The Steelers Options with Antonio Brown

With so much Antonio Brown news today and so many questions about how things work on the salary cap I decided to throw together a quick post on the topic that will hopefully answer the questions I have been getting. So lets take a look.

What is the dead money and cap savings is Brown is cut?

If Antonio Brown is cut the Steelers will need to account for at least $21.12 million on the salary cap. This dead money is from a $19 million signing bonus that was paid to Brown in 2017 and $12.96 million salary conversion paid to Brown in 2018 to help the Steelers with their salary cap this season. The $19 million was prorated over five years and the $12.96 million over 4 years. Both have three years of proration remaining and the Steelers need to account for all of that remaining money whether or not he is on the team next year.

If Brown is released the team will save $1.045 million in cap room. At least $495,000 of that would be offset by whomever takes his place on the roster so the effective cap savings are nil.

Wait I read that they will save $15.2 million if they cut him and millions more in the future?  What gives?

The $15.2 million is the amount of cash that the team saves this year if they release Brown in March. From a salary cap perspective this is money that is saved for the future though it is not realized this year. The best way to visualize this is to do a quick scenario analysis based on when the Steelers move on.

Year Cap if Cut in 2019 Cap if Cut in 2020 Cap if cut in 2021
2019 $21,120,000 $22,165,000 $22,165,000
2020 $0 $14,080,000 $18,340,000
2021 $0 $0 $7,040,000
Total Cap $21,120,000 $36,245,000 $47,545,000
Difference $0 $15,125,000 $26,425,000

As you can see they save $15.125 million by cutting him now versus 2020 and $26.425 million by cutting him now versus 2021.

This type of analysis makes plenty of sense when you are talking about an underperforming/declining player. If you have an 80% chance of cutting a player in 2020 you may as well just bite the bullet and do it now even if it looks bad on the cap. This is why decisions are made on players like Ndamukong Suh in Miami to cut now rather than later. It’s a strong argument for why the Giants should have moved on from Eli Manning this year.

Brown isn’t that type of player though. The odds of Brown being cut for football reasons in 2020 are very low so there is no need to accelerate the process nor any try benefit to it because he is worth the contract that he is being paid. If you are cutting Brown it’s because you think there is some irreparable damage between the organization and him that you can not fix. You aren’t going to give it a shot in 2019 only to cut him in 2020. Either the Steelers are in or out. This type of matrix should play no role in this particular decision.

Is the salary cap a concern at all for this move?

Yes and no. In general the salary cap is no longer a barrier for moves like this. Salaries have not kept up with the rising salary cap and teams have learned to work the system better to absorb cap hits like this one. The only true protection players have anymore are fully guaranteed salaries and teams pretty much only peg those to years of expected contributions.

That said it is still a ridiculous number. The highest one year cap charge we have is a $19.3 million cap charge for Peyton Manning in 2012 which was offset in part by the fact that the team declined an option on him. After Manning we are looking at Brock Osweiler at $16 million in 2017 and Jason Pierre-Paul in 2018 at $15 million. Ndamukong Suh had over $22 million in dead charges but they were split across two years and not a single season.

To put things in perspective the Steelers have had a total of about $31 million in dead money combined across three seasons! This would be completely against their way of doing business to take on that kind of charge no matter how upset the player is. So the big number should give the Steelers a lot to consider for this season.

What about a post June 1 cut?  Does that make it cheaper?

A June 1 cut allows you to manipulate the accounting for dead money on a contract. In this scenario what happens is the Steelers would release Brown on the first day of free agency with the June 1 designation. From the start of free agency to June 1, Brown would still count on the Steelers salary cap at $22.165 million- his full cap charge. On June 2nd Brown would be removed from the books as an “active” player and only have his prorated charge count against the cap, which is $7.04 million.  That would lead to a cap savings of $15.125 million in 2019.

But don’t get too excited. The other $14.08 million would simply move to 2020. So all the June 1 does is delay the inevitable.

