There’s a very simple response to the question “which NFL teams should trade for Antonio Brown?” The answer is “all of them.”
Brown, a five-time All-Pro, is the kind of spotlight-stealing talent who allows everyone on his roster to shine. While his headline stats are ridiculous — he’s averaged 114 receptions, 1,524 yards, and 11 touchdowns per season since 2013 — his ability to command (and beat!) constant double-teams allows his teammates extra opportunities across the field. With Brown in tow, the Steelers have fielded a top-four offense in four of the last five years.
But Brown may not be in tow much longer. A practice field tirade and a handful of missed team activities led Pittsburgh to deactivate its top wideout in advance of a vital Week 17 showdown against the Bengals. While walking off the field, he reportedly asked aloud why the team hasn’t traded him — a point he’s brought up in the past.
Team owner Art Rooney II did not rule out trading Brown in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rooney said the Steelers would not release Brown, but that “all other options are on the table.”
The 30-year-old receiver’s frustrations with the only franchise he’s ever known reached new heights in 2018, at least publicly. He recently removed any mentions of the Steelers from his Twitter bio. He took to Instagram to thank Pittsburgh fans and tell the world it’s time to “move on and forward.”
This was Brown’s way of formally requesting a trade from the team. It also forced Rooney to step in and talk with his wideout one-on-one. Brown and Rooney sat down to discuss their future. The end result was a consensus it was time for the All-Pro wideout to move on.
Had a great meeting with Mr.Rooney today we discussed a lot of things and we cleared the air on several issues! We both agreed that it is time to move on but I’ll always have appreciation and gratitude towards the Rooney family and @steelers organization! #CallGod #Boomin pic.twitter.com/DEgURchvhW— Antonio Brown (@AB84) February 19, 2019
Pittsburgh has already seen one unhappy player burn his bridges in the Steel City recently. Le’Veon Bell sat out the season rather than play another year under the franchise tag with the Steelers, and now the club will almost certainly lose him this spring with nothing but a potential compensatory draft pick in return.
The Brown situation is different. The wideout is locked in to three more years and slightly more than $60 million due to his current contract with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the latitude to wait and smooth things over with their frustrated star, knowing he’s tied to them through his prime and that the lucrative extension he signed back in 2017 gives him plenty of reasons to return to the fold.
That sounds less likely now:
Per source, the Steelers have agreed to try to trade Antonio Brown but they have not given Brown permission to speak to other teams.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) February 19, 2019
The club says they’ll try to trade Brown, but won’t ship him off unless the price is right. Whether this is fact or just a ploy to get suitors to up their offers won’t be known until the wideout is either moved or kept on the roster through the summer.
Retaining Brown would be tricky. He would have to work through his issues with his teammates and head coach Mike Tomlin, none of whom he has spoken to since the end of December. The Pittsburgh head coach addressed Brown’s missed practices and absence in Week 17, and appeared will to consider parting ways with his gifted wideout, even if he wasn’t willing to get into specifics.
“Obviously we take his lack of communication, his lack of presence particularly on Saturday prior to the game, to be something that is very significant and it will be handled appropriately so. I’m not going to speculate on trades and things of that nature. We haven’t formally received a request in that regard, so I’m not going to speculate in terms of where the discipline might go and things of that nature. Just know that it’s going to be addressed, and it will be addressed, it needs to be addressed, for obvious reasons.”
Despite all the drama surrounding Brown, there will be interested suitors. While the three years and $60 million of cap hits remaining on a four-year extension inked in 2017 look like an anchor, Pittsburgh could survive a trade with relative ease from the financial side of things:
$14m in cap from 2020 and 2021 would accelerate into 2019. $15m in cash and cap would come off. So no, nothing cap-wise would stop the Steelers from dealing Brown. https://t.co/EByXdCQvAk— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) January 2, 2019
Trading Brown would net Pittsburgh some key assets while elevating JuJu Smith-Schuster to the unquestioned top spot on the Steelers’ depth chart. And while that would be an early loss on paper — even Smith-Schuster agrees with that — Tomlin’s comments and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s report suggests the Steelers could be in the market for one fewer headache off the field.
The turmoil is building in Pittsburgh and unfolding in a famously no-nonsense franchise. With Tomlin confirming there’s a point where a player’s talent can no longer excuse his actions in the locker room, the All-Pro wideout is more available than ever.
The Steelers just came off a season where they were the most talented team to miss the postseason. So if they were looking to unload Brown and get something approaching fair value, what would that look like?
What could the Steelers get in return for Brown?
We’ve seen a handful of high-profile wide receivers get traded across the NFL recently. Sammy Watkins went from the Bills to the Rams along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for starting cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. Kelvin Benjamin moved from Carolina to Buffalo for third- and seventh-round selections.
