The Pittsburgh Steelers did a very un-Pittsburgh Steelers thing on Monday when they signed All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown to a four-year, $68 million extension that now makes him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
With the exception of Hines Ward, the Steelers have shown a historical penchant to let their key wideouts walk away rather than sign them to lucrative long-term deals. Mike Wallace, Plaxico Burress and Emmanuel Sanders all left for other teams as the front office chose to develop other players at the position. While none of those three players put up anywhere near the league-leading numbers that Brown has in the past four seasons, it’s a somewhat unusual move for the Steelers to lock up a wideout with such a big extension, especially one who had another year left on his contract.
By exercising the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers also ensured that he will be the highest-paid player at his position in team history, with his 2017 salary expected to come in around $12 million.
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Rather than enter the 2017 season with Brown’s upcoming contract as a looming distraction or giving Bell the opportunity to find another offer in free agency in a week and a half, the Steelers acted with urgency and clarity on Monday.
It wasn’t just a message to Brown and Bell. It was a direct appeal to Ben Roethlisberger, who floated the idea of retirement after the team’s AFC title game loss to New England in January.
This was team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin telling their franchise quarterback that they plan to be as competitive as they can in 2017 (and potentially through the end of his contract in 2019). By ensuring that Roethlisberger will have his best target in the fold for as long as he’s under center and keeping Bell in town for at least another year, the Steelers brass have now given Big Ben the personnel commitment he needs to put him in the best possible opportunity of getting a third ring before his career closes out.
It’s hard to say how seriously the Steelers took Roethlisberger’s talk of retirement this offseason, but it’s unlikely they would have signed Brown to such a big deal if they thought he’d be catching passes from someone else in September or even in 2018. This renewed focus on maintaining the offense’s Big Three only works if the main cog in that trio is fully onboard. It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be now.