Typically a June 1 is used when a team can not deal with the salary cap charge of releasing the player because of other cap related issues. Using the June 1 in cases like this allows the team to pretty much spend right up the cap in March when free agency is in full swing knowing that they have a big cushion coming their way in June which can be used for rookies and as a safety net in the regular season. The Dolphins were a team that kind of used this strategy this year.

Given that the Steelers are not really a big free agent spender and their cap, while not great, isn’t problematic,  Im not sure they would benefit from this unless just from a psychological standpoint so they don’t see the big $20M number in one year. Its also worth noting that in 2020 there could be some different rules regarding dead money and some teams may not want to push too much money into 2020 from 2019.

What about a trade?  How much cap relief is there is a trade?

A trade and a cut are treated identical on the cap unless the player has guaranteed salaries remaining in his contract. Brown has none. So cut or traded the cost is $21.12 million on the cap.

Can we designate him a June 1 trade?

Nope. The June 1 designation only is allowed on players who are released. You can still get the benefit of post June 1 accounting on a trade but that means you have to make the trade on June 2 or later. That is problematic for a few reasons.

The main issue here is that Brown has a roster bonus due if he is on the roster on the 5th day of the league year. That payment is then the Steelers responsibility and counts on the Steelers cap regardless of whether or not he is traded. So the dead money moves to $23.62 million in total, and the number for this year up to $9.52 million. That moves the savings down to $12.625 million rather than $15.125 million.

The sides can avoid this by renegotiating his contract to delay the bonus until later in the year (say training camp) but would require it to be guaranteed and likely with language that doesn’t void the guarantee if he doesn’t show up to workouts, mandatory OTAs, etc…Since the relationship is that bad I couldn’t see either side doing that. Plus there is no guarantee a trade occurs and neither side would want this drama dragging on into the summer.

There is also zero benefit for Brown to delay his release into the summer. If released from his contract he will have the best opportunities to earn a big contract in March not July. So he should not work with Pittsburgh on anything that prevents him from hitting free agency in those first days of the league year.

Well what about the team acquiring him can’t they do something to make the dead money less?

No. The dead money is a sunk cost. There is nothing Brown can do to make a trade more appealing for the Steelers nor anything a team could do to trade cap space for Brown to make the dead money less difficult for the Steelers. It’s against the rules.

The only way to offset some of the salary would be to make a star for a star kind of trade with a team that had excessive cap room to eat other costs.  Lets say the Giants created a bunch of cap room releasing some veterans and were willing to do a Beckham for Brown swap (and this is pure fantasy, nothing more or less).  The Giants could in theory prepay $10M of Beckham’s salary as a bonus before the trade. In this case rather than taking on $17M in Beckham salary plus the $20+M in dead money for Brown they only take back $7M in salary for Beckham. It’s a $10M swap. You could do something similar by signing a free agent the Steelers want and then trading him to the Steelers after you pay him the signing bonus and in return get Brown.

Would a team want to trade for him?  What is their cap cost?

If a team traded for Brown they would get him at cap costs of $15.125 million in 2019, $11.3 million in 2020, and $12.5 million in 2021. None of that is guaranteed either. So the team would get one of the top wide receivers in the NFL at a cost of $12.975 million a year with no guarantees. Of course they would want to trade for him. That’s a steal. I mean Allen Robinson as a free agent got $14 million a year with $25 million in injury protection. Sure Robinson is younger but there is no comparison. 

Why would Brown want to be traded?

He shouldn’t want to be traded. If he wants off the team he should do everything in his power to be released from his contract. There is far more money in free agency for him than the risk free $13 million a year a team would acquire him for in a trade. While he can’t block a trade he can do enough to make teams wary of trading for him unless they give him a raise.

Should the Steelers move on without him?

Probably not. From a financial perspective it makes no sense. Though he probably won’t be happy as he loses more targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster the team is better off with both on the field than off it. The team is built to compete now and you maximize that with the most talent you can get on the field. Brown may be an issue at times but there is no reason the team can not work through this and get everyone on the same page professionally. Its just hard to really come up with a scenario where the Steelers make out better without him than with him.  

