PITTSBURGH — Kevin Colbert lives in two worlds as general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s the world of scouting reports, player intangibles and maximizing talent.
Then there’s the world of salary-cap projections, roster bonuses and dead money, all of which he likens to the use of a credit card.
“Sooner or later you have to pay it off,” Colbert said about the salary cap. “We can do things to create room, but the money never goes away. The money goes away if you terminate a player, but you still have dead money that accelerates into the given year. You pay that interest like a credit card.”
Not many understand the percentage yields on those magnetic stripes better than Colbert, who in 19 years with the organization has spent a billion-plus dollars on the way to two Super Bowls and 12 playoff appearances.
Colbert has faced nearly every scenario since joining the organization in 2000 as director of football operations, officially becoming general manager in 2010.
He helped extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract three times.
He drafted Antonio Brown in the sixth round, watched him become an All-Pro, absorbed $21.12 million in dead money by trading him, then flipped the third-round pick from that trade as part of a draft-day deal for linebacker Devin Bush.
He has straddled the salary-cap threshold only to create ample space in a matter of days thanks to veteran restructures.
He selected three Pro Bowlers from the same 2017 draft class but has missed on multiple cornerbacks.
He has exhausted every option trying to replace transcendent talent Ryan Shazier at linebacker.
All these decisions collide with a race against time.
Colbert is going year-to-year on a contract that expires in May 2020 but wants one more Lombardi, and he wants it with Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin. He’d like to think the work done from January to August will clear the path, but he dwells in uncertainty every preseason.
“We think we make the right decisions, but until we play, we don’t know,” Colbert said.
In a recent interview with ESPN, Colbert lays out some of the Steelers’ pillars for roster-building that he believes work out more often than not.
Mapping out future years is a must
The Steelers have $5.3 million in cap space in 2019, but that’s only part of the big picture. The front office projects four years out, and every contract negotiation is done through that prism.
“We keep a running total and look at, ‘OK, in 2019 if we do this (deal), it could affect what we do in 2021,'” Colbert said.
And 2022, a year in which no veterans are under contract. All of the Steelers’ big extensions expire by then. That probably will remain the case after negotiations with cornerback Joe Haden, whose looming extension is expected to run through 2021.
Predicting durability, aging requires some luck
Pittsburgh isn’t looking for two-year outs on their long-term extensions. It wants players good enough to fulfill four- and five-year deals.
Colbert identifies talent that he believes will get that done, and he’s betting that player maintains a high level of play into his early 30s. Studying trends can help but only guide so far.
“You also look at his history — the more durable a player is in college or early in his career, the probability of him being healthy moving forward is greater,” Colbert said. “But it’s still a matter of luck on both parts really.”
Steelers’ longevity contracts an unwritten selling point
The Steelers have been batting above .800 on players going deep into mega-deals, with Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, defensive end Cam Heyward, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard David DeCastro the latest examples.
Pouncey and Roethlisberger just re-upped after playing out their long-term deals; DeCastro and Heyward are in years four and five of six-year pacts; Villanueva made Pro Bowls in the first two years of a four-year contract.
The Steelers hold this success rate in the back pocket during negotiations, but they don’t pull it out.
“If the agent does his homework, he can pretty much see we’ve had some success in signing our own, having them reach the end of those contracts more often than not,” Colbert said.
And they probably aren’t changing their guaranteed contract structure
The Steelers are known for offering no true contract guarantees beyond the signing bonus, a structure that was problematic for now-New York Jet Le’Veon Bell during his franchise tag holdout. Many NFL teams get creative with guarantees, maybe offering the first-year salary or more to sweeten the deal.
But Colbert is quick to point out: Players don’t have to accept their deals.
“Why would you vary from something that’s been successful for you?” Colbert asked rhetorically of the approach. “It doesn’t guarantee anything moving forward, but it leans toward being more successful than not.”
After 10 years with the Steelers, guard Ramon Foster believes the franchise’s intent for paying their players the full balance of a deal helps offset the guarantees issue.
“There have been maybe one or two guys here who haven’t gotten the majority of their contract. That’s it,” Foster said. “It’s a land of opportunity. If you are good enough, they are going to make a way for you.”
Colbert stresses this is what the Steelers do now, and he can’t predict how the league will shift. Forecasting an approach under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement starting in 2021 is too difficult. But for now, the process is clear-cut.
