What Next for Antonio Brown? Breaking Down the Steelers WR's Options

If the Pittsburgh Steelers hoped to leave their problems behind them in 2018, they have been sorely disappointed so far. After dealing with Le'Veon Bell sitting out the whole season over a salary dispute, the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and now face the prospect of losing another one of their stars.

Antonio Brown's future in Pittsburgh has been shadowed by a huge question mark since the wide receiver was benched during Sunday's win against the Bengals. The five-time All-Pro selection was listed as questionable for Week 17 but it has since emerged his fitness might not have been the reason behind his omission.

Read more: What next for Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers?

On Monday, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reported Brown had in fact missed the game due to a heated argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Two days later, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained Brown had been benched due to a "lack of communication" with the team. While Tomlin dismissed reports the receiver had demanded a trade, he was clearly frustrated at the 30-year-old's absence.

"You can describe it whatever ways you want to describe it," Tomlin told reporters when asked whether Brown had abandoned the team. "I'm not going to speculate on trades," he was quoted as saying by NBC, adding the situation was "something that's very significant and will be handled appropriately so."

While Tomlin stopped short of suggesting Brown will not be in Pittsburgh next season, should the Steelers decide to make him available for a trade, they would not be short of suitors.

The Florida native is one of the most talented receivers in the league, averaging 114 receptions, 1,524 yards, and 11 touchdowns per season since 2013. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection has recorded six consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches and has broken the 1,000 receiving yards threshold in all but two seasons since being drafted in 2010.

Brown is entering the third year of a five-year, $72.5 million deal which has already been restructured once. The receiver has a salary cap hit of $22.1 million this year, meaning the Steelers would take on a $21.1 million hit if he was off the roster next season.

Pittsburgh has the chance of spreading the cap hit over two years, by designating Brown as post-cut after June 1. Doing so would mean the Steelers will take a $7.05 million hit in 2019, with the remaining $14.05 million due in 2020.

In that respect, Brown's situation is completely different to Bell's. The latter opted to sit out the entirety of the campaign after the Steelers franchise-tagged him last offseason and then failed to reach an agreement over a lucrative extension.

Pittsburgh is unlikely to franchise-tag the running back again as it would cost the franchise in the region of $25 million, but it could transition-tag him. At $14.5 million, it would cost the same amount the franchise would have had to pay to franchise-tag the running back this season.

That would also allow the Steelers to retain his rights before trading him, while allowing the player the chance to talk to other teams. The Steelers could also decide Bell isn't worth the headache and cut him loose, allowing him to walk away as a free agent.

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a touchdown during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 23, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chris Graythen/Getty Images
What Next for Antonio Brown? Breaking Down the Steelers WR's Options | Sports