Can the Steelers trade Antonio Brown's contract? Breaking down pros and cons of a deal in 2019
Brown's dead cap space in 2019 would create a significant problem for a Steelers team trying to win now
and, with a player of Antonio Brown's talent, it's not hard to find a significant number of teams who might want to acquire him. Brown will be 31 when next season starts, but he's still an All-Pro talent.
The one problem people consider an obstacle to a deal -- Brown's contract -- has created some confusion. So let's try and sort through that with a few easy questions.
Can the Steelers trade Brown's deal?
That's the biggest question here, because if a trade wasn't actually viable, then what are we even doing here? The short answer is yes, the Steelers can trade Antonio Brown and his contract.
The long answer is "it's complicated" because of financial reasons and the extension they gave him recently.
How will it affect them in 2019?
There are two important figures to know when it comes to Brown's deal.
One is his cap hit for the 2019 season if he is on the Steelers roster. That cap hit would be $22,165,000. It's a pretty big number, but nothing crazy for an All-Pro wide receiver. Next year is also the biggest spike in, making this the least optimal year to trade or cut the receiver. Brown's antics couldn't come at a worse time.
The second number to know is the dead money number if Brown is not on the Steelers roster. Whether he is cut or traded is irrelevant -- if the Steelers don't have Brown on their roster next year, he will account for $21,120,000 in dead cap space in 2019. Salary cap projections put the 2019 cap number somewhere around the range of $190 million. Just being general here, but cutting or trading Brown would mean the Steelers would be using somewhere in the range of 8 to 10 percent of their salary cap space on a receiver who isn't on the roster.
More important than anything is to know that if Brown is cut or traded, he will account for a $21,120,000 dead cap hit in 2019. It doesn't matter where he goes or how he gets there, the Steelers will be using more than $21 million of their salary cap space to "pay" for Antonio Brown not being on their team. (There is a chance Brown could count less but that depends on the timing, see "when would Brown be traded" below.)
There is an argument out there that the two numbers are negligible. And that's true: Brown being cut or traded would "save" the Steelers just over a million dollars in terms of what he would account for on their cap. But that's too much of a simplification of the issue.
It's a matter of having Brown and his All-Pro production on the roster while using $22,165,000 in cap space to do so versus spending $21,120,000 and not having Antonio Brown.
It's a massive gulf.
Would Pittsburgh, a team with an aging Hall of Fame quarterback and a ton of talent on both sides of the football very much in "win now" mode, want to utilize a tenth of its salary cap space to a superstar player who won't play for the team in 2019? That seems pretty unlikely, unless Mike Tomlin believes Brown would fracture the locker room to a point where the Steelers might struggle to win games and Kevin Colbert believes he can generate ample compensation in return.
Look, the Steelers can work around this cap hit if they want. They can make it work. Art Rooney might very well be moved "to action" as a result of Brown's antics, and a mandate might come down to trade Brown, get whatever they can back for the receiver and to just make it work with the understanding the team is hamstrung a bit. The Steelers had $19 million in salary cap space at the end of this year, per Spotrac, they could create some freedom with a Roethlisberger extension, they have young talent on rookie contracts ... it's feasible for them to work with $21 million in dead cap space.
One more point on 2019: the Steelers would also save $15 million in cash next year. That's a nice bonus.
How will this affect them long term?
This is a much sunnier outlook for examining a possible Brown trade. When looking at the cash angle of the contract, the Steelers would ultimately save $38 million in cash. That's a very nice bonus.
From a salary cap perspective, taking on the $21 million in dead money for the 2019 season -- via trade -- would wipe out any penalty moving forward. The Steelers would have zero cap obligations to Brown for 2020 and 2021, which is extremely interesting when you consider the wide receiver would be 32 and 33 years old, respectively for those two seasons.
With the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster (just 22 years old and coming off a 1,400-yard season!) and the presence of James Washington, along with Colbert's ability to identify wide receiver talent in the draft, the Steelers could convince themselves that getting rid of Brown's deal and Brown's presence is worth the huge hit in 2019.
Talking yourself through this whole concept is a lot like that Alonzo Mourning headshake GIF -- at first you're mad about the idea of anyone suggesting the Steelers trade Brown, and then you can kind of see how they might end up making a move if they can get enough compensation.
What can the Steelers get for Antonio Brown?