Steelers and Antonio Brown Agree on $68M Contract

Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport the Steelers and Antonio Brown have come to terms on a massive $68 million contract extension that will make him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL by over $2 million a season on an annual basis.

Continue reading Steelers and Antonio Brown Agree on $68M Contract »

Looking at a Possible Contract Extension for Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown has been one of the best receivers in the league the past few years, arguably the best. In any matchup he’s faced, even the toughest ones, Brown finds a way to have a big game. It doesn’t even feel surprising anymore when he has monstrous games of ten catches and well over 100 yards. Retaining Antonio Brown for an extended period of time is definitely a top priority for the Steelers, because he and Ben Roethlisberger are a deadly duo.

Continue reading Looking at a Possible Contract Extension for Antonio Brown »

Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Pittsburgh Steelers

We wrap up our look at the AFC North today with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Starting tomorrow or Saturday will be the AFC South, which we will kick off with the Texans.

Best: Antonio Brown, 5 years, $41.9 million, $8.5M guaranteed

I was a bit conflicted with this choice because if you go back to 2012 when this was signed Brown had one 1,100 yard season and his other year in the NFL produced less than 175 yards. Brown was a 6th round pick so it’s not as if he was a can’t miss prospect and he was not considered the number 1 receiver on the team at the time. That distinction went to Mike Wallace who was feuding with Steelers management over a contract. In many ways this contract was considered to be something of a message to Wallace that the Steelers were prepared to move on and he needed to report. So in many ways this was a risky contract. Continue reading Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Pittsburgh Steelers »

Antonio Brown the Black Belt Wide Receiver

Antonio Brown finished this season with 129 catches for 1698 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns. He led the league in catches and yards, while his catches are the second most all-time and his yards are sixth.

Over the last ten years, only two other receivers under 6-foot tall have had seasons like this: Marvin Harrison with 143 catches and 1722 yards in 2003 and Wes Welker with 122 and 1569 in 2011.

I know receivers like Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. may catch our attention more, but the things that Antonio Brown has done this year is like a Jiu-Jitsu master.


Being only 5-10 and 180 pounds, Brown can’t just go up and get it like some of these other guys (although he does do that sometimes). I’ve still been putting together that All-Confusion team that I spoke of back in October, but decided to wait until the end of the season to release it with the final stats for players and a final picture of their season. That article I wrote also speaks to some of the lessons I’ve learned from mixed-martial arts that cross over to football.

I’ve been debating a few positions and looking at them like I would if I wanted to build a multi-faceted offense. For instance, we need a bigger, bell-cow back, but for our second or third back, I’d also like a smaller guy who’s going to catch balls out of the backfield and give me something different in space. For receivers, I want to have one bigger receiver, a guy who can go up and get it, but who can also run all the routes of the route tree. But throughout the process, with every single line-up I’ve made, Antonio Brown has been on that team.

In my opinion, Antonio Brown has proven that he is the best wide receiver in the NFL this year. Now, I know that you can make an argument for any one of those receivers that I mentioned before, but from the aspect of who’s the best tactician, it’s Antonio Brown because he can do everything.

I’m not a huge fan of mixed-martial arts or the UFC, but in listening to Joe Rogan talk about it constantly on his podcast, I’ve begun to understand some of the intricacies of the sport and how it applies to football and life as well. Once football season is over, I might turn some of my attention to the UFC.

One thing that Rogan always harps on is how technical smaller guys are. When people ask who’s the best fighter in the world, most people would say Jon “Bones” Jones because he’s 6’ 4”, 205 pounds, and the current UFC light heavyweight champion of the world. If you could only choose one fighter if you had to go up against anyone, you would likely choose Jon Jones, but if you’re saying who’s the best fighter in the world in terms of who is the master of their craft, many would choose Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Mighty Mouse is only 5’ 2”, 125 pounds and he’s the current UFC Flyweight Champion. Currently Jones is the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the official UFC rankings, while Johnson is #3.

