that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are dang clairvoyants in this department. As the Patriots can attest, any organization with a good quarterback and head coach can transform a serviceable receiver into a Pro Bowler. I do believe that Brown, as well as Sanders, Wallace, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the amiable youngster who will assume Brown’s mantle as the no. 1 receiver in Pittsburgh, were and are absurdly talented receivers independent of circumstances. But I ask you to consider some other receivers the Steelers have drafted over the past decade or so: Limas Sweed, Toney Clemons, Justin Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and Demarcus Ayers. Certainly, the Steelers are better at drafting effective receivers than most organizations, but to assume the Steelers will automatically parlay Oakland’s third-rounder into a Pro Bowler is lunacy.

Also me: The Steelers needed to trade Brown, correct?

Me: Yes.

Also me: Alright, so we agree on that. I think we can also agree that, although the compensation is kinda lackluster, it’s better than nothing. Okay?

Me: Okay.

Also me: I think we kinda need to just trust the process on this. The rate at which Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window is closing is analogous to the rate at which Ben Roethlisberger’s skillset deteriorates, so you have to figure the plan for this offseason is to make some noise in free agency and in the draft in order to maximize their Super Bowl chances in the remaining year or two of Roethlisberger’s prime. At the very least, the Steelers need to find starters at cornerback and inside linebacker. Deepening the receiving corps ought to be a foremost concern, as well. Here’s a fun thing to consider: What if, to offset the lackluster return on the Brown trade, the Steelers package some picks to move up in the draft? That way they can attempt to position themselves for a blue-chipper like LSU’s Devin White or Georgia’s DeAndre Baker.

Me: That would be neat.

Also me: It would be neat. For now, let’s just be happy we can move on from what was easily the most tumultuous offseason of our lifetimes.