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Steelers Stock Report: The Steelers suddenly resemble underdogs in the AFC North

With the Browns’s rapid on-paper improvement, the AFC North looks as formidable as ever for the Steelers.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Hi, hello there. Before we kick off this week’s stock report, I’d like to pass along some personal news: I had a baby girl! Technically my wife had her; I kinda just stood idly by the wayside, holding her hand and gently murmuring the platitudes I’d learned from our labor preparation course (I realized almost instantly that nothing can adequately prepare you to watch another person experience something as intense as labor—so, if you’re interested in having a baby, maybe just skip those classes and save yourself a couple hundred bucks). Hence, for the four or so of you who actually enjoy reading my blogs and devouring my piquant takes with ravenous hunger, the baby is why I’ve been kinda absent for the past three weeks. For the rest of you, I am very sorry to announce that I am back.

(Also, to my wife, who does not read my blogs, you are amazing and I love you. To my parents, both of whom read my blogs—I don’t know why they do this—thank you for teaching me by example how to be a good parent, you guys are also amazing).

Stock report!

Stock down: The Pittsburgh Steelers’ chances of winning the AFC North

The full purview of the Cleveland Browns’s rampant offseason activity to this point is a matter of perspective. On one hand, if you’re a pragmatic thinker, you could contend that championships are won in February and that, by extension, no reasonable conclusions about a team’s fortunes can be drawn based on the construction of their springtime rosters. On the other hand, an idealistic thinker may look at the Browns’s roster and determine that Hey, wow, maybe we ought to take this outfit’s postseason candidacy very seriously! I am among the latter contingent. The Browns look good! In fact, not only do the Browns suddenly have the guise of a formidable unit, but the Steelers are objectively less talented than they were four months ago, the Ravens, who, to their credit, did make a pair of major signings in the form of Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram, were otherwise purged in free agency, and the Bengals continue to suck oodles of butt.

The Browns have loudly assembled what on paper may very legitimately be the most talented roster in the AFC North. Most notably, the Browns, thanks to spending the last five seasons stockpiling draft capital, were able to offload their surplus to nab Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants, a team that is officially in the midst of a full-blown studs-and-screws rebuild. Teams do not frequently surrender first-round picks, particularly those near the top half of the first round, because head coaches and front-office executives have correctly determined that obtaining young, talented players on team-friendly contracts is an exceptional strategy for building championship caliber teams in a hurry. However, these Shrewd Football Men tend to overvalue draft capital—or, more accurately, the idea that they may unearth a superstar in the draft—and undervalue established commodities.

Odell Beckham Jr. is miles better than whatever player the Browns would’ve selected in the first or third round of this upcoming draft, which is in and of itself reason enough to ship off a pair of draft picks and an under-performing utility safety to acquire his services. But what I think makes this such a good transaction for the Browns is the fact that their roster, as presently constructed, includes a number of superstars-in-the-making playing on rookie deals—running back Nick Chubb, tertiary receiver Antonio Callaway, edge defender Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, and, duh, quarterback Baker Mayfield—which means that trading for an established superstar, even one who is in the second year of a massive second contract, makes more sense than potentially getting another superstar-in-the-making via the draft. Plus, by pairing Beckham Jr. with college running mate Jarvis Landry, the Browns may very well have given themselves the topmost receiving tandem in the AFC, even if Beckham Jr. and Landry are the human personifications of a Drake song meeting a high school athlete’s Twitter bio. Having such a volcanic arsenal of weaponry should do wonders for preventing a sophomore slump from Mayfield.

Of course, there is evidence to suggest that the 2019 iteration of the Cleveland Browns may have been successful regardless of where Beckham Jr. played. After firing the thoroughly worthless and contemptible Hue Jackson, a “coach” who I would not let manage a fantasy team, let alone a professional sporting enterprise, midway through the 2018 season, the Browns posted a 5-3 record and Mayfield looked more and more like the future face of the franchise (I’d argue that he currently is the face of the franchise, but I’ll digress) with each passing week. Had the Browns made the blindingly evident decision to rid themselves of Jackson following disastrous 2016 and 2017 seasons, begin anew with a competent coaching staff (the only coaches more contemptible and choadly than Jackson are Todd Haley and Gregg Williams, both of whom spent 2018 in Cleveland), and hand Mayfield the reins from the get-go, perhaps the timeline of their official rebirth could’ve been accelerated. No matter; a loss to Baltimore in Week 17 notwithstanding, the Browns’s trajectory is pointing upward, and by trading for Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon—who they likewise acquired from the Giants—as well as signing Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland resembles a legitimate contender.