Brandin Cooks was traded, twice, for first-round picks. Amari Cooper propped up the Cowboys’ playoff run after being freed from Oakland for a first-rounder. Jarvis Landry was traded for just fourth- and seventh-round picks, but that’s because the Browns wanted to snap him up before he could hit free agency and sign him to an expensive extension the Dolphins had no intention of giving him.
Brown is on a different level than any of those players, but he’s also got a big negative none of those young receivers carried — an expensive contract. Watkins, Benjamin, and Cooks were all working through the later stages of their rookie deals and took up relatively small patches of salary cap space when acquired (though the Rams quickly signed Cooks to an $81 million extension not long after trading for him). Brown, on the other hand, will eat up an average of $20 million in cap room in each of the next three seasons.
There are plenty of reasons for the #Steelers not to trade Antonio Brown -- namely, he's really, really good at football -- but "cap hit" talk is misinformed. It's basically a wash for 2019 and they'd gain flexibility in 2020-21. How you replace him is the issue. pic.twitter.com/6FucNjhfgP— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 2, 2019
That dulls his luster a bit, but it’s fair value for a player averaging more than 1,500 receiving yards per season since 2013. Plus, anyone acquiring Brown wouldn’t have to worry about turning around and signing him to a big-money extension right away — they’d be getting him at a price that matches his talent, but they’d also have him locked in through 2021.
Then there’s Brown’s latest Facebook Live post — his medium of choice — which tells teams to call him, but only if they’re offering guaranteed money.
“If your squad want to win and your squad want a hungry wide receiver who’s the best in the whole world, someone hit my phone,” said Brown. “Tell them I ain’t doing no unguarantees. I ain’t even gonna play myself no more for this NFL. ... I think I done everything. What y’all think? What’s left for me to do? Win a Super Bowl? Gotta be the right team for that, right? ... If your team got guaranteed money, they want to get to know me and work with me, tell them to call me.”
That’s likely going to drive down his value if his first move with his new team is to restructure his contract with more guaranteed cash.
The question is what teams will be willing to pay for an elite wide receiver on the wrong side of 30? The league’s most recent superstar trade saw Khalil Mack (and a Raiders second-round pick) escape Oakland for a pair of first-round picks and a third-rounder. But Mack is two-and-a-half years younger than Brown and plays a more valuable position (pass rusher vs. wide receiver).
While the Steelers will begin negotiations with a Mack-like ransom, there’s a good chance a combination of picks or picks and a young player will get the job done and take the All Pro off Pittsburgh’s hands. A 2019 first- and a 2020 second-rounder would likely fit the bill. Same with something along the lines up 2019 first- and fourth-round picks along with a budding starter — someone like Gaines or Kendall Fuller, who was traded from Washington to Kansas City in the Alex Smith deal. Given the Steelers’ uneven defense, netting a potential starter would be a boon for a club struggling to reconcile its talent with its on-field results.
For what it’s worth, Ian Rapoport said that rival general managers think the Steelers could get a second-round pick for Brown, while Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said he heard a Day 3 pick. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN said two NFL executives told him they would trade a Day 2 pick for Brown.
Who could make an offer the Steelers couldn’t refuse?
While every team in the league could use Brown, few teams have the combination of need and expendable assets to make acquiring him a reality. Pittsburgh won’t be in any rush to trade a player who hasn’t formally requested a new home, and while he’s due a $2.5 million roster bonus if he’s on the Steelers’ roster on March 18, that’s not enough of an incentive to force the franchise into a real deadline.
So who could make Pittsburgh the kind of deal that entices the franchise to sell off the player who ranks No. 2 in most receiving categories in franchise history? Here are some ideas; keep in mind these are just hypotheticals that reflect the value a player like Brown would likely receive given his production, age, and current contract.
Jon Gruden has a wealth of draft assets after shipping out Mack and Cooper in an effort to tear down the Raiders and rebuild them in his blond, slightly sunburned image. Adding Brown would give the franchise a marketable superstar whose banner can be hung outside the team’s new stadium in Las Vegas come 2020. And he’s a Gruden guy, if the coach’s comments before his Week 14 win over the Steelers are any indication.
Would Gruden be willing to trade away some of the picks he acquired for Oakland’s homegrown stars in order to add a veteran receiver who would be more costly and have a shorter window of opportunity than a player he could draft? Or is his commitment to the Raiders’ rebuild so strong he plans on using all those selections to beef up his roster with young, Gruden-approved talent? Honestly, it’s tough to really know with the mercurial head coach, but a deal that uses only acquired picks while trading away the oft-shopped Karl Joseph could hit a sweet spot for both sides.
