From Le’Veon Bell’s Skip Bayless diss to Ben Roethlisberger’s early retirement talk, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had an eventful two weeks following their loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
This bizarreness isn’t likely to subside anytime soon, as the Steelers have a host of players - including Bell and fellow All-Pro Antonio Brown - who will be in need of long-term contracts this offseason.
Seven months ago, Brown seemed like a sure thing to ink a mega-deal that would likely keep him in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career, while Bell, fresh off his second major knee injury and suspension in as many seasons, appeared to be on his way to the open market.
As of writing, Bell, who accrued over 1,900 all-purpose yards in just 12 games in 2016, seems like the safer bet to receive a long-term deal. What, in less than a calendar year, could have caused the Steelers to potentially hedge their bets on a running back (forget about Bell’s issues: running backs are severely undervalued throughout the league) instead of a receiver who is currently in the midst of one of the greatest four-year stretches in league history?
For one, key members of Pittsburgh’s leadership have directly or indirectly acknowledged that Brown has attitude issues. Head coach Mike Tomlin used the phrase “pouting” in reference to Brown in his final press conference of the season. Roethlisberger echoed this sentiment, just as he has in the past by telling Brown to “shut up” about being open. Tomlin was also rightfully outraged after Brown unintentionally live streamed his postgame pep talk to Facebook.
Fortunately, Steelers president Art Rooney II appears to be intent on keeping Brown for the foreseeable future, “little annoyances” and all.
“As long as they stay little annoyances, you can live through the little annoyances,” Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Antonio is a good guy, a good person. I enjoy him as a personal relationship. He's someone his teammates like to have on the team. He’s a hard worker. He's another player we're hoping to address his contract and have here for the long term.”
Of course, the aspect of Brown’s game that first began to generate outrage among more, er, “traditional” football fans is his love of showmanship. However, by the numbers, Brown’s post-touchdown celebrations were far from the epidemic that some people in the media made them out to be: Brown was flagged just twice for unsportsmanlike conduct this season. Brown was also heavily criticized for the aforementioned Facebook Live fiasco, though he ultimately expressed genuine remorse for causing, in his words, a distraction to his teammates.
Facebook Live incident notwithstanding, the Steelers will accept a few excessive celebration penalties and a temper tantrum or two if it gets them to the playoffs every season, just as Brown has helped them do in each of the past three seasons (most prominently in 2016, when his now-infamous walk-off reach allowed Pittsburgh to surmount arch rival Baltimore on Christmas Day).
Still, the Steelers will want to ensure that their presumably record-setting investment will benefit the franchise. Brown will almost certainly demand to be paid his market value, which, based on the salaries of his peers, would be somewhere in the $13-14 million/year range. Brown will turn 29 two weeks before Pittsburgh reports to Saint Vincent College for training camp, which could impact the length of his contract.
However, Brown does have leverage. Pittsburgh, which is perceived as a factory for wide receivers, suddenly finds itself without a serviceable No. 2 receiver to line up opposite of Brown. Martavis Bryant seems like an obvious name to fill this void, though Rooney II was less-than-convinced that the rangy young receiver, who missed the entire 2016 due to a suspension, will be in Pittsburgh’s long-term plans.
“I would say there’s a way to go in terms of really understanding where [Bryant] is, and understanding where he is in relationship to our team,” Rooney II said. “I’m not sure at this point you can use the words, ‘count on him’.”
Aside from Brown and Bryant, the Steelers have some talented receivers in Sammie Coates, Eli Rodgers and Cobi Hamilton, though none have the look of a No. 1 receiver. Certainly, none of these young players boast Brown’s All-Pro upside—even in a “down” year, Brown finished second in the NFL with 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Overall, Pittsburgh’s front office seems to recognize that Brown is an integral component of the Steelers offense, and they seem set on ensuring that he remains a Steeler for at least another couple of years.