Most teams who have a stable front office, particularly with respect to those who actually iron out the details of player contracts, tend to have an organization ideology about how those contracts should be structured. The Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps more than most teams have a particular identity with regard to their approach to player contracts.
Along with the Green Bay Packers, their philosophy revolves around, in part, avoiding the big-dollar guarantees that unnecessary bind a player to a team, or vice versa, but more importantly, bind a specific number to the salary cap. The way the Steelers structure their deals gives the team a greater amount of flexibility from year to year, adjusting contracts as they go based on cap needs.
In light of the past two seasons in dealing with the contract statuses of All-Pro offensive stars Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, however, it’s fair to wonder if the team is going to be left with little option but to adapt, or to make exceptions, over the course of time if they find themselves in similar situations.
That is what one agent who has worked on contracts with the Steelers recently told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN. “At some point, they are going to have to change the way they do their deals”, he said.
“In most cases it works out for them, but you’re seeing more and more that top players are valuing the security of a true guarantee as opposed to a loose guarantee”, the unnamed agent concluded. The largest full guarantee the Steelers have ever given to a non-quarterback was a $19 million signing bonus on Brown’s four-year, $68 million extension that he grew dissatisfied with in the first year of the extension.
As for Bell, the numbers vary wildly, even conflict, depending upon which report you base your determination on with regards to the contract the team offered him last season. Fowler cites a $17 million number as the guaranteed portion. Last year, there was a report that there was a $10 million singing bonus and a $10 million roster bonus that would vest within days of signing the contract.
The superstar players of the NFL now value the full guarantee more than anything, speaking generally. Even defensive players are receiving massive, massive guaranteed portions of their contracts that were previously only seen by quarterbacks. Will Pittsburgh be forced to change?
Even General Manager Kevin Colbert and owner Art Rooney II acknowledged that they could, and hoped to, learn something from their experiences over the past couple of years, and particularly this past year with Bell and Brown.
Perhaps they are seeing that their model cannot work in all cases. And so they will have to decide whether they have to move away from their precedent, or make exceptions from that precedent—or to simply continue as they have, and allow players who choose not to play by the precedent walk.
On that note, Colbert did also defend the organization’s negotiating practices, calling them very fair when he spoke at the Combine. And if you look beyond the fully guaranteed portions of the contract, there is truth to that. But it might not matter.