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Did Antonio Brown Chart a New Path for Player Movement in the NFL?

The superstar receiver’s forced trade to the Raiders has defined the 2019 offseason. It also taught us several lessons that could shape player and team negotiations in years to come.

Antonio Brown celebrating Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the past two and a half months, Antonio Brown made brief cameos on The Masked Singer and as a reported member of the Buffalo Bills. He announced his goodbye to Pittsburgh countless times on Instagram despite not yet going anywhere. He dyed his mustache blond and nicknamed himself “Mr. Big Chest” without offering any explanation. It says a lot that the conclusion to this drama is more confusing than anything that happened during it. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to take on the biggest dead-money salary-cap hit in the history of the sport for the privilege of relinquishing their best player. In return, they get just third- and fifth-round 2019 draft picks. The Oakland Raiders, the team that traded for Brown, will keep each of their four picks in the top 35 of April’s draft.

There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the ending: Brown came out the winner, increasing his guaranteed money from zero to $30 million. If his goal was to secure a raise and get away from Ben Roethlisberger, he got what he wanted.

From a value standpoint, one of the following has to be true: Either Brown’s presence was a singularly destructive force that hurt the Steelers more than his production helped—the football version of the Simpsons gag in which everyone near Bart gets worse grades—or Pittsburgh lost the trade. That’s it. The Steelers have one fewer talented player than they did last week without much to show for it, and the only way that makes sense is if the locker room can make up what they lost in receiving production (9,145 yards and 67 touchdowns over the past six seasons) by gaining good vibes. We’re going to be spending a lot of time explaining to future generations just how this happened. Not just the trade or how the Steelers squandered a high-powered offense in the span of two offseasons, but also Brown’s mustache.

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The most important part of the story, however, is what will come next. Brown undoubtedly won, but whether he blazed a path for future NFL contract standoffs is far from certain. Chiefs lineman Jeff Allen wrote that Brown “just disrupted a system that’s designed for us to contractually lose in. If you hate it then hate what the other side does everyday.” Allen is correct. But disrupting the system is not the same thing as changing it, and the NFL still maintains a deck stacked against its players. The league not only encourages teams to eschew all but the best veterans in favor of cheap rookies, but also structures contracts in a way that mitigates nearly all risk—including tying up more money in per-game bonuses that aren’t paid out to injured players.

The “smartest” teams have gotten very good at paying their players as little as possible. By now, GMs have figured out that signing players to longer-term contracts as early as they can will almost always benefit the team. Players take them because they represent guaranteed money in a sport where injuries can end their careers at any moment. A team can get out of the deal almost instantly if the player doesn’t develop, and if he does blossom, it has a bargain. Vikings receiver Adam Thielen is a good example of this: He signed a four-year, $19 million deal after the 2016 season. He’s now one of the best receivers on perhaps the most team-friendly veteran contract. This is how you build an efficient team. It can also be deeply crappy for players.

ProFootballTalk wrote Sunday that Brown “has become one of the most powerful players in the league, literally overnight.” The problem with the idea that Brown has set a new path for players unhappy with their contracts, however, is that he is one of the most talented players in the NFL, and even then had only one team willing to spend this much on him. You can probably count on two hands the number of players capable of winning in a deal in this fashion. This did not set a template for how players should operate. Instead, it told us what we already know: If you want to get more money than an NFL team wants to give you, it requires a lot of fighting.

In short, the Brown blueprint is not recommended for anyone except Brown. But the route of resorting to dramatic measures to get real money is recommended. It’s how top non-quarterbacks get their deals: either by holding out, forcing a trade, or waiting out franchise tags to get to true free agency.

Teams will try everything they can to stick to their spending norms. Aaron Rodgers, who would have had more leverage in free agency than probably any quarterback ever, said in August when he signed his $134 million extension with the Packers that he broached the subject of a “non-traditional” contract that would perhaps include player opt-outs or a salary tied to a percentage of the cap. “Ultimately, I don’t think the NFL is ready for those type of contracts and willing to go in some of those directions,” Rodgers said. Imagine what it’s like for every other player.

The Brown deal will bring some immediate, small changes. Adam Schefter said Brown’s new money is enough to have teams “distraught” if they are negotiating with wideouts this offseason. The salary cap will be $188 million this year—an $11 million increase from last year—and it will almost certainly continue to grow. Stars like Saints receiver Michael Thomas should be paid more, and it shouldn’t take a player like Brown forcing his way out of Pittsburgh to set a new benchmark. It is still ludicrous that because of the rising cap, NFL stars are almost always underpaid in just the second or third years of their contract. Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder and Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short have higher cap hits than J.J. Watt simply because they signed their deals later.

If anything, players should learn from Brown—who added no new years to his deal—as well as Kirk Cousins, who signed a fully guaranteed three-year deal, in understanding that short contracts can be beneficial. Teams flush with almost absurd amounts of cap space this year (the Colts have over $100 million to spend) are more likely to spend it on short-term investments. Contracts can be paid out in two or three years, and then the player can reach free agency again.

Still, the system for players to move teams is deeply flawed. The franchise tag, short careers constantly threatened by injury, and teams’ ruthless salary-cap philosophies ensure this. That was true Saturday before Brown became an Oakland Raider, and it remains true Monday. The vast majority of players cannot peg their quarterback with a football, bail on the locker room, and dye their mustache blond and expect to win in the way Brown won. (They can maybe do the first two things, but definitely not the mustache thing.) The system is broken, but Brown’s path is not likely to fix it for anybody but Brown and maybe a few others.

For the Raiders, Brown is a risk worth taking. The Steelers thought he was a jerk. There are a lot of jerks in the NFL, but very few of them are headed to the Hall of Fame and can instantly make your offense better. If the Raiders think Brown is a jerk but he helps the team with his talent more than his jerkiness hurts it, then he’s a win. (If Brown being on the roster was that harmful, one wonders why Pittsburgh didn’t trade him to the Patriots or Chiefs to try to sink those franchises.)

We learned so much in the Brown saga: how scared teams are of a player they think might be a distraction, how an elite talent beat the system, and that Brown will join Jon Gruden on those Raiders billboards in Las Vegas. What we don’t know is whether Brown will have any impact on the future of player movement in football.