Stock up (?): The secondary and receiving corps

The Steelers made a pair of what I suppose can be considered “notable” free agent signings, bringing in Donte Moncrief to, uh, offset the loss of Antonio Brown and Steven Nelson to, uhhh, [checks notes] solidify the secondary. It probably isn’t awesome that giving the second-best cornerback on the league’s second-worst pass defense $25 million over three years represents an exciting development for the Steelers, but here we are. I would put my newborn opposite Joe Haden before I accept the return of Artie Burns, the Hue Jackson of NFL defensive backs, to the no. 2 corner slot. She at least would draw fewer pass interference penalties than Burns.

That said, I don’t mean to be too hard on Nelson. The Chiefs secondary was not exceptional last season, and it certainly doomed them to a grim fate in the AFC Championship game, where the Chiefs were summarily eviscerated by Tom Brady and the Patriots, but it’s worth bearing in mind that teams attempted more than 630 passes against Kansas City in 2018, which means that the 7.5 yards per completion allowed by this outfit was actually kind of “meh.”

I’m excited about Moncrief, though. Moncrief didn’t so much “struggle” last season in Jacksonville so much as he “relied on Blake Bortles to throw accurate, catchable footballs,” so I’m amenable to giving him a mulligan for 2018 and looking upon him fondly as a solid contributor to the Colts. He isn’t gonna replace Antonio Brown, but he should serve as a reliable secondary or tertiary option.

Stock up: Le’Veon Bell

I’m truly happy for Bell. Although he accepted an offer from the Jets that includes fewer years and a lower AAV than the contract offered by Pittsburgh last season, Bell stands to make over $28 million in fully-guaranteed salary on the Jets deal, whereas Pittsburgh’s best offer apparently only included $20 million in fully-guaranteed salary. I was confused by the distinction between “guaranteed” and “fully-guaranteed,” but my understanding is that fully-guaranteed salary is what the player will take home simply by signing the contract. Thus, while the Steelers’ offer last season apparently included somewhere in the ballpark of $45 million guaranteed salary, only $20 million was fully-guaranteed; Bell was entitled to “rolling guarantees” for each season he was on the active roster. So, had Bell signed with the Steelers and played through the 2020 season, he would indeed have made $45 million. However, had the Steelers cut Bell after, say, the 2018 season, he would’ve only made $20 million.

Now, in the alternate reality in which Bell signed with the Steelers last summer, it’s difficult to imagine the team cutting ties with him one year into the deal, but if you told me a year ago that Antonio Brown would dye his mustache blond and demand a trade to Oakland, I’d have had trouble imagining that, too. It’s also worth keeping in mind that, had Bell signed the $14.5 million franchise tag last summer and played out the 2018 season, it’s possible that he could’ve experienced an injury or sudden decline in effectiveness that would have almost assuredly hampered his ability to secure a market value contract, let alone one befitting of his skillset. Thus, while the calculus will reveal that Bell ended up losing some money in the long run, I don’t think his crusade was entirely fruitless. If nothing else, I think Bell has effectively compelled the next generation of contract seekers to maximize their fully-guaranteed earnings.

Stock down: JuJu Smith-Schuster

With Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell gone, it’s only a matter of time until some of the jags that populate the local media transfer their vitriol to JuJu Smith-Schuster and run him outta town, as well. I’m not here to start any wars, so I won’t name names, but anyone familiar with the media landscape ‘round these here parts I’m sure can conjure a top-of-the-head rendering of at least three or four local media members who mistakenly believe that professional athletes ought to be professional athletes 24/7. Therefore, in their purview, the time JuJu puts into playing video games or making YouTube videos could otherwise be spent further refining his craft. He’s not taking things seriously enough. He isn’t focused. He’s too immature. He fumbled that ball against the Saints because he was playing daggum Fork Knife instead of practicing with the JUGS machine! You can’t win with guys like that! HEATH MILLER DOESN’T EVEN OWN A PLAYSTATION, FOR CHRISSAKES!

This sentiment is obviously ridiculous. If some media pud harassed me on Twitter for spending a few hours robbing trains in The Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboy Shootin’ Game after a long day at the office, why, I’d be ready to drop the gloves—or sign a long-term contract with an organization in another timezone.

There’s also the matter of all the extra on-field attention Smith-Schuster stands to receive as a result of Brown’s departure. Rival defensive coordinators will make stopping JuJu a foremost concern, and without another dynamic receiver to divert defenders’s attention elsewhere, they may have success doing so. I’m thrilled to have JuJu as the no. 1 receiver, but I think him remaining at his pinnacle may be contingent on the Steelers finding effective supplementary pieces, whether that be Moncrief, James Washington, a high-profile draftee, or some combination of the three.