Labriola on AB/Odell, UFA signings, paper champs

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Break up the Browns. Or is it the Jets again who are the true champions of March? Let’s touch on a couple of other topics first, while I think some more on which of those teams is going to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIV …

• But today we start by recognizing the ongoing presence of the elephant in the room, a pachyderm of such size and girth as to be impossible to ignore. Of course, that refers to the trade of Antonio Brown, and to be more specific, the trade of Antonio Brown in comparison to the trade of Odell Beckham Jr.

• How could the New York Giants reap so much more from the Cleveland Browns in return for trading Beckham than the Steelers received from the Oakland Raiders in return for Brown?

• If I had a nickel for every version of that question I’ve received in the Asked and Answered inbox over the previous 72 hours, I’d be on a plane to Bermuda right now to begin my retirement, and it wouldn’t be one of those Boeing 737 Max 8’s either, even though I’m certain that would be many readers’ preference.

• In explaining it in the simplest way possible why the compensation was different, Brown’s conduct was, and has been, much worse than Beckham’s; Brown openly talked about wanting a new contract that contained significant guaranteed money, and Beckham didn’t; Brown is 31 and Beckham won’t be 27 until November.

• And the biggest issue of all was that Brown quit on his teammates by skipping practices, by blowing off a scheduled MRI on the knee he had claimed was the reason he couldn’t practice, by going AWOL and being incommunicado in the final couple of days leading up to a game the Steelers had to win to have a chance at making the playoffs; and then he left them at halftime of that game to go God knows where.

• In professional sports, being late for meetings can be overlooked; abuse of a Gatorade cooler can be ignored; screaming for the ball in any and every situation might even be admired. Players can forgive one of their own for acting like a petulant child on the sideline during a game, even for embarrassing an assistant coach or a coordinator in the process.

• But what Brown did the week leading up to the regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals was a mortal sin, an unforgivable offense unless the act itself is followed by immediate and public contrition. But instead of a public apology and throwing himself at the mercy of his teammates, Brown acted as the aggrieved party and imposed a radio silence that lasted for weeks.

• Plus, it’s a much more grievous offense to a new team, because with a new team there has been no goodwill earned by the player through his previous performances.

• That’s what the Steelers were trying to trade, every bit as much as they were trying to trade a guy who has 686 receptions since 2013, the most by a player over any six-year span in NFL history; the guy who led the league with 15 touchdown catches last season; the guy whose 9,145 receiving yards since 2013 are also the most by any player in a six-year span in NFL history; and the guy who became the fifth player since 1970 to record at least eight touchdown catches in six consecutive seasons.

• And anyone who believes that the statistics should overshadow Brown’s disappearing act and subsequent subversive behavior, well, that’s just not the case in professional sports, especially when a team is being asked to take on such an individual and pay a price for doing so.

• During Brown’s introductory press conference with the Raiders, for which he was late by the way, General Manager Mike Mayock said, with Brown sitting right there, that Brown wasn’t worth a top 35 pick in the upcoming draft. That’s “a pick,” as in one. And when we’re talking about the Raiders and where they will be drafting come April, a top 35 pick takes into account both their first-round pick and their second-round pick.

• The notion that waiting would’ve yielded a more impressive bounty for the Steelers is pure speculation, because waiting would’ve allowed needy teams to fill holes via free agency and quite possibly in a draft said to be filthy with talented receivers. And there also was no way for the Steelers to “get more” out of the Raiders or another team, because stick-ups aren’t allowed to be a part of trade negotiations in the NFL. And it wasn’t as if there were a bunch of other teams ringing the Steelers’ offices. It was time to cut the cord with Brown. Maybe past time.

• If Steelers fans are honked off about what the team got in return for Antonio Brown, that’s a legitimate emotion, but place the blame where it belongs: on Antonio Brown.

NELSON, MONCRIEF INTRODUCED
• The Steelers yesterday introduced their first two unrestricted free agent signings of 2019, with cornerback Steven Nelson and wide receiver Donte Moncrief making separate appearances in the media room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Nelson signed for three years. Moncrief for two. And in their own ways, both typical Steelers’ signings: young players at positions of need, still with upside, but productive enough already to indicate that upside could positively impact a team with designs on competing for a championship in 2019.