This isn’t me trying to debate fighters, but follow me here. The way Rogan raves over Might Mouse Johnson got me thinking about how I should have looked at the way I, myself, played receiver and focused in on my strengths and became a technician rather than trying to be something I’d never be (6’5”), something Brown so obviously did.

Rogan continually speaks about how smaller Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners who are masters are so much harder to roll with than bigger guys because the smaller guy never has the size or strength to just overpower a guy, so he HAS to become very technical if he wants to have any success. The founding fathers of BJJ are Carlos and Helio Gracie, two men who weighed around 135 and 154 pounds respectively through their careers, but would routinely compete against and beat larger, stronger fighters.

In his famous 1951 fight with Masahiko Kimura, Helio lasted 13-minutes before losing to the technical Judo fighter, who was 71 pounds heavier and four years younger than the 38 year old Gracie. Kimura was so technical that his reverse arm bar that beat Gracie is known today as the Kimura lock.

While Brown can “Moss” guys, it’s not what he focuses on. Instead he’s focused his energies on becoming the premier route-runner in the league. He’s so good, that even Sports Science did a segment on how he runs perfect and precise routes. When they blindfold him, he runs almost the exact same route, landing within 3 inches of his initial, control, set of routes.

The most electrifying rookie receiver in NFL history, Odell Beckham at 5’ 11”, 198 pounds, takes the same approach. The always candid general manager of the Carolina Panthers, Dave Gettleman, stated back in May after the draft that Beckham was this year’s best pure route runner, the only “run the entire route tree” receiver in the draft and that he is the only rookie receiver who doesn’t need route work entering the NFL.

Boy, was Gettleman right, Beckham is third in the NFL right now with 101.8 receiving yards per game behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown as he’s totaled 79 catches for 1120 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 11 games. Gettleman was so on point that Beckham did all of that with almost no practice as he hurt his hamstring during mini-camps and then re-injured it on the first route on the opening day of training camp.

What makes Brown and Beckham so great is that “run the entire route tree” aspect of their games is it makes them so hard to predict to the defensive backs who are tasked with covering them. Gettleman makes a great point regarding how many college receivers catch 120 balls, but they do this only running three routes or so because they’re such dominant forces in the college game. With the ability to run the whole tree, corners can’t pick up on what Brown/Beckham are going to run, nor can they easily pick it out on film.

Gettleman also makes an astute comparison between Kelvin Benjamin and Plaxico Burress that speaks to the other main kind of receiver there is, as he states, “you can’t coach 6’5”, 240 with a 34-inch arm length and 10-inch hands.” Without that un-coachable size, Brown hasn’t had the margin of error to not excel at his craft, he has to do all of the little things right. Where a Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson can afford to not get the best position on a ball they have to high-point because of their size, Brown has to ensure he does every little thing right to put himself in position to make that play as a smaller player.

The last point regarding Brown is how well he’s done against Fantasy Football killer Joe Haden. It’s always good to judge the best by seeing how they perform against the best and some of the best have struggled mightily against Joe Haden. In 2013, Calvin Johnson had only 3 catches for 25 yards against Haden, Mike Wallace had 1 catch for 15 yards, Steve Johnson had 2 catches for 19, Jordy Nelson had 5 catches for 43 yards, Greg Jennings had 3 catches for 43 yards and Dwayne Bowe had 1 catch for 7 yards.

Players who have done well against Haden are Torrey Smith, who has had three decent games against Haden and one 2 catches for 25 yards dud earlier this year. Smith toasted Haden for a long gainer and a TD on another catch in Week 17 against the flu-stricken cornerback. In late 2013, Cecil Shorts had a decent day with a game-winning touchdown against Haden and Brandon Marshall had 6 catches for 95 yards and a TD.

