People laughed at Jon Gruden, and it was warranted. He hadn’t been a head coach for a very long time, and he was trading away what many people considered to be one of the best edge players in the NFL: Khalil Mack was coming off a season where he won defensive player of the year, but he was saying that he refused to play for the Oakland Raiders without a new contract.
Yes, he was under contract still, and the Raiders technically could’ve called his bluff and made him play anyway, but that argument is irrelevant here, considering what the Pittsburgh Steelers did. The Raiders found a trade partner with the Chicago Bears, and the Bears forked over two first round picks, a third round pick, and a sixth rounder for Mack and a second rounder. The Bears then made Mack the highest paid defensive player in NFL history, with a six-year, $141 million deal, with $60 million guaranteed.
You can make the argument that the Bears won the trade, and you’d probably be right, but the Raiders got rid of a guy who was threatening to hold out without a new deal, and got a ton of draft capital back as well. Then, during the season, they moved much maligned number one receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys for another first round pick. Cooper proceeded to light it up in Dallas, and was one of the most explosive receivers in the league at the end of last season.
Don’t let that change history though: everyone thought the Raiders fleeced the Cowboys, and couldn’t believe Dallas was willing to give up a first for a guy who had never come close to his potential. Throw in the fact that Cooper has only one year left on his deal, and it’s for $13 million — something that he was certainly not worth based on his production in Oakland — and it looked like a steal for the Raiders.
Now, let’s take a look at how the Steelers handled the situations they were in. They had franchised star running back Le’Veon Bell in 2017, and were unable to get a long term deal done, so they put the franchise tag on him again the following year. Bell then said he would sit out the season without a new contract. The Steelers called his bluff, assuming he would come back and play under his tag for one more year. They were wrong.
Then, after Bell said he would be coming back at some point to play for the Steelers, they tried shopping him at the trade deadline. That may have pissed him off enough that he changed his mind, and didn’t come back at all last year. Now he’s walking via free agency, and they’re probably getting a third-round round compensatory pick in return for him, depending on what they do in free agency.
If the Steelers has recognized the issue and traded him before July, the other team could’ve negotiated something with Bell and ripped up the tag. Of course, this would require some finagling, since he couldn’t be traded without signing the tender, and other teams couldn’t make formal offers to Bell, but they could’ve made it work. The New York Jets, after all, have no problem tampering with players currently signed by someone else, so you know they would’ve been down. Instead it was a huge distraction for a team that missed the playoffs in 2018.
Then there’s the Antonio Brown situation. Brown was the highest paid wide receiver in the league, until neo-Cleveland Brown Odell Beckham Jr. signed his huge deal last offseason. The Steelers had to have known that wouldn’t sit well with Brown, and that he’d want more money. But, they let the season play out anyway. It obviously didn’t end well, with Brown going AWOL week 17 and then basically shooting his way out of town. He cut out all the leverage the Steelers had, and they ended up having to dump him for next to nothing: the Raiders paid a third and a fifth to acquire Brown.
Keep in mind, Brandin Cooks was traded for a first-round pick, twice. Cooper was traded for a first-round pick. Even Percy Harvin was traded for a first-round pick a few years back. Brown is far superior to any of those receivers, and yet he didn’t command nearly the haul any of them got. Then there’s the aforementioned Beckham Jr, who the Giants traded and got a first-round pick, a second-round pick, and safety Jabrill Peppers, a pretty good safety who was a first-round pick just two years ago. Throw the other trades out, just seeing the OBJ haul makes the Brown trade downright laughable.
Yes, most people are arguing that the Raiders are now paying Brown when they refused to pay Mack, but it’s less money and less years. It might not be perfect, and you might not love the Raiders situation, but would you rather be the Raiders or the Steelers? Again, the Steelers turned two of the best offensive players in the NFL into two third-rounders (maybe) and a fifth-rounder. The Raiders turned a dominant defensive player, and, at the time, a middling receiver, into three first-rounders, a third-rounder, and a sixth-rounder. There’s simply no comparison.
One can argue that the Raiders made some questionable decisions, but the Steelers had perhaps the most poorly managed season in NFL history. Luckily, they still have a decent amount of talent on offense, but losing Brown and Bell and getting next to nothing back is something that could cripple the franchise. Only time will tell what the true ramifications will be, but it’s possible that the Patriots might be more worried about the Raiders or even the Jets than they are the Steelers for the next few seasons.
Pat co-hosts The Patriot Nation Podcast
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