“We’re going to stay with what we’ve found to be a prudent way to run the organization,” he said. “If a player doesn’t agree with it, he doesn’t have to sign the deal.”
They don’t cap star power
Most salary-cap data says teams spend around 50 percent of their money on about 10 players. In fact, the dozen-plus teams with $10 million of 2019 cap space or less average about 6.5 rostered players with a cap hit of at least $8 million this year.
Colbert doesn’t budget for good players this way, though. Building a roster still comes down to identifying the right pieces for a winner and working hard to make the rest work.
“You never want to limit it, that’s for sure,” Colbert said. “The key is to have the right 10 players taking up that much (50 percent) of your cap. If you don’t have the right 10 players, you’re going to have issues.”
The free-agency process that ‘never stops’
The Steelers examine three key points with each free agent they are considering: What they think he will cost, what they are willing to pay, and what would make them walk away.
Colbert is in constant contact with Tomlin and his scouting staff about available players, and he relies heavily on vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan and football administration coordinator Samir Suleiman to lay the groundwork for deals.
The Steelers rank free agents, then try to match the ranking with appropriate value.
“Omar and Samir, they do a nice job handling that side of it,” Colbert said. “We talk all the time — ‘We’re interested in this player, we think he’s going to be worth this much.’ It’s their job to provide me the information to be able to manage the decisions that we feel are best for our football team. Once we place an evaluation on a free agent, then we try to guesstimate where he fits among the salary structure, what his market might be.”
Always ‘stay current’
Important to Colbert is sensing how the game is shifting on the field. His example: 2014 first-round pick Shazier, at 232 pounds, wasn’t a prototypical inside linebacker, but the Steelers sensed an increasingly more lateral game — especially in college — was prioritizing speed.
“You could sense this would probably leak into our league,” Colbert said. “We may have been a couple years ahead of where the game is now.”
Since then, the Steelers have drafted three safeties with an average measurable of 6-foot-1 1/2 and 211 pounds, and the 5-11, 234-pound Bush could pass for a hybrid safety.
Colbert is always looking for the next trend.
“We have to stay current with what is happening in our game,” Colbert said. “Sometimes we’re part of that. Sometimes it’s happening around us and we have to react to it. It’s a very cyclical game. Whatever happens on offense, the defense has to catch up and vice versa. We have to acknowledge that in our evaluations where we may value one thing — maybe size and strength more in the past — but now since the game has become more horizontal, you probably have to value speed and athleticism. It changes, but we have to stay not only with it, but try to be ahead of it.”
DE Ansah cleared for Seahawks debut Sunday
According to Pete Carroll, the one-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher is expected to play extensively Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
“Ziggy’s ready to play, ready to play football,” Carroll said Friday. “So we’re excited to see that. It’s been a really good process to get him to this, where he’s in good shape, too. He’s worked hard and long, so he’s in better shape than sometimes when a guy is just coming back. So we’ll be able to get him a bunch of plays here in this game and look forward to his participation with us.”
Ansah signed with the Seahawks in May after having surgery to repair a shoulder injury that cut short his final season with the Lions. He appeared to be on track to play in the Seahawks’ Sept. 8 opener after returning to practice 12 days before. It was thus somewhat of a surprise when he was inactive for the first two games.
Carroll never fully committed to Ansah playing in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals or last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving his usual qualifiers ahead of time about needing to make sure that Ansah felt OK on game day. He gave no such qualifiers Friday.
“We took a shot at it,” Carroll said of Ansah returning in time for the opener. “He made it back to practice for Week 1 in time to do that, but we just felt like it would be better to continue to build his confidence in his return and all of that and just wait it out to secure the return. So hopefully that’s what happens.”
Ansah echoed Carroll’s remarks about long-term thinking with his health.
“I think we all got to understand that it’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Ansah said. “If I was good enough, I would be on the field.”
The Seahawks list three players as questionable for Sunday: safety Tedric Thompson, cornerback Tre Flowers and running back Rashaad Penny, who was a late addition to their injury report after hurting his hamstring late in Friday’s practice. Flowers turned his ankle Thursday and will be a game-time decision along with Thompson, who missed the Steelers game with a hamstring injury.
