As the Steelers descend upon the St. Vincent College dormitories Thursday, the presence of one man should help steer the organization’s decision-making process in the right direction to benefit the team for years to come.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be present, accounted for and well-heeled for the next several seasons. He should also be well-insulated, seeing three of the men charged to protect him — Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert — are also signed long-term, with a fourth expected to join them in David DeCastro, so their standing with the team is firm and unquestioned.
In the quarterback-dependent league the NFL has become, a quarterback needs a suitable offensive line in order to be successful. The Steelers have one, and a pretty good one at that. But said quarterback also needs a dependable wide receiver to throw to consistently. It just so happens the Steelers have just such a receiver. But he’s not just good; he’s the best in the league. He is also the man whom they need to show up.
Since the 2013 season only one man has been targeted more than 500 times while catching at least 350 passes for 5,000-plus yards and 30-plus touchdowns: Antonio Brown. He is also massively underpaid. In the past three seasons Brown is ranked in league’s top five in nearly every major receiving category, but his base salary is only 13th-highest and his total salary cap hit is ranked 24th entering this season.
For better perspective, take the Detroit Lions’ Marvin Jones, for instance. His new five-year, $40 million contract with Detroit after leaving the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent will pay him $13 million in guaranteed money over the life of the deal. Brown’s five-year, $41 million contract with the Steelers was signed back in 2012 for $4.5 million less in total guaranteed money, but Brown has generated more than three times the production (375 receptions since 2013) as Jones (116).
The fact that Brown is drawing nearly the same paycheck as (or perhaps worse than) other wide receivers he has clearly out-performed in recent years is unacceptable. The need for signing Brown to a new extension with a sizable raise is no longer about market value and re-structuring. It is about maintaining the highest possibility of winning football games while understanding what your best resources are worth.
The Steelers believe Roethlisberger is worth a salary cap hit of nearly $24 million this season because he gives them a high possibility of winning football games, but the man that best compliments him is the one he maintains a nearly symbiotic relationship with on the field; the man General Manager Kevin Colbert gambled on once before with a contract extension he barely earned and yet spectacularly outgrew. Now Brown is putting his chips on the Steelers by reportedly deciding not to hold out and reporting to camp with hopes of the team meeting him halfway on a new contract before the beginning of the regular season.
History tells us the Steelers value loyalty from their players, putting the interests of the team above self and trusting the organization will do the right thing by them for their adherence. It benefited Roethlisberger after the 2014 season came to an end. It benefited defensive end Cameron Heyward this time a year ago, nearly to the day. Both men were rewarded with contracts commensurate with their value. Antonio Brown can put his best foot forward by doing the same thing Heyward and Roethlisberger have done within the past 18 months. If Brown keeps his word, the Steelers should not hesitate to reward him.
After all, when it comes to the Steelers getting the most for their money, Brown has proven he’s worth it.