• Nelson (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) is 26 years old and became a full-time starter in Kansas City in his second NFL season after entering the league as a third-round pick from Oregon State. Last season, Nelson was the most targeted cornerback in football, but he stood up to the onslaught sufficiently to limit opposing quarterbacks to a 50 percent completion rate and a 66.4 passer rating on those targets. He finished with four interceptions, and his 15 passes defensed was tied-for-10th in the league among cornerbacks.

• Moncrief (6-2, 220) will celebrate his 26th birthday in Latrobe this summer, and he is a big and physically gifted receiver who entered the league as a third-round pick from Mississippi. In his five NFL seasons – four with Indianapolis and one with Jacksonville – Moncrief had 200 catches for 2,543 yards (12.7 average) and 21 touchdowns. But those statistics are somewhat skewed by Moncrief playing one of his four seasons in Indianapolis without Andrew Luck and his one season in Jacksonville with Blake Bortles.

• Right now, both of these players would appear to be starters given the Steelers’ current depth chart at cornerback and wide receiver, but the draft and then training camp and the preseason will sort that out in a more definitive fashion. Nelson said he played man coverage almost exclusively during his time as a starter in Kansas City, and his combativeness and playmaking doing that will be a plus for the Steelers defense; and Moncrief’s speed, size, and experience combine to make him a nice addition both in the red zone and as a down-the-field weapon.

LE’VEON’S $$$$$
• On this subject, I’m going to allow people with no direct connection to the Steelers to assess how Le’Veon Bell did with the strategy he employed in his quest to re-set the market for running backs in the NFL so as not to be accused of bias.

• Let’s begin with si.com’s Albert Breer:

• “Since the numbers are in, let's compare the Steelers offer vs. the Jets deal,” Breer tweeted. “Through Year 1: Steelers $19.5M, Jets $14.5M. Through Year 2: Steelers $33.0M, Jets $26M. Through Year 3: Steelers $45.0M, Jets $39.5M ... Not much to argue here. Pittsburgh's offer was better.”

• From Manish Mehta, longtime NFL writer and Jets beat writer for the New York Daily News: “Bottom line: Jets made a smart, savvy deal for Le’Veon Bell,” Mehta tweeted. “Basically a 2-year, $26 million deal. Again, Bell is getting a lot of money. But it is undeniable that he would have been better off taking the Steelers deal earlier … or even playing on the $14.5M franchise tag last year. My quick math on Le’Veon Bell’s salary cap number for the Jets: 2019: $8.5M; 2020: $13.5M; 2021: $15.5M; 2022: $17M. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Jets dominated this deal.”

• Finally, from Joe Banner, former team president of the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns: “In Steelers proposal to Bell at the end of 2019 season he would’ve pocketed $33M,” tweeted Banner. “In the deal he got (from the Jets) he will be at $14.5M. Behind by almost $20M. This may be the worst contract decision we have ever seen a player make, and it should’ve been obvious to him and his agent.”

FACTORY OF GIDDINESS
• They acquired Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon in separate trades with the New York Giants, even though it cost them Jabrill Peppers, Kevin Zeitler and the 17th overall pick in the 2019 draft; they signed defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and offensive tackle Greg Robinson as unrestricted free agents; and Browns fans are losing their minds over what they perceive to be an upcoming season where their favorite team very likely will be picked to win the AFC North Division by a number of prognosticators.

• In their minds, the additions of this offseason added to the foundation of a team that finished 7-8-1 last season will mean the first playoff appearance for the team since 2002. At least.

• How the Browns fare in 2019 won’t be known for many months, but the team and its fans will learn much sooner how life changes once the offseason perception changes from bottom-feeder to playoff contender.

• Start with kissing those 1 p.m. Sunday kickoffs good-bye. Say hello to the kind of schedule affected by television, such as a primetime game on a Sunday or Monday followed by a short week that ends with a critical game against a division or conference rival, as an example. The Steelers had two of these on their original 2018 schedule: In Tampa on Monday night followed by a game against the Ravens, and then in Oakland on Sunday night followed by a game against the Patriots.

• There will be no more sneaking up on teams as longtime losers. Now, the bulls-eye will be on the Browns’ backs. Now, the Browns will find themselves as a marquee opponent instead of one where giving away tickets can prove to be a challenge.

• The Browns are one of the eight teams scheduled to visit Gillette Stadium in 2019, and is it really a stretch at this point to view them as an attractive opponent to be offered up to open the regular season against the defending Super Bowl Champions?

• As James Farrior tweeted, “Congrats Cleveland! Paper champs of the North. ‪#keephatealive‬

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