PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers are following through on their promise to offer All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown a new contract.
General manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday the team has already begun negotiations with Brown, who has one year left on the $42 million deal that began in 2013. The 28-year-old Brown is coming off his fourth straight season of at least 100 receptions.
The Steelers gave Brown an advance on his salary in each of the last two seasons as a pseudo bonus and vowed last summer to prioritize giving him a long-term contract that could keep him with the team for the balance of his career. Colbert and Brown's agent Drew Rosenhaus are already in discussions and the team has no issues about Brown's occasionally eccentric behavior. Brown drew a strong rebuke from head coach Mike Tomlin last month for livestreaming from Pittsburgh's victorious postgame locker room following a playoff win at Kansas City. Brown later apologized for the distraction.
The dust up did nothing to alter Colbert's intentions to keep one of the league's most dynamic players for the long run.
"I can say unequivocally we want Antonio Brown to retire as a Steeler," Colbert said.
The same goes for running back Le'Veon Bell, who can become a free agent in March. It's unlikely Bell will hit the open market. The Steelers will almost certainly place the franchise tag on Bell by the March 1 deadline if the two sides can't come to an agreement. The move would give Pittsburgh and Bell until July 15 to work on a new contract.
If they miss the deadline, Bell would make the average salary of the top five running backs in 2017 and become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Any talks between the team and Bell remain in the early stages, though Colbert isn't concerned about the injuries that have prevented Bell from being available at the end of each of the last three seasons.
Bell missed a playoff loss to Baltimore in 2014 after hyperextending his left knee, was put on injured reserve after tearing ligaments in his right knee in the middle of 2015 and watched most of New England's one-sided romp over Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game due to a sports hernia. Colbert chalked up the issues to the wear and tear of playing a position that takes as much punishment as any in the league. Bell is still deciding whether to have surgery to repair the hernia and there's no rush to have the procedure done.
"We have no reservations about Le'Veon, not his durability or his ability," Colbert said. "He's grown I think tremendously off the field. I hope he continues to grow in those areas. There's no hesitation to have him be with us for his whole career."
That's not a concern with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who raised eyebrows last month when he said he needed time to think before coming back for a 14th season. The team hasn't heard from Roethlisberger but is working under the assumption that Roethlisberger will return.
"If Ben decided to retire we'd be prepared to move," Colbert said. "We hope we don't get to that situation for a few more years."
Backup quarterback Landry Jones will be a free agent in March, though Colbert said he team would "love" to have Jones on the roster next season. He didn't rule out drafting a quarterback that could one day become Roethlisberger's successor, pointing toward Green Bay's transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers as the model for how it should be done.
Considering Pittsburgh's needs in other areas — particularly in the secondary and at linebacker — quarterback won't be high up on the priority list. Veteran Lawrence Timmons' contract expired and next month marks the first time in his 10-year career he can test free agency. The 30-year-old was his typically productive self in 2016, going over 100 tackles for the fifth straight season.
"Would you like to have him stay? Absolutely," Colbert said. "Does it all fit? I think we can make it fit. At what cost? And he has to see what his market is."
One thing that won't be as big an obstacle as in past years: the salary cap. Pittsburgh has a little wiggle room for once. Just don't expect Colbert to go crazy. Pittsburgh loves to retain its own as much as any team in the NFL.