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Why Antonio Brown's contract matter doesn't feel over for Steelers

5/18/2015

Antonio Brown's potential holdout from the Steelers' offseason workouts barely lasted a week. On April 20, Fox Sports reported that Brown was mulling a holdout. By April 27, he was back with the team. In between, he tweeted that he missed an offseason workout session to spend time with his newborn.

All good, right?

Then why does it feel like this story won’t dissipate any time soon?

The dynamics are too obvious, with Brown too good and too underpaid. At the least, Brown’s deal will remain a convenient topic to help scorch the summer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers typically don’t negotiate new deals unless the player enters the final year of his contract, but most players don’t catch 305 passes for 3,984 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons.

Browns' touchdown total is one less than Victor Cruz and Pierre Garcon combined since 2012. Both players have a higher average yearly salary than Brown, and managed 1,164 more yards than Brown in six combined seasons.

When the Steelers signed Brown to a six-year, $43.04-million contract in July 2012, they were making a sensible deal with an ascending player. For Brown, having the 13th-best yearly average payout despite the best production in the league can’t be easy.

If he held out, most savvy football fans would understand. He’s 26. He’s been dominant. Teams cut players one year after cutting a deal. Why can’t a player try to flip that plan after three years? Brown is an invaluable piece for a team eyeing contention.

But from the standpoint of the Steelers, who have about $9.74 million in cap space according to ESPN’s roster management system, re-doing Brown’s deal would be a colossal weight, even for a great player.

Perhaps that's why Brown showed up April 27, because he knows they won't budge.

Brown has done too much for the Steelers to throw a few extra million his way and hope for the best. Perhaps strong incremental raises would satisfy. But contracts for top players are about status and respect. Brown would want to be placed well above Mike Wallace's five-year, $60-million deal and closer to Calvin Johnson, who redefines Lions share with a $16.2 million per-year average. That’s nearly $4 million higher than Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, who are making $12.8 million on franchise tag.

The Steelers must try to keep Brown happy and productive while planning for future deals, too. Defensive lineman Cam Heyward, for example, is set to make roughly $7 million on a 2015 option.

One potential solution: Restructure Brown’s deal to include easily reached incentives that push him among the top three-to-five receivers paid on average (Vincent Jackson's $11.1 per year would be the floor). Find an easy way to get him to a more respectable number, then cut a new deal later.

Brown’s average cap hit from 2015-17 is $10.96 million per year. If the Steelers get desperate to decrease that number, they could recreate a three-year deal that includes a hefty signing bonus. That lets Brown play out his formative years at a higher number instead of building up momentum for a negotiation two years from now, when Brown is two years older.

Perhaps Brown will respect the Steelers’ long-standing process and play out his deal.

But the not-so-subtle missive was sent April 20, and agent Drew Rosenhaus’ phone is always on.