Your Favorite Team Isn't Trading for Antonio Brown
I hate to be the wet blanket here, but there is no way that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is traded anytime soon. Speculation of a trade began this week when Brown replied "Trade me let's find out" to a tweet that questioned his replacement level. The following day, Brown did not show up to work. Since then, online props (which I have warned you about before) have popped up. Despite all this, his agent Drew Rosenhaus claims that the receiver does not actually want to be traded.
Even if Brown did legitimately request to change teams, it is basically impossible for the Steelers to move on from him. Due to the NFL's cap structure and how they handle signing bonuses (in Brown's case his signing bonus and the restructure that essentially gave him a second signing bonus), it is extremely difficult to trade a player early on in a megadeal. This is why the blockbuster trades you are used to seeing in the NFL, like the Khalil Mack trade a few weeks ago, usually involve players on rookie deals and/or players on the last deal of a veteran contract.
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In February of 2017, Brown signed a five-year contract worth $68 million with a $19 million signing bonus. In the NFL's cap system, signing bonuses are prorated over the life of a player's contract (up to five years) meaning that $19 million may have hit Brown's bank account entirely in 2017 but was slated to count $3.8 million against the Steelers' cap for every individual year from 2017 to 2021. On top of that, Brown restructured his contract in March in a way which turned about $13 million in salary and roster bonuses into a signing bonus. This meant that it hit Brown's bank account immediately but that $13-ish million was prorated in a way that will count $3.2 million against the Steelers' cap every year from 2018 to 2021.
The NFL elects to prorate signings bonuses in an effort to smooth out spikes in cash flow over a player's deal. For example, the Green Bay Packers did not have to immediately carve out the cap space for the $57.5 million signing bonus that they handed quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Instead, $11.5 million of that signing bonus will be charged to the Packers' salary cap every year from 2018 to 2022. So while Rodgers physically is going to receive $66.9 million this season alone, Green Bay will never be charged for more than a $37 million cap hit in a single season over the six seasons that Rodgers is now under contract for. It's worth noting here that most NFL players do not have massive signing bonuses that assure them money and roster spots on teams long-term. In that way, Brown's double signing bonuses and Rodgers' market-setting quarterback deal make them uniquely tied to their teams.
At this point, you are probably thinking that this is semantics. Does it matter when a player is paid? Unfortunately...in the NFL, yes. The number that is the most important to keep in mind when it comes to potential trades or releases is called "dead cap." A "dead cap" is the number that a team has to immediately assume on the cap with a release (guaranteed salary and remaining prorated signing bonus) or a trade (remaining prorated signing bonus). In the NFL, all remaining prorated signing bonus money is "accelerated" with a trade or release, meaning that it will all immediately have to be accounted for in the current year. Because of how the NFL structures the cap hits for signing bonuses, Brown has already received around $32 million in his original signing bonus and his restructured signing bonus, but only $3.8 million of that was accounted for entering the 2018 season.
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This is why Brown's "dead cap" number is currently $29.1 million, an unmovable obstacle. There is just no way that Pittsburgh is going to "accelerate" that amount of money to pay an All-Pro player to not play for them. To put that number into perspective, only one cap hit in the entire league (San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo) is larger than $29.1 million. That dead cap number is more than $21 million higher than Brown's current 2018 cap hit, meaning Pittsburgh would actively have to clear cap space (English: cut a player(s) making a good amount of money) just to trade Brown and have him not play for the team. In 2017, the Cleveland Browns received a second-round pick to assume the $16 million in guaranteed salary that the Houston Texans owed quarterback Brock Osweiler. In terms of the cap-clearing alone, the "market value" for Pittsburgh eating $29 million in cap space would be expected to be in the two second-round pick range. Mind you, no one has eaten cap space for draft picks before or since the Osweiler trade.
And that is just the value of Brown's dead cap. From there, you would have to tack on an equal value exchange for what amounts to Brown on a four-year, $40 million deal. Considering the overwhelming cap obstacles that it would take to make a Brown trade even semi-realistic, it is highly unlikely that compensation for Brown's talent even gets to the table. The only exception would be if Brown turned over some of the money Pittsburgh already paid out to him for his signing bonus(es) and both parties decided to restructure that money in a way that turned it into game checks (salary). That would turn dead cap responsibility for Pittsburgh into year-to-year responsibility for whichever team traded for Brown. This would be an unprecedented move in the NFL, but it is technically possible. Very, very unlikely but possible.
Above are the nuts and bolts of Brown's contract and how his cap hits and dead cap change over the next four years (everything in millions). In 2019, his dead cap will still be over $21 million. Only 13 players have cap hits that high this year. In 2020, his dead cap is still over $14 million, a number only 41 players can match with 2018 cap hits. The Steelers cannot trade away Brown's double signing bonus contract without assuming dead caps that treat him like a top-50 player to not play for their team until 2021. Even then, the dead cap number slated for him is over $7 million, more than 12 NFL teams are paying in dead cap this entire season.
The guaranteed money on Brown's deal assures him that he will be a Pittsburgh Steeler through the 2020 season. Unless Rosenhaus and Brown take the unprecedented approach of giving the Steelers back some of his signings bonus(es) to turn into salary, there is no way that Brown will be wearing anything other than a black helmet with yellow, red and blue asteroids on it until 2021.