The offer: The Bears’ 2020 third-round pick (acquired in the Mack trade), a 2019 fourth-round pick, and safety Karl Joseph
The Lions were toothless in Matt Patricia’s first season as a head coach, effectively raising a white flag at the trade deadline by trading free-agent-to-be Golden Tate to the Eagles. That left Detroit’s offense devoid of weapons beyond Kenny Golladay and an injured Kerryon Johnson, forcing Matthew Stafford to suffer through a major slump in a 6-10 season.
Detroit needs to make a splash to punch up its offense, and luring Brown to the NFC would certainly qualify. A Brown-Golladay-Marvin Jones trio would give Stafford plenty of field-stretching options and create some extra breathing room for Johnson, who looked every bit a true RB1 in his first season with the Lions.
But acquiring Brown would also keep Detroit from acquiring the young defensive talent Patricia is looking for to build his new team from the bottom up. The Lions have plenty of holes to fill and don’t have the kind of draft capital the Raiders have to burn. Still, pairing Brown with Stafford would give the Lions the kind of elite pitch-and-catch passing game they’ve lacked since Calvin Johnson’s retirement.
The offer: Detroit’s 2019 fourth-round pick, Philadelphia’s 2019 third-round pick (acquired in the Tate trade), linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Andrew Luck’s return has put the Colts back on the playoff path and pushed T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron to the peak of their potential. After those two, however, Luck’s targets drop off significantly. Adding Brown would give Indianapolis the league’s most dynamic deep game, keep opposing safeties deep in the defensive backfield, and allow Marlon Mack to build from a solid 2018 campaign.
A trade for Brown would be a major splash for general manager Chris Ballard, whose steady leadership has helped pull his team out of their spiral. He pointedly told the world the Colts-Patriots rivalry was “back on” after Josh McDaniels reneged on his agreement to coach Indianapolis last winter. What better way to prove the Colts are a threat to New England and the rest of the AFC than by adding a player capable of turning a good offense into a great one? He’d be able to use some of the bounty the Jets paid to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 in last year’s draft to make it happen, too.
The offer: The Jets’ 2019 second-round pick (acquired in 2018 draft swap), Indianapolis’ 2020 fifth-round pick
Brown has been flirting with the Niners online, and there’s no doubt general manager John Lynch would be happy to add a star to his budding offense. The Steelers’ wideout would boost Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, or whichever backup San Francisco thrusts into a starring role at quarterback next. He’d also add a veteran presence to the 49ers’ young roster, for better or worse.
That relationship has only strengthened after the regular season came to a close. Brown stripped any mention of the Steelers from his social media bios around the same time he started chatting with Jerry Rice to tell him how much he’d like to be a 49er.
“Yea. Yea. Yea. Yea. He wants to come here really bad. He’s talking about running the hill with me — doing all that and just working out. just picking my brain. And I don’t know if it’s gonna happen because it’s gonna be up to Kyle Shanahan and also John Lynch, but I’m all for it if they want him to come on board. And I’m looking forward to — I would be looking forward to just passing some of that knowledge on to him and being around this guy because I know he’s a great individual.”
What could Lynch send to Pittsburgh? Beyond draft considerations, he could offer a former top-three selection in Solomon Thomas, a defensive lineman who has underwhelmed in two seasons in the Bay Area but could benefit from a change of scenery. And if Tomlin is looking for a better backup quarterback and succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger, the Niners could offer Mullens once they’re satisfied Garoppolo will be back to full strength for 2019. Mullens would carry more value — not just because he was a solid quarterback this fall, but because he’s also dirt cheap for the foreseeable future.
The offer: San Francisco’s 2020 third-round pick, San Francisco’s 2019 fourth-round pick, defensive end Solomon Thomas OR San Francisco’s 2019 fourth-round pick, quarterback Nick Mullens
General manager John Elway needs something — anything — to give his offense a shot in the arm, especially after focusing hard on his defense by hiring former Bears DC Vic Fangio as his new head coach this winter. Trading for Joe Flacco doesn’t accomplish that, but adding Brown would boost Denver’s passing offense no matter who is at quarterback while diverting defensive attention away from budding receiver Courtland Sutton, who finished his rookie season with 42 catches for 702 yards.
What could the Broncos ship back to Pittsburgh in return? Denver would be reticent to part with its 2019 first-round pick, especially if Elway identifies a potential franchise quarterback who would be around with the 10th-overall pick.
Would the club be willing to part with Royce Freeman or Devontae Booker now that Phillip Lindsay looks like the team’s top tailback? Would the Steelers be interested given James Conner’s solid sophomore campaign? Could Josey Jewell be made expendable in order to fit the Steelers’ gaping hole at inside linebacker?
It’s tough to find a dead-on match between Pittsburgh’s needs and Denver’s availability, but with Elway calling the shots, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
The offer: Denver’s 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick.