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Antonio Brown and the Steelers should work things out

It’s not too late to save this relationship. It’d make the most sense, too.

Antonio Brown and the Steelers have had their fair share of relationship issues, especially since the end of the regular season. Brown hasn’t been in contact with the team at all this offseason, but that’s finally going to change. Steelers owner Art Rooney is set to meet with the disgruntled receiver in Florida, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

That makes sense, because the best thing for both sides is to make up and move on together for the 2019 season.

Even with the meeting with Rooney, that still seems like a long shot. Most recently, Brown dropped a social media bomb when he announced that it’s “time to move on and forward” after thanking Steelers fans for nine years of support.

So while it appears more likely than ever that the Steelers and the four-time All-Pro wide receiver are headed for a divorce, that hasn’t actually happened yet. The Steelers haven’t released or traded Brown — but he has put in a trade request.

Although Brown and the Steelers might both feel like it’s time for a breakup, there’s still one big issue looming over a potential deal: Brown’s contract.

Antonio Brown’s contract is going to be difficult to move

Whether the Steelers trade or release Brown, they’re not going to see much cap relief. Brown has a cap hit of $22,165,000 for the 2019 season according to Spotrac — that’s not exactly a small amount of money that’s easy to shed. Brown also has a $2.5 million roster bonus that gets paid on March 17. That will factor into the timing of the move as well. His dead cap figure will be impacted by that roster bonus.

There are a few ways the Steelers can move on from Brown, but all of the scenarios would yield small returns.

Here’s what they can do, and the resulting cap savings for each move:

Pre-June 1 release (before March 17)
2019 dead cap: $21,120,000
2019 cap savings: +$1,045,000

Pre-June 1 release (after March 17)
2019 dead cap: $23,620,000 (the normal $21,120,000 dead cap figure plus roster bonus)
2019 cap savings: -$1,455,000

Pre-June 1 trade (before March 17)
2019 dead cap: $21,120,000
2019 cap savings: +$1,045,000

Pre-June 1 trade (after March 17)
2019 dead cap: $23,620,000
2019 cap savings: -$1,455,000

Post-June 1 release/trade:
2019 dead cap: $7,040,000
2019 cap savings: +$15,125,000
2020 dead cap: $14,080,000

So, the Steelers’ options are limited here. A release is pretty much out of the question. Spotrac currently has the Steelers with $10.2 million in cap space. Unless the Steelers are so done with Brown they need him gone now, a little over $1 million in cap savings isn’t worth letting a superstar talent walk out the door.

They could designate Brown as a post-June 1 release to split up his dead cap hit over two seasons, but they wouldn’t have access to the cap savings until June 2. They wouldn’t be able to use the freed up cap space to sign free agents in March, which is when most of the high-impact players get signed.

Their only real choice would be to trade Brown. Trading Brown before March 17 would only net that same $1 million in cap space, but at least they would get some draft picks in return. If the Steelers wait until after June 1 to trade Brown, they could send him to a team that missed out on a receiver in the 2019 draft and wouldn’t mind parting with picks in 2020.

What would it cost to trade for Antonio Brown?

Probably not what the Steelers would ideally want. Brown will turn 31 before the season, and it’s unlikely that a team would trade multiple first-round picks for his services — maybe not even a first-rounder. To be fair to the Steelers, they should want a boatload of premium picks for a player as good as Brown.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said an NFL personnel man told him that he would only trade a Day 3 pick for Brown — a conditional fourth- or fifth-round pick. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN spoke to two high ranking NFL executives who said they would trade a Day 2 pick — one of them said that might fall to a fourth-round pick if they find out more negative things about Brown in the trade process.

A pick on the third day of the draft. For Antonio Brown. Hard pass.

People who would like to see Brown get traded could point to 2007, when the New England Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for first-ballot Hall of Famer Randy Moss. At the time, Moss was coming off his worst season in the NFL — he had 553 receiving yards and just three touchdowns in 13 games. Moss was the perfect “buy low” candidate for the Patriots.

Brown isn’t really a “buy low” candidate. Sure, his receiving yards dipped this season with 1,297 yards, but he led the league with 15 receiving touchdowns. He’s still playing phenomenal football, even with the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the Steelers with 1,426 receiving yards in 2018.

Brown’s value is an issue for both the Steelers and the team trading for him. It’s hard to invest heavily in a player in his 30s, and it’s hard to let a player of Brown’s caliber go without receiving quality compensation for him. Both of those statements can be true.

For what it’s worth, Bovada still lists the Steelers as the team Brown will most likely play for next season, with the 49ers right behind them.

How did the Steelers and Antonio Brown get here?

It’s been a stressful couple months for the Steelers and Brown. Brown missed the last game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals after skipping meetings due to a tense relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Brown reportedly threw a football at Roethlisberger before storming off the practice field in the week leading up to their season finale. He has not responded to messages from the team and has openly flirted with the 49ers.

Brown is also dealing with an alleged domestic dispute, though his agent is denying the report that said dispute happened. On top of that, Brown was found guilty for reckless driving.

Even with these issues, a few of his Steelers teammates have said publicly they’re hoping Brown is in Pittsburgh in 2019. Smith-Schuster said that he wants Brown back so they can try to win the Super Bowl. Maurkice Pouncey believes that “good phone conversation or sit down” could fix things with how close the Steelers are as a group. Cam Heyward would also like Brown to return to the team, but understands that serious discussions need to take place before he can be welcomed back.

Brown is second in team history in receiving yards and hasn’t really slowed down at all — he’s still incredibly valuable for this team in the immediate future. Even with a young Pro Bowl receiver like Smith-Schuster on the roster, taking away Brown would hurt the Steelers passing game. Saints receiver Michael Thomas put it best.

Brown has cemented himself as one of the greatest receivers to ever step foot on an NFL field. The Steelers are a better team with him, even with some of his late-season transgressions.

No matter if they cut or trade him, the Steelers likely won’t receive adequate value in return. Brown is under contract until 2021, and that’s a commitment that can still be honored. It’s on both the Steelers and Brown to come together, make up, and try to avoid any drama in the future.