Over the last two seasons, Joe Haden has shut down the 6’4”, 207 pound AJ Green as he’s had only 17 catches for 130 yards on 41 targets in four games or an average of 4.25 catches for 32.5 yards. Excluding the two games against the Falcons and Broncos this year where AJ Green played hurt and was nothing more than a decoy at best, over the last two seasons in 27 games, Green averaged 6.2 catches for 91.4 yards and 0.63 TDs per game.

Over those same two years, Antonio Brown has also played in four games against the Browns and Haden. Against the Browns, Brown has caught 27 passes on 40 targets for 413 yards and 2 touchdowns for an average of 6.75 catches for 103.3 yards and 0.5 TDs. His yardage average is actually higher against Haden than his 99.9 yards per game average for 2013 through 2014.

Green’s best receiving game against Haden was a 7 catch, 51-yard game in early 2013, but that was on 15 targets. Brown’s worst game was his 9 catch, 87-yard outing in 2013; he’s passed 100-yards in both his games against Haden this year.

The thing that separates Antonio Brown the most in my eyes is his consistency because week-in and week-out, no matter who he’s going up against, no one can stop him. For the entirety of 2013 and 2014, Brown has had at least 5 catches and 50 yards in every single game, a streak of 32 games since he took over the role of the number one option for Big Ben when Mike Wallace left for Miami. His worst yardage output this season was his 7 catch, 72-yard and one touchdown game in Week 16 against the Chiefs.


With Brown averaging 106.1 yards per game this year, only Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones outpace him with an average of 108.8 and 106.2 yards per game respectively. Demaryius Thomas comes in fourth with 101.2 and Jordy Nelson at number five with 94.9 yards per game.

To give you an idea of Brown’s consistency, even the best have off days. In Beckham Jr.’s first three games before the bye week he combined for 10 catches for 106 yards. Jones had four games with yardage totals in the 50s and two in the 60s. Thomas had a four for 31 game, another four catch game for 48 yards, along with a two for 11 game. And lastly, Nelson had three games in the 50s and a three for 25 day.  To be as consistent as Brown has been this day is almost unheard of.

On top of all of that, Brown is one of the best punt returners in the NFL with two returns for touchdowns in the last two years, the only other receiver in the group above that also returns punts is Beckham.

You might disagree with me on who the best receiver in the NFL is, but when it comes to who is THE master of his craft as an NFL wide receiver, the winner is: Antonio Brown.

Heading into the NFL Draft, there is one receiver that I think is comparable to Antonio Brown and it looks like he’ll also be drafted in the late rounds. That receiver is Duke’s Jamison Crowder, who is also a dynamite punt returner.

Crowder is 5’9”, 175 pounds and is currently ranked by NFL Draft Scout as the 17th best receiver in this 2015 class. They have him projected as a 5th or 6th round draft pick. Over the last three seasons, Crowder has had over 1000 yards each year with a total of 283 catches for 3641 yards and 23 touchdowns in his four year career at Duke. He’s averaged 12.9 yards per catch over his career.

He’s also a prolific punt returner, like Brown, with 869 return yards for a 13.4 average in his career with four touchdowns all coming over the last two seasons. He and Brown both returned punts for touchdowns this weekend.

Like Brown, he has an ability to play in the slot and outside, even as a shorter receiver because of his precise route running. His 4.53 forty isn’t going to wow scouts, but Brown ran a 4.47 and Crowder could get there with some good pre-combine coaching on his forty technique. When you’re a master route runner like Brown, Beckham Jr., and Crowder, it isn’t only about speed. Jerry Rice taught us that with his 4.71 40-time.

If these teams are smart, Crowder won’t make it past the fourth round.

P.S. I want to note that I’ve kind of omitted Odell Beckham Jr. from the best wide receiver in the league conversation for now because he’s only a rookie and I want to see if he sustains this into next year. Plus I want to celebrate Brown for what he is.


The DeFranco’s Gym at the Onnit Academy Combine Training

Total Human Optimization