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The Steelers Aren’t Messing Around

Inking Antonio Brown to a record deal and putting Le’Veon Bell on the franchise tag shows that cap-happy Pittsburgh is serious about spending smartly to win big

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NFL offseason is often home to irrational transactions: splurge trades before draft day, extravagant spending on free agents, player selection based on hype rather than proven performance. But armed with ample cap space for the first time since the Chuck Noll era, the Pittsburgh Steelers forwent a splash and made a pair of sound, rational moves on Monday, placing the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell and signing receiver Antonio Brown to a reported four-year, $68 million extension that makes him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL.

Unless Bell and the Steelers work out an extension before the July 15 deadline for negotiating with tagged players, the decision effectively gives Bell a one-year deal worth more than $12 million. And while fans might be itching for more prolonged security, waiting another season to put Bell on a long-term contract makes sense from Pittsburgh’s perspective. The former second-round pick is the NFL’s most skilled running back, but he’s played 16 games just once in his four seasons and has missed time due to multiple knee injuries and suspensions over the last few years. And with the league’s continued move away from high-paid running backs — before today’s Bell news, only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, who is likely to be released this offseason, was due for a cap hit of even $9 million next season — Pittsburgh’s conservatism in giving Bell another chance to prove his reliability before offering big money maps onto that trend.

And even in light of Brown’s extension, Pittsburgh still has a glaring need to keep Bell on the roster and its ground game in peak form. Ben Roethlisberger still hasn’t clarified comments from last month about his potential retirement, and even in the likely event that he returns, his struggles down the stretch last season — seven touchdowns to nine interceptions in the last month and a half — make a dynamic running game all the more important for the Steelers offense.

Bell, meanwhile, only improved as the season progressed, lifting Pittsburgh’s winning percentage with him: From Week 11 on, he played eight full games, averaging 146.5 rushing yards per contest as the Steelers went undefeated in those games. And when he suffered a groin injury in the first quarter of the AFC championship game, his team went on to play like it had been punched there.

Overall, he ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards and second among running backs in both receptions and receiving yards despite playing just 12 games, and he became the first back in league history to average 100 rushing and 50 receiving yards for a season. That production comes with the intangible bonus of the highlights his one-of-a-kind running style generates on a weekly basis.

Bell’s tag was the team’s first step aimed at maintaining offensive stability; the second was giving Brown, whose cheap second contract was due to expire after next season, a raise above even the A.J. Green–Julio Jones–Dez Bryant stratosphere. Brown’s new deal will pay him $2 million to $3 million more per season than that troika earns.

Based on pure numbers, Brown had his worst season since 2012 last year, as opponents draped him with defenders and forced Pittsburgh to spread the ball elsewhere. But for the best receiver in the NFL, that “worst” designation is relative — the twerking, Facebook Live–ing superstar still hauled in 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. Over the last four seasons, Brown has 83 more catches, 862 more yards, and three more TDs than the second-place receiver in each of those categories. That’s a full extra season of production that Brown has condensed into his prolific stretch.

As a former sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan, Brown’s star turn was unexpected; as a 5-foot-10 human amid a host of mid-6-foot Goliaths at the position, Brown’s ascendance to the league’s top spot was a testament to his unique combination of speed, precise route running, and big-game flair. (See this play from last season’s division-sealing win over the Ravens for evidence, or this one, or another — all of these examples came in a two-quarter span.)

He’s now a Steeler through 2021, and Bell, after another trial run under the tag this season, could join him as a long-term franchise staple. These front-office decisions were neither shocking nor unreasonable given Brown’s and Bell’s standing in the league. But sometimes the most obvious move is the best one; for the Steelers on Monday, that edict counted double. They kept their high-scoring core intact, and they cemented their status as a perennial playoff contender for the next half decade to come.