Akeem King or Jamar Taylor would step in for Flowers at right cornerback if need be, with another cornerback, Neiko Thorpe, listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. Lano Hill started last week in Thompson’s absence. Carroll said he wouldn’t hesitate to give C.J. Prosise snaps behind Chris Carson if Penny can’t play.
The Seahawks expect to have receiver David Moore back from the shoulder injury that kept him out of the first two games. Defensive tackle Poona Ford will also return after missing the Pittsburgh game with a calf injury. Right guard D.J. Fluker was a full participant Friday and was not listed with any game designation, meaning he’s expected to play despite an ankle injury.
The Seahawks listed Ansah as a full participant in all three practices this week. Carroll said he’ll wear some sort of device on his surgically-repaired shoulder, though he didn’t specify that it was a harness.
Ansah said his conditioning feels “great” and added that before he began practicing, “it’s all I did, run around all day every day.”
The Seahawks signed Ansah after trading Frank Clark, who had played the weak-side end spot known as the “Leo” in Carroll’s defense. Ansah pivoted away from a question about whether his role in Seattle’s defense differs from what he did in Detroit.
“Detroit is the past,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to what we can do with this team collectively. So far so good. You can see the production we’ve been putting on the field and I’m just excited to be a part of that.”
As for playing opposite another Pro Bowler in Jadeveon Clowney for the first time Sunday?
“I’m super excited to play with him,” Ansah said. “He’s a great guy off the field, and we all know what he can do on the field.”
Said Carroll: “I couldn’t be more excited to see these guys play together and get going. J.D.’s just getting started too. It’s pretty fun. Can’t wait to see what it looks like.”
The one-year deal Ansah signed with Seattle includes a base value of $9 million and has $1.5 million available in roster bonuses tied to being active on game day. That means he lost out on two bonuses worth $93,750 apiece by being inactive the first two weeks. But he also made that same amount in per-game bonuses that are tied to being on the 53-man roster. Ansah can make another $4.25 million in incentives.
Carroll’s Friday afternoon press conference was held minutes after news broke that the Patriots were releasing Antonio Brown. He was asked if they would look into Brown, having spoken with him before he signed with New England.
“We’re pretty well set right now,” Carroll said. “We kinda know where we’re going with that.”
Artist says Antonio Brown sent ‘intimidating’ texts
The lawyer for a woman who earlier this week alleged sexual misconduct by Antonio Brown reached out to the NFL on Thursday night after the wide receiver apparently sent what were described as threatening text messages to her client, Sports Illustrated reports.
Attorney Lisa J. Banks wrote the NFL, asking the league to stop alleged conduct by Brown that she deemed as “intimidating and threatening to our client, in violation of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy,” according to the report. The NFL responded quickly, setting up a phone call between league investigators and the woman’s attorneys.
The woman told SI that, on Wednesday night, she received a group text message that appeared to come from the same phone number Brown gave to her in 2017, when she was hired by the wide receiver to paint a mural in his suburban Pittsburgh home. The text chain had four other numbers on it, SI reported.
The woman said she believes Brown was encouraging others in the group to investigate her, describing her as a “super broke girl” and asking someone he refers to as “Eric B” to “look up her background history.” He then sent a screenshot of an Instagram photo she had posted showing the faces of her young children, adding “those her kids … she’s awful broke clearly.”
The texter accused the woman of fabricating her account of a 2017 incident for cash.
The woman’s allegations were first included within a Sports Illustrated story published Monday that detailed multiple domestic incidents involving Brown.
According to SI’s initial report, Brown had hosted a charity softball game in Pittsburgh to benefit the National Youth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based volunteer group of women that promotes inclusion and gender equality, as well as developing academic skills in kids. The event had an auction that included artwork, and Brown agreed to purchase a portrait of himself before befriending the artist who created it.
Brown invited the artist to come to his home to create another painting of him, according to the report, arranging for transportation from New York to western Pennsylvania. The artist told SI she was thrilled by Brown’s willingness to share her work on social media, but on her second day in Pennsylvania, things changed.
According to the report, which did not include the artist’s name, she “was in a kneeling position while painting and turned to find Brown behind her, naked, holding a small hand towel over his genitals.” The artist said she didn’t stop painting and that “after that, it all ended abruptly.”
Brown paid her $2,000 for the mural, according to SI, and didn’t contact the artist thereafter.
The artist is not pursuing charges or remuneration, according to SI.
After SI published its story Monday, Brown’s attorney, Darren Heitner, tweeted that his client denied he ever acted inappropriately.