It's pretty difficult to find an obvious comparison for Brown, because you need a superstar-level wide receiver in his late prime with multiple years left on his contract who was traded in the offseason. Here are a couple of trades that can give us an idea of what the Steelers might look for in exchange for Brown:
Randy Moss to the Raiders (2005) -- Imagine if this deal happened now. Moss was 28 years old, one of the three best receivers of all time in his prime, and sent packing from Minnesota to Oakland for a first-round pick and a seventh-round pick as well as linebacker Napoleon Harris. Moss had just performed the "disgusting act" of faux-mooning Packers fans after a touchdown and was "confronted" by "team leaders" Matt Birk and Daunte Culpepper when Moss walked off the field with a few seconds remaining in the Vikings' Week 17 loss to the Redskins. Moss was several years younger but the attitude factor fits here, as does the level of talent and his contract, as Moss had four years remaining on a pretty large deal.
Roy Williams to the Cowboys (2008) -- This was a midseason trade with the Cowboys trying to make a playoff/Super Bowl push, so it's not the same thing. The urgency is different and that changes the compensation, but the Cowboys traded 2009 picks in the first, third and sixth round for Williams and then gave him an extension. Williams isn't close to Brown's level as a superstar and he was younger (27) when the deal happened. Pretty wild he was out of football by 2012.
Anquan Boldin to the Ravens (2010) -- Boldin's deal was up and he clearly wasn't happy floundering in Arizona with no quarterbacks (Larry Fitzgerald is a patient man) and the Cardinals believed they needed to move him instead of paying him. Boldin was the consummate "quiet solider" and would eventually help the Ravens win a Super Bowl. He was dealt for third- and fourth-round picks from the Ravens. I don't think the superstar level quite fits, nor does the salary situation, because Boldin wasn't under control for very long.
Amari Cooper to the Cowboys (2018) -- Again, another in-season deal. And Cooper, who was on a rookie contract when he was traded, is much younger and had fewer years of control than Brown. But I think this is a deal worth talking about, because the Cowboys gave up their first-round pick next year for Cooper. If some team calls the Steelers to try and get Brown, the Steelers will point out that Brown is better than Cooper (he is) in the same way a real estate agent will point out a comparative sale in a neighborhood when you're shopping for houses. Cooper will require an extension as early as this offseason, whereas Brown will likely give his next team three good years under his current deal.
With all those comps in mind, I think it's safe to say the Steelers would be asking for at least one first-round pick for Brown. Asking for two first-round picks is a possibility, I guess, but that feels pretty unlikely.
Who would trade for Brown?
who could trade for Brown; all 31 other teams would like to have someone like Brown on their roster from a talent standpoint, but the reality is there would be a small market. The team would need to possess a pretty good pick to convince the Steelers to make the move, the team needs a talented quarterback with limited weapons and the team needs some salary cap space (although Brown would only count $15.2 million next year against the team's cap).
All of these teams were on Breech's list, but to me the following teams make the most sense:
Raiders: Jon Gruden has a ton of first-round picks (maybe he could package the Cowboys pick plus the Bears pick?) and a desperate need for talent at wide receiver. Trading Cooper and then trading for Brown doesn't seem very logical, especially if it was more expensive. But why do the Raiders have to do anything logical? Brown's age and the move to Las Vegas don't exactly mesh.
Jets: They have a lot of young receivers on the roster and just extended Quincy Enunwa, but the Jets would have to at least think about adding Brown to help out Sam Darnold. The only downside here is they don't currently have a coach; presumably you would want to lock someone down before engaging in any sort of trade (although any Brown trade won't happen until March anyway; more on that below).
49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo is on the roster and while Marquise Goodwin/Dante Pettis are great, adding Brown with George Kittle could turn the 49ers into a monster on offense. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are probably in good shape job-wise right now, but they are entering Year 3. Winning in 2019 should be a priority.
When can Brown be traded?
Anyone hoping to get Brown on their roster will need to be patient: Brown cannot be traded until the new league year begins on March 13 at 4 p.m. ET. Making matters more complicated for the Steelers is that Brown will almost certainly need to be traded before March 17, when roster bonuses kick in on his contract.
So there's a rough five-day window for the Steelers to actually execute a trade of Brown.
There is one other option for the Steelers here as well. They could decline to trade Brown during that five-day period of the league year, whether because they hope eventually the two sides can figure something out to make 2019 work or because they didn't get enough compensation for him or any other reason, really. If that happens, Pittsburgh could wait until after June 1 to trade Brown. If they did that, the Steelers would be able to spread his cap hit out over two years, taking a $12.04 million dead cap hit in 2019 and an $11.58 million dead cap hit in 2020.
The restrictions here is the Steelers would have a hold on Brown's cap space until the deal was consummated, which could potentially be a problem as they explore free agency and roster construction.
Brown's situation is just flat-out problematic for the Steelers. There's no easy answer as to how they solve things, given his contract, his talent, his attitude towards the franchise, the obvious interest from other teams and the timing of this all going down.
Expect the Super Bowl and NFL combine to be a hot bed of Brown-related rumors for months to come. This is only getting started.
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