Antonio Brown is on the market, and General Manager Kevin Colbert made that clear today during a pre-NFL Scouting Combine session at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. But what Colbert made even clearer was that any team looking for a fire sale, or a going out of business sale, or even for some kind of a discount off the full sticker price should look elsewhere.
It was all over social media yesterday – and with Antonio Brown, where else would you expect it to be – that the Steelers met with him in Florida. Representing the Steelers were President Art Rooney II, General Manager Kevin Colbert, and Vice President of Football & Business Administration Omar Khan. With Brown were agent Drew Rosenhaus and Eddie Brown, Antonio's father.
"Really, the summation of (the meeting) was that we're all disappointed that we're at this point," said Colbert. "How things transpired – we're all disappointed. Antonio is disappointed. We're disappointed. As to what contributed to the disappointment, I'll leave that between us on our side and his side. Respectively, we did agree to look into a trade (as) the best course of action for both sides. And when I say that, what was put out yesterday was partially true. The point we made to Antonio was that we love you as a player and we thank you for what you've done for us over the past nine years. We're disappointed we didn't get you a Super Bowl, and I still think you're a Hall of Fame candidate, and I'm disappointed that may not happen with us.
"But the other point we made (to Antonio) was that (while) we're open to shopping around the league to see what may be available in exchange for your services, by no means are we going to make a trade or any type of move that will not be beneficial to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Specifically, we will not be discounting you on the trade market, and we certainly will not be releasing you. All that being said, we'll take a positive approach. If someone has a sincere interest and they want to make a move – either a significant draft pick, or a set of picks, or a significant player plus picks – and we think it will benefit the Pittsburgh Steelers in the long run, then we're all in. If not, then we'll make that decision at that point."
Based on reports and things attached to Brown's various social media accounts, a narrative had emerged that the Steelers were going to trade their multi-year All-Pro receiver under a mantle of "addition by subtraction," but Colbert made it very clear that was not the franchise's attitude.
"If we can't make a trade that's satisfactory to us," said Colbert, "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. We know we have a significant player. We also know that it's probably best that we move on. But we also know that will only happen if that benefits us."
Any trade of Brown is going to cost the Steelers, and that cost goes beyond the impact on the field. Because of the structure of Brown's current contract, the $68 million deal he signed on Feb. 27, 2017, the Steelers will be assessed a $21.2 million dead money cap charge if/when they trade him this offseason. On the flip side, the team acquiring him in a trade also gets an All-Pro receiver for the next three seasons at a total cost of $36.4 million, a bargain based on the going rate for a player of Brown's caliber.
And in Colbert's mind, the total cost to the Steelers in a potential trade when combined with what the other team will be getting in terms of a great player at a reasonable rate over the next three years combines to make it even more imperative that the Steelers receive something in return that's fair.
"He's under contract for a specific amount, and when you make a trade you trade that player for that compensation (that he's due)," said Colbert. "What happens after the trade, that's up to the new team, and I cannot speak for them. We will control this, and we'll make the move that will benefit us."
Brown has made demands recently – again on social media – about wanting a new contract and wanting guaranteed money in that new contract, but the Steelers don't view that as their problem, nor do they necessarily view Brown's social media accounts as a totally accurate portrayal of the kind of professional he is.
"What he did yesterday was more indicative of what he is at this point," said Colbert about the way Brown conducted himself during the meeting in Florida. "When he and Art sat down, that was a 20-to-30 minute conversation. Antonio Brown is a phenomenal football player, one of our best workers if not the best. He's a highly emotional player, a highly emotional practice player. Sometimes he will do some things that, we wish we weren't in this situation, but we are recognizing it. But who Antonio Brown is is more reflective of what he did yesterday than what he has done in the past few weeks."
Colbert also addressed the issue of trading Brown to a rival of the Steelers, or a team that could directly stand in the path of a berth in the Super Bowl. Baltimore, Cleveland, New England would qualify as teams in that potential group, but he made it clear that the bottom line with regards to that will be the bottom line.
"If those teams step up and offer you the best picks or the best players in return, then we have to make that judgment," said Colbert. "Will we be selective about where we trade him? It will depend on what the compensation is."
To the public, it seems this entire issue came to a head during the run-up to the regular season finale against the Bengals at Heinz Field, when Brown went AWOL, then was incommunicado, then left the game at halftime, and then refused to return calls from Rooney, Coach Mike Tomlin, and many of his teammates.
"I've seen players change perspectives (of themselves) from the beginning of the game to the end of the game to the start of the next week, let alone a season to an offseason to a new season," said Colbert. "People's perspective, players' perspective, scouts' perspective, coaches' perspective, they all change. Right now the perspective is that the best thing to do is to seek a trade. If we can, then great. If we can't, then we'll deal with it at that point. But I don't think any relationship is irreparable."
One relationship that now seems certain to be over is the one with Le'Veon Bell. After two years worth of franchise tags and unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a long-term contract, it seems as though the end is near.
Colbert said the Steelers won't use a tag on Bell this offseason, which clears the way for him to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13. Colbert made the announcement as the team's personnel department is in the midst of conducting meetings on a possible strategy to pursue during free agency.
"What we can do (in free agency) unfolds as we go through (the process), from a salary cap standpoint," said Colbert. "Who is available, who gets signed and taken off the market, who may end up on the market as a result of that. What we will announce today is that we will not be using any type of franchise or transition tag on Le'Veon Bell. We looked at the different aspects of things, and quite honestly the production from that position from our collection of running backs this year was pretty good."
Had the Steelers opted to use the transition tag on Bell, their salary cap would have been assessed the amount of the tender, which is believed to be in the neighborhood of $14.5 million. Add to that the potential cost of $21.2 million if they can work out a trade for Brown, and the Steelers would be hamstrung when it came to trying to re-signing their own players or trying to sign any unrestricted free agents.
"Le'Veon is still a great player," said Colbert, "but we cannot afford to use a tag with the other needs that we have. And I did use the word 'need.' So Le'Veon will be an unrestricted free agent at the beginning of the new league year (on March 13). Will he still be in our thinking? Sure. We'll always continue to monitor everybody out there, because we don't know where his market will be, or where our market will be."