Heitner told SI he had not advised Brown to communicate with the woman but otherwise declined comment when reached Thursday.
Messages sent by SI to Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, were not immediately returned Thursday, according to the report.
The woman’s allegations are separate from those of Britney Taylor, Brown’s former trainer who filed a civil suit in Florida earlier this month. In the lawsuit, she alleges that Brown sexually assaulted her in three separate incidents, two in June 2017 and another in May 2018.
NFL investigators met with Taylor on Monday, and a source previously told ESPN that there are “more interviews and information gathering being conducted now beyond Taylor.” It remains unclear when or if Brown will interview with the league.
Brown, who was signed by the Patriots on Sept. 9 — before Taylor’s lawsuit was filed — and made his season debut Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since the allegations came out. During the brief media session, Brown was not directly asked a question about his reaction to Taylor’s lawsuit and deflected a question on whether he has heard from the NFL about being able to play throughout the 2019 season.
What now for Antonio Brown? Answering the biggest questions around his release
Antonio Brown has been released by his second NFL team in less than two weeks. The New England Patriots announced Friday that they were parting ways with the star wide receiver, whom they signed when he was released by the Oakland Raiders just before Week 1.
Brown has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by two different women in the time since the Patriots signed him, and once new allegations of his behavior toward one of those women surfaced overnight Thursday, the Patriots decided they’d had enough.
It has been a bizarre saga for Brown since he forced his way out of Pittsburgh via trade during the offseason. His time with the Raiders was marked by controversy over his preferred choice of helmet, the accidental freezing of his feet in a cryotherapy chamber and a public feud with team management over fines for missing work. The Patriots agreed to terms with him hours after his release from Oakland on Sept. 7, but it wasn’t long before far more serious controversies began to surface.
Brown is under NFL investigation and without a job. Here’s a look at some of the key facts of the situation as it stands:
Why did the Patriots cut him now?
The Patriots claim that they did not know, when they signed Brown on Sept. 9, that his former trainer Britney Taylor was planning to file a lawsuit against him alleging sexual assault. She did that three days later, but New England kept him on the team last week, and he played in their victory over the Miami Dolphins.
This week, a Sports Illustrated story was published that included a fresh allegation of sexual misconduct against Brown by a different woman. That woman told Sports Illustrated on Thursday that Brown had sent her intimidating and threatening texts after the story ran, and her attorneys said Thursday they were sharing those texts and that information with league investigators. The Patriots woke up to that news Friday morning and, according to sources, held a series of meetings to determine the best course of action in light of the most recent development and all of the issues that were piling up around Brown.
Coach Bill Belichick, who has control over the composition of the team’s roster, walked out of his regular Friday news conference because he didn’t want to answer questions about Brown and the reporters who cover the team understandably kept asking them anyway. Several hours later, the Patriots released a short statement that read, “The New England Patriots are releasing Antonio Brown. We appreciate the hard work of many people over the last 11 days, but we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time.”
Will the NFL take action against him, too?
The NFL’s investigation into Brown’s off-field conduct began Monday when league investigators interviewed Taylor, who filed the lawsuit last week accusing Brown of sexual assault. That investigation, a league source said Friday after Brown’s release, “will continue.” The league has been interviewing other witnesses besides Taylor this week and has been gathering information on all of the accusations against Brown. At this time, the league is not scheduled to interview Brown. Usually, the interview with the player happens at the end of the investigation, after the league has compiled all of its evidence against him.
Often, the NFL will place a player who is under investigation on the commissioner’s exempt list, which keeps him off the field but still allows him to be paid while the investigation is completed. But a league source said Friday that a player must be signed to a team in order to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, which means Brown will not be placed on that list unless another team signs him.
Will he end up being suspended?
In order to know that, we’d have to know more about the league’s findings so far and what they’ll find as they continue their investigation.
Could he serve the suspension while not signed by a team?
Yes, if Brown were to be suspended, he could technically serve the suspension while he was a free agent.
Let’s say, for example, the league decided to suspend him eight games (literally just speculation here, just picking a figure out of the air), and the decision came down today (which it won’t). He’d be suspended for the next eight weeks, meaning he’d be eligible to play in Week 11, even if he didn’t sign with another team until a month from now.
Mike Reiss reports that the decision to release Antonio Brown was a decision that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft made together.
