PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the game's best tailback-receiver tandem. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's best supporting cast was expected to elevate Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl appearance since 2010.
But a concoction of failed NFL business, broken trust and player conviction has forced the Steelers to rebuild both positions on the fly.
After 837 catches, 11,207 yards and 74 touchdowns together over nine seasons, Antonio Brown and the Steelers are initiating their split.
After nearly 130 yards per game over five seasons, Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers are well into divorce proceedings thanks to Bell's yearlong holdout.
Replacing one of those players is hard. Replacing both is a talent drain. But with prudent front-office work, the Steelers can craft the blueprint to preserve roster strength.
Trade plan: The Steelers send Brown and a 2020 sixth-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 fifth-round pick.
The Steelers maximize Brown's value with a trade partner that needs a playmaker for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Steelers wanted a first-round pick, but Brown's age (31 in July) and off-field issues might thwart that plan. Shipping Brown to the NFC gets him out of their backyard, though they would have to play him next season. But there's no way the Steelers will trade Brown to the New England Patriots or an AFC North rival. Despite his issues, Brown is simply too good not to net a Day 2 draft pick in return.
The Steelers should be in no rush despite a $2.5 million roster bonus due March 17. They can wait for the best deal. And if they wanted to be really petty, they could cut him after the draft when teams have spent their cash and selected their draft picks. They would save $15.1 million in space with a post-June 1 designation. They won't do that. But if things get really ugly ...
With the 36th overall pick ... The Steelers use the 49ers' second-round pick on inside linebacker help, selecting Alabama's Mack Wilson. Day 2 seems to be a sweet spot for inside linebackers, giving the Steelers plenty of options with San Francisco's selection while they can focus on premier positions in the first round. Wilson isn't a blazer but was known for good instincts in the passing game and has ideal size at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds. After not trading up for Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans last year, the Steelers get a Crimson Tide star in the mold of Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley. And if Michigan's Devin Bush is available in the second, the Steelers might pounce.
In free agency, the Steelers ... Add receiver help somewhere in the first- or second-tier market with Washington Redskins playmaker Jamison Crowder, who is Golden Tate lite and might be affordable because of injuries. The Steelers are projected to have $19.398 million in salary-cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. Though Pittsburgh has never been free agency's biggest spender, it might be time to eschew conservative ways after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Crowder's height (5-foot-9) is a concern, but size is not a strength with this class, and Crowder is tough. He can do a little bit of everything.
Other options: John Brown is a vertical threat at an affordable cost; Tate would be a nice fit depending on price.
Alternative trade proposal: Locating pass-rush help from an underachieving first-round pick, the Steelers acquire defensive end Charles Harris and a third-round pick from the Miami Dolphins for Antonio Brown. If the Steelers can't get a first-rounder for Brown, why not secure a former first to accompany a Day 2 selection? Harris has underachieved with three sacks in 27 games, but a new scheme might help him rediscover his pass-rush moves. Only problem: The Dolphins are on the schedule next year.
The options: Pulling off a sign-and-trade with the transition tag is possible but presents many hurdles. The Steelers can’t trade Bell unless he signs the tag (unlikely), and if they decide to match an offer sheet and then deal him, finding a partner willing to give up draft capital and meet the hefty contract structure for a running back would be a challenge. Plus, the NFLPA would almost certainly argue the Steelers were violating the spirit of a tag process designed for teams to keep players in good faith.
That leaves them with two primary options: Let Bell enter unrestricted free agency and snag as high as a third-round compensatory pick in 2020, or tag him and hope for the best deal.
Then there’s this wild card: The team can rescind the transition tag and still score a compensatory pick, according to a little-known nugget in the collective bargaining agreement. The Steelers could tag him and, assuming the sign-and-trade looks bleak after a few days of feeling teams out, pull the tag in time for Bell to secure a good deal.
The sensible move -- make it about 2020: The cleanest path is to let Bell walk, which isn’t as fun because they don’t get draft picks now. Bell will most likely sign a massive contract, triggering a late-third-round compensatory pick in 2020. The Steelers would be armed with three Day 2 picks in next year's draft. They probably won't do better than that in a sign-and-trade unless there is a team out there that is absolutely desperate for Bell.
As a fallback: Sign a veteran to a DeAngelo Williams-type deal (two years, $4 million). Frank Gore comes to mind. He has remained productive despite turning 35 in May. He could play a mentor/depth role with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels handling much of the workload.