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Labriola On

Labriola on the anatomy of the AB trade

We can start with the reality that the Steelers never were going to get what their fans expected in return for trading Antonio Brown. Teams don't give up first-round picks for 31-year-old wide receivers, for 31-year-old wide receivers who want to be at the top of the pay scale. And the notion that the No. 1 pick would be in the top half of the round, in the top five of the round, well, that was just delusional.

When General Manager Kevin Colbert met with a group of media the week before the NFL Scouting Combine, he explained that Antonio Brown had been told the team would look into a trade. Colbert went on to say the trade only would happen if the terms were beneficial to the Steelers, that significant compensation would be required to get a deal done. And that if those conditions could not be met, then Antonio Brown would end up being a part of the Steelers roster in 2019.

The Steelers never specified publicly what they believed was sufficient to rise to the level of "beneficial," or what would constitute "significant compensation." That created a situation where interpretation and speculation could run rampant, and it did.

All of it combined to create a level of expectation that never was going to be met, and so when details of the trade of Brown to the Oakland Raiders began leaking last weekend, angst flowed through Steelers Nation.

The trade became official at 4 p.m. today, and it calls for the Steelers to receive two draft picks from the Raiders – a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick – in exchange for Brown, who also reaped a contractual bounty from the Raiders that reportedly makes him the highest paid receiver in the NFL.

The reaction was instant and the judgment was harsh. Antonio Brown won the trade. The Raiders fleeced the Steelers.

Maybe. Maybe not. But rather than something that can be definitively determined now, it's going to be time and how the Steelers utilize their 2019 draft picks that will be the deciding factors.

The Steelers see the 2019 draft class as one that's deep in talent and potential, a draft class that's deep in talent and potential at positions where their current roster needs fortified. And not all third-round picks and fifth-round picks are created equal.

Characterizing picks strictly by the round that contains them can create a confusing picture, because the Raiders' third-round pick is the second pick of that round, which makes it the 66th overall selection in the draft, while, for example, the Rams' third-round pick is the 94th overall selection, and the Ravens' compensatory third-round pick is the 102nd overall selection.

The way the Steelers are looking at what they got in exchange for Brown is that they now have three of the first 66 picks, and four of the first 83 picks, and when the trade of Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals is added to the pile, they have 10 picks overall in what most teams, again, are characterizing as a deep draft.

Another issue to be clarified stems from the notion that Brown and his agent did a masterful job of orchestrating his ultimate destination and therefore the terms of the trade. Actually, what Brown did or didn't do in this area is nothing more than take advantage of a provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement for any and every player involved in a trade.

A provision in every trade is that if a player or players involved in the deal doesn't show up to his new team in a timely manner, most likely for a physical, the trade is nullified and the player or players revert to their original team or teams. So what Brown did was nothing more complicated/devious/ingenious than what is possible for any player involved in any trade. It's not to the level of a "no-trade clause," but the effect is similar in that it allows the player some control over his destination in a trade.

And the Steelers had communicated to both the player and his agent that at some point, if Brown took this "provision" too far, they were very willing to convey some version of the following message: "See you in Latrobe."

But the trade is done, and even though the Steelers believe they fulfilled their goal of making a deal that was beneficial to them, the reaction has been decidedly negative. A case, however, can be made that evaluating a trade is similar to evaluating a draft class in that any attempt to do so immediately afterward is nothing but a guess and not necessarily an educated guess at that.

Consider two previous high-profile trades in modern Steelers history:

The first came on the eve of the 1989 NFL Draft, and it involved the Steelers sending outside linebacker Mike Merriweather to the Minnesota Vikings. Merriweather, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who had posted 15 sacks in 1984 and was the Steelers' top defensive playmaker of that era, had held out for the entire 1988 season. In exchange for Merriweather, the Steelers got a No. 1 draft pick from the Vikings in return, the 24th overall selection.

The second came in 2010, and it involved the Steelers sending Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII largely as a result of his remarkable catch in the back corner of the end zone to give the Steelers a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. In return for Holmes, a former No. 1 pick, 26 years old, and the team's top offensive weapon in support of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the New York Jets sent a fifth-round pick in that upcoming draft to the Steelers.

With the No. 1 pick acquired from the Vikings, the Steelers picked left tackle Tom Ricketts. After showing himself incapable of playing left tackle in the NFL, Ricketts was moved inside to guard, and yet he managed to start only 15 games over three seasons for the Steelers. Two years and two teams after his time with the Steelers ended, Ricketts was out of football.

With the fifth-round pick from the Jets, the Steelers traded that to the Cardinals for cornerback Bryant McFadden and Arizona's sixth-round pick. In his previous stint with the Steelers after being the team's No. 2 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, McFadden had made 18 starts over four seasons and contributed seven interceptions and two sacks while also being a part of two Super Bowl championship teams. The Steelers then used that sixth-round pick on a receiver from Central Michigan named Antonio Brown.

So, tell me: which trade was better? The trade that brought the No. 1 pick that became a journeyman offensive lineman, or the trade that brought back a part-time starting cornerback and a sixth-round pick that turned into the second-most productive receiver in franchise history?

Then as now, it's not so much about the round of the draft pick(s), but what those draft picks become.