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Signing Antonio Brown to a long-term deal was the right decision for the Steelers

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The Steelers signed their All-Pro receiver to a much-deserved extension.

Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Antonio Brown, one of the best receivers in the NFL, is finally receiving compensation commensurate with his All-Pro skillset. Brown’s four-year, $68 million contract extension makes him the NFL’s highest-paid receiver in terms of annual salary.

Brown’s deal, which is long overdue, proves that patience and hard work pay dividends. No one would have faulted Brown for holding out or making a bigger ruckus about his salary entering the 2016 offseason, fresh off of his 2015 campaign in which he posted one of the best statistical seasons in league history for a receiver. Brown’s 136 catches ranked second all-time for a single season and his 1,834 yards ranked fourth. Incredibly, Brown’s 106-catch, 1,284-yard 2016 campaign represents a pretty sizable drop-off in production. Brown’s contract is enormous, but $17 million per year is a fair price to pay for a 100-catch, 1,300-yard statistical floor.

Don’t be fooled by the lofty figures on Brown’s deal: the Steelers absolutely made the right call on this. By figuring the first year of Brown’s extension into his existing deal (which expires this season), the Steelers will actually shrink Brown’s 2017 cap hit, which was set to exceed $13 million this season. In this sense, the Steelers might be able to hammer out a deal with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who the team franchise tagged on Monday, as well as a mid-level free agent To bolster the secondary or front seven.

Plus, the salary cap continues to expand each year and Brown’s contract almost certainly has some sort of escape clause, should his production dip substantially before the final year of the deal. Don’t bet on that to happen, though.

Top-level receivers tend to age well compared to other skill positions. Jerry Rice had arguably his best professional season at age 33. Terrell Owens had five 1,000-yard seasons from ages 30-35 (he had almost 800 yards in seven games at age 32 in 2005, but was lost for the season with a broken leg). Larry Fitzgerald has posted at least 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons at ages 32 and 33. Marvin Harrison, whose skillset is probably most similar to Brown’s, had his best season at age 30. Even if Brown has reached his peak (and this is no knock on him; getting “better” at this point seems unlikely), there is no reason to expect his play to tangibly decline anytime soon. As long as he is tied to Ben Roethlisberger, Brown should continue to produce at an All-Pro level.

Pittsburgh also prevented Brown from hitting the open market during his prime. Failing to come to terms this offseason may have set Brown on a course for free agency in 2018, where 31 other teams would await eagerly to facilitate negotiations. A slightly-less productive, 33-year-old Antonio Brown on the Steelers beats the heck out of an All-Pro Antonio Brown on an AFC rival.

Most importantly, Brown gives the Steelers the best chance to win the Super Bowl in 2018 and beyond, which is exactly why the front office was happy to pay him slightly above his market value. Antonio Brown has earned every cent of this deal.