Steelers offseason positional outlook: Wide receivers
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a 12-part series breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers at each position in the offseason. All salary cap information courtesy spotrac.com .
The eyes of not only Pittsburgh Steelers fans but of those around the entire NFL community will be watching closely how the Antonio Brown situation plays out over these next two months.
After all, it’s not too often the trade market features a 30-year-old future Hall of Famer coming off the most productive six-year receiving stretch in NFL history and a career-high season for touchdowns. And while there’s no guarantee Brown will be moved, it is assured that how the organization handles the situation will be the defining moment of its upcoming offseason.
Brown is a seven-time Pro Bowler who is set to be the Steelers’ second-highest-paid player in 2019 but whose future with the franchise is in question. He did not play in the season finale when coach Mike Tomlin disciplined him for missing the day-before walkthrough.
The contract Brown signed 22 months ago is set to pay him $12.625 million in salary this season in addition to a $2.5 million roster bonus due in March. If Brown is on the team, it’s likely he will account for a higher percentage of the Steelers’ salary cap than any player at $22.165 million. (Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger figures to get a contract extension that will lower his projected $23.2 million 2019 cap hit). If the Steelers trade Brown, he still will take a $21.12 million chunk of their cap this year.
How the Steelers approach the situation could have ripple effects on the rest of their offseason. If Brown is sent packing, for example, will they target a receiver early in the draft? Will they sign a veteran free-agent receiver of proven pedigree?
Even more interesting: Will they give a contract extension to JuJu Smith-Schuster? The 22-year-old was voted team MVP and named to the Pro Bowl after he finished his second season with more catches (111-104) and yards (1,426-1,297) than Brown. While it is extremely rare for the Steelers to give a contract extension to a player with only two seasons of experience (or for them to extend the contract of a non-quarterback who has two years left on an existing deal), the only exception they’ve made to their unofficial rules was for Brown.
In circumstances that bear passing resemblance to now, in 2012 it was Mike Wallace who was the more established receiver and Brown the less-proven up-and-comer. Wallace and the Steelers could not agree on contract terms, so the team instead gave the same deal to Brown.
If the Steelers decide it’s in their best interests to move on from Brown, will they turn around and give Smith-Schuster a facsimile of what they had earmarked for Brown over the coming seasons? It’s certainly possible.
If Brown stays, the Steelers appear set at wide receiver in 2019 with him and Smith-Schuster in addition to James Washington, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers. The Steelers still have big plans Washington, who as a rookie second-round pick showed flashes but was inconsistent. Switzer was a nice pickup as a punt/kick returner and chess piece on offense, and Rogers has thrived at times for the Steelers out of the slot. He is restricted free agent but expected back.
Veterans Justin Hunter and, in particular, Darrius Heyward-Bey are favorites of the coaching staff but are free agents. With him turning 32 next month, will the Steelers decide to let Heyward-Bey go or bring him back for a sixth season in Pittsburgh and 11th overall?
Trey Griffey and Tevin Jones spent the season on the practice squad, and last week the team signed former WVU receiver Ka’Raun White and former Canadian Football League All-Star Diontae Spencer to reserve/future deals.
Offseason outlook: Wide Receivers
• Antonio Brown, 3 years left on contract, $22.2 million cap hit for 2019
• JuJu Smith-Schuster, 2 years left on contract, $1.14 million cap hit for 2019
• James Washington, 3 years left on contract, $1.02 million cap hit for 2019
• Ryan Switzer, 2 years left on contract, $645,000 million cap hit for 2019
• Trey Griffey, practice squad
• Tevin Jones, practice squad
• Diontae Spencer, reserve/future
• Ka’Raun White, reserve/future
• Eli Rogers, restricted, $411,706 cap hit in 2018
• Darrius Heyward-Bey, unrestricted, $1.33 million cap hit in 2018
• Justin Hunter, unrestricted, $710,000 cap hit in 2018
Coming Thursday: Tight ends
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.