PITTSBURGH -- While Odell Beckham Jr. danced with teammates in viral videos over his $90 million contract extension with the New York Giants in August, a subplot was developing in Pittsburgh with one of Beckham's close friends.
Rumblings began to surface that Antonio Brown took note of the new money hitting the receiver market and would want to get in on it soon enough. Brown had just signed a five-year, $72.7 million extension a year earlier, but there was a vision.
Brown would cash in again.
Less than seven months later, Brown was posting pictures of agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus working at a table at Brown's home as the Steelers were inching closer to trading the All-Pro receiver. Drew Rosenhaus and Brown can hammer out parameters for a new deal with his new team -- despite having three years left on his contract.
To be sure, the notion that Brown sought a trade and publicly criticized his team solely over a new deal is misguided. Brown's issues with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers mushroomed throughout the season, and Brown -- tired of feeling like a scapegoat for the Steelers' problems -- sought a chance to remind people that he's a transcendent talent, not a Steelers creation.
But the parallel of Brown's impending uniform change and the lack of guaranteed money on his three remaining contract years is hard to ignore.
Brown, who calls himself an entrepreneur, used the turmoil as a contractual springboard.
He's working the system.
The merits of Brown's unpredictability over the past few months can be debated, but through the prism of NFL business, Brown is attempting to pull off something quite difficult -- treating himself like a free agent in the middle of a long-term extension.
And he seems to be getting away with it. He made himself untenable in Pittsburgh, and he has made himself untenable elsewhere without new money.
Strategies don't get much bolder, especially when the Steelers had the option to play hardball by hanging on to him, fining him if he doesn't show for camp and requesting him to back-pay $11 million-plus in signing bonus proration if he tries to retire.
Only high-level talent can make this happen. Brown essentially evaluated all the factors and decided to combat these scenarios in Pittsburgh:
The Steelers could walk away from Brown's base salaries of between $10 million and $13 million at any time with essentially no penalty. Brown has three years and around $39 million left on his deal, including a $2.5 million roster bonus due March 17.
Turning 31 in July, Brown's leverage is running out.
The team is making JuJu Smith-Schuster a focal point.
Brown's plan involved risk, in part because the drama of the past three months and Brown's problems with the Steelers have turned some teams off. And it’s possible Drew Rosenhaus and Brown push their demands too far until there are no trade partners left. That’s a delicate balance.
If a team was offering a first-round draft pick -- which younger and less superior receivers Amari Cooper and Brandin Cooks netted in recent trades -- the Steelers probably would have done this deal days ago.
Brown's hunt for new guarantees complicated matters, so the belief is teams effectively lowballed the Steelers and dared them to pay the roster bonus. The Steelers didn't want to part with an All-Pro talent without significant compensation. They asked teams to make their best offers by Friday, which came and went without a deal in place.
But once Brown set his sights on a trade, he navigated the chaos with conviction. And he appears poised to get what he wants, leaving Pittsburgh to deal with the aftermath.