News & Analysis

Impact of Antonio Brown deal, Le'Veon Bell franchise tag on Steelers' offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 28: Antonio Brown #84 celebrates his touchdown with Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field on September 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

It's been a busy day for news in Pittsburgh, with two big decisions made involving the top two playmakers on the Steelers' roster. Firstly, it was announced that the team had placed the exclusive franchise tag on running back Le'Veon Bell, and then late this afternoon, news broke of a contract extension for wide receiver Antonio Brown that makes him the top-paid wide receiver in football. So, what do these two moves mean for the Steelers this offseason? Let's take a look using Pro Football Focus' data.

Steelers had to bring Bell back

If you were only considering on-field production, it would have made sense for the Steelers to have looked at a long-term contract for Bell, but given his previous suspensions, placing the exclusive franchise contract on him makes perfect sense. Bell is hitting his prime, and along with Arizona's David Johnson and Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, is one of the most dominant running backs in the game.

Last season, despite missing the opening three games of the year, Bell was still able to account for 2,244 yards from scrimmage (including the playoffs). With 95 targets in the passing game, he was second on the team to only Antonio Brown in terms of total targets (including the playoffs).

A quick look at Bell's PFF overall grades over the first four years of his career highlights just how good he has been, grading at 87.2 or better in each of the past three seasons. Bell, who's 47 missed tackles forced on runs this year were second in the league among running backs, ranked 27th in our-end-of-season Top 101 players in the NFL list, and will be a key part of the Pittsburgh offense once again in 2017.

Brown rewarded for continuous elite play

Rumblings about Brown's contract could be heard throughout training camp last year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but once the season began, the only thing on everyone's mind was how, once again, Brown was playing like one of the top receivers in all of football, reminding us that being 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds doesn't stop you from being an elite player.

PFF's 21st ranked player in the NFL this past season, Brown once again proved why he is among the best in the league. Now, including the playoffs, he has picked up at least 1,498 receiving yards in each of the past four seasons. In terms of his average yards per route run, a signature stat we track here at PFF, Brown has ranked among the top six receivers in all of football in each of the past four seasons. In that span, he has dropped just 24 total passes and forced 62 missed tackles. Like Bell, he's once again going to be key to the Steelers' success in 2017.

Dollars the only downside

The only bad news to come out of all of this is that the Steelers have had to pay top money to make both moves happen. Brown had a cap hit of $13.6 million heading into 2017, and according to Jason Fitzgerald at OverTheCap.com, that number is only likely to rise with this new deal. The exclusive franchise tag for Bell comes in at $12.2 million, so it's not like the Steelers are getting to keep them both on the cheap. Thankfully, Pittsburgh had $36.2 million in cap space heading into today, so neither move has caused them much in the way of problems, and in ensuring that both of their top playmakers are on the field in 2017, it was a pair of moves the franchise had to make.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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