Could another team sign him? And will one?
Brown is a free agent and can sign with any team. There’s no way to predict or account for the actions of all 32 teams. Realistically, though, any team that signs Brown would almost certainly want to wait until the investigation into him is completed and it knows what discipline, if any, he would be facing.
We can’t rule it out, but it would be very surprising if a team signed him while the NFL’s investigation was still ongoing.
How much money did this whole thing cost the Patriots?
That’s going to be a matter for arbitrators and courts. The one-year contract Brown signed with the Patriots on Sept. 9 included a $9 million signing bonus and $1 million in fully guaranteed 2019 salary. If a player is on the roster at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, he gets paid for that week, so the Patriots technically would have paid him two game checks worth $62,500 (one-sixteenth of $1 million) each. So he earned $125,000 in salary — plus a $33,333 per-game roster bonus for the one game he played — for his time there. Now, the salary was guaranteed, but the Patriots can easily argue that the circumstances that led to his release voided those guarantees and that they don’t have to pay them.
The signing bonus is trickier, since NFL contract language that voids guaranteed salary doesn’t automatically find a player in default of his signing bonus. Technically, the Patriots haven’t paid any of it yet. The first $5 million was due this coming Monday, Sept. 23, and the remaining $4 million was deferred until Jan. 15, 2020.
New England likely won’t want to pay any of that signing bonus, and a league source said the team’s way out of it is a representation warranty clause that says it’s a breach of contract if Brown didn’t disclose an existing situation that would have prevented his continued availability (i.e., if he knew about Taylor’s pending lawsuit and didn’t tell the team before he signed with them). Another source said the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) considers a signing bonus “money earned,” regardless of the payment schedule, so any attempt by the Patriots to avoid paying the signing bonus money likely would result in a grievance by Brown and the union.
Part of the NFLPA’s job is to push back on teams’ attempts to get out of contracts, so any team action that would potentially set a precedent of not paying signing bonus money would likely result in a fight between the union and the league and/or team. The Raiders, as a general rule, don’t include signing bonus money in their deals, and Brown’s was not the exception. So the their attempts to void guaranteed salary and recoup the money they spent on him would be less likely to incur a grievance than would the Patriots’ effort to escape signing bonus payments.
In his only game as a Patriot, Antonio Brown finishes with four catches for 56 yards and a touchdown as New England routs Miami.
And how about in salary-cap charges?
Since Brown was released after June 1, the Patriots can split the charge for the signing bonus over the next two years. Add in the $1 million salary for this year, and New England’s cap charges for Brown would be $5.75 million in 2019 and $4.75 million in 2020. If the team was able to successfully fight to get all of the salary and bonus money back, it would get back this year’s $5.75 million as a salary-cap credit in 2020, and the $4.75 million charge for next year would be wiped away.
But let’s step back for a second and realize that there are currently three NFL teams carrying dead-money salary cap charges for Brown in 2019: The Pittsburgh Steelers, who traded him to the Raiders in the spring, are carrying a $21.12 million dead-money charge on their cap for Brown, and the Raiders are carrying a $1,193,627 dead-money charge this year and another $666,667 next year.
Brown was on Oakland’s roster as of 4 p.m. ET the Tuesday before the Raiders’ Week 1 game, so they’re technically on the hook for $860,294 in salary (one-seventeenth of the $14.625 million they were scheduled to pay him in 2019). The rest of the dead money in Oakland is the result of workout bonuses treated as signing bonus for cap purposes. Like the Patriots, the Raiders can (and will) fight to get their money back, and if they do they’ll get cap credits for it in 2020.
Is Brown entitled to termination pay?
He could be. NFL rules allow a player, once in his career, to file for and collect termination pay if he’s released by a team. If the player is on that team’s roster Week 1, he’s entitled to 100 percent of his base salary in termination pay. If he’s not on the roster Week 1, he’s entitled to 25 percent of his base salary in termination pay.
Brown was not, technically, on any team’s Week 1 roster, since he was released by the Raiders before 4 p.m. ET on the day before the season’s first Sunday and not officially signed by the Patriots until two days later. He would technically be entitled to $250,000 (25 percent of $1 million) in termination pay if he wanted to pursue that. But as with the guaranteed salary, it’s all up in the air because of extenuating off-field circumstances that could affect Brown’s right to any of his money at all.
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