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Steelers give Brown huge contract extension, franchise tag Bell

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, 4:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown celebrates his touchdown catch with Le'Veon Bell during the first quarter against the Colts on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back LeVeon Bell during practice Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
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The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell carries the ball during the third quarter against the Dolphins in the AFC wild-card game Jan. 8, 2017.
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PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 08: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his touchdown with Le'Veon Bell #26 in the first quarter during the Wild Card Playoff game against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field on January 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Business was boomin' at the Steelers offices Monday, and not just for All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown who likes to recite that catchphrase.

On a day when Brown became the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver, Le'Veon Bell was assured of being one of the league's top-paid running backs for 2017.

An hour before Brown's five-year, $72.71 million contract became official, the Steelers announced they applied the franchise tag to Bell, their team MVP last season but an impending free agent next month. That could provide him an approximate $12 million salary next season.

Not only does the franchise tag keep Bell off the market, the Steelers used the “exclusive” tag, which gives them sole negotiating rights with Bell until a July 15 deadline. Had the Steelers applied the more common “nonexclusive” tag, Bell could have received offers from other NFL teams with the Steelers receiving two first-round draft picks as compensation if the running back signed elsewhere.

The exclusive franchise tag also means Bell will receive a salary equivalent to the five highest-paid running backs already signed for 2017, provided the Steelers don't sign him to a long-term contract. Under the nonexclusive tag, Bell's salary would have been based on the 2016 salaries for the five highest-paid running backs.

The purpose of the exclusive franchise tag is to make the one-year deal more expensive for teams, which is why the nonexclusive tag is preferred. But Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the league's highest-paid running back with an $18 million salary this year, could be a salary-cap casualty, which could drive down the average cost. The next highest-paid back, Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, is scheduled to make $8.875 million in 2017.

Bell's salary figure will be determined by April 21, the end of this year's restricted free-agent signing period. Regardless, he is due a sizable pay increase. In the final year of his rookie contract, Bell had an $853,147 base salary and $1,197,347 salary cap figure.

Brown's contract situation is a bit more stable, especially financially.

His contract, which adds a four-year extension on top of his $4.71 million salary this year, is designed to keep the 28-year-old All-Pro receiver with the Steelers through the 2021 season.

The four-year extension is worth $68 million. It includes a $19 million signing bonus, per an industry source.

Including this year's salary, Brown's deal averages $14.5 million per season. The four-year extension has a $17 million average, surpassing Cincinnati's A.J. Green ($15 million average) as the highest-paid player at the position. The contract also averages $18.5 million over the first three years of the extension, making it slightly frontloaded. The final season would be worth $12.5 million.

The contract value is an indication the Steelers weren't concerned about Brown's history of distractions, such as the controversial Facebook Live video he posted from the locker room minutes after a playoff win at Kansas City.

Brown's 481 catches since 2013 are the most in NFL history over a four-year span. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time this past season when he finished second in the NFL with 106 catches, tied for second with 12 receiving touchdowns and fifth with 1,284 receiving yards.

Brown has recorded four consecutive 100-catch seasons and five 1,000-yard seasons.

Brown already ranks second on the Steelers' all-time receptions list (632) and is third in receiving yards (8,377).

Bell had 1,884 scrimmage yards (1,268 rushing, 616 receiving) with 75 receptions and nine total touchdowns in 12 games. He set the franchise single-game rushing record at Buffalo during the regular season and established the postseason single-game record in wins over Miami and Kansas City.

Bell, however, is not without red flags.

He has not started and completed any of his first four NFL seasons. The past three ended via injury, and the past two had their start delayed by suspension for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Bell also missed the first three games of his rookie season because of injury.

Bell, who turned only 25 earlier this month, already ranks fifth in Steelers history in rushing yards (4,045), is tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns (26) and is ninth in yards from scrimmage (6,050).

Chris Adamski contributed to this report. Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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