Antonio Brown is available for trade, and predicting where he will land (or what the Steelers will get in return) is like guessing where the pill will stop on a roulette wheel. Never has the destination for an NFL star on the trading block been so difficult to forecast.
Brown, who turns 31 years old in July, is a top-shelf No. 1 receiver on the field right now. He’s shown no marked sign of decline, but history and science suggest he could soon. His greatest strength is the speed and quickness he has getting in and out of his breaks, which is all predicated on balance—one of the first attributes an aging athlete loses. When Brown’s game does start going downhill, it could roll quickly.
However Brown is the NFL’s craftiest contested catch artist not named DeAndre Hopkins. Some teams might see Larry Fitzgerald-type longevity in store for him. It might not matter, though, because most likely whoever deals for Brown will see him as a two-year rental, with decisions about 2021 and future years to be made later.
Brown’s behavior off the field, especially last season, is another story. In recent years rumors and gripes about his diva behavior have poured in. And it’s likely that those stories are just the tip of the iceberg, considering that is has always been, and is now especially, in the Steelers’ best interest to keep ugly Brown stories sealed. As an outsider looking in, here’s what we can see from afar:
At the beginning of the 2018 season, Brown skipped a Monday practice after the Steelers fell to 0-1-1, sparking rumors. Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus attempted to put a lid on the rumors, saying Brown was dealing with a personal matter.
Brown was benched in the Steelers’ final game of the 2018 season after reportedly getting into a disagreement during a Wednesday morning walkthrough and skipping the rest of Week 17 practices. Brown was reportedly angry about not receiving the team’s MVP award.
Brown’s behavior away from work is more concerning, ranging from mercurial to disturbing. His cryptic social media messages, charges of driving 100 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone, allegations of threatening a reporter, a civil lawsuit for tossing furniture off a 14th-story balcony and, most recently, reports of a domestic dispute that the NFL is now investigating, are all examples.
And so we have a true No. 1 receiver whose game may or may not decline soon, who may or may not take a new contract and, scariest of all, may or may not be a total locker room cancer and off-field menace—that’s a lot of high-risk, high-reward question marks.
It’s safe to assume plenty of teams won’t even consider trading for Brown, and the ones that do also must consider how a “change of scenery” will impact the wide receiver. Whichever team gets him will claim they have a strong locker room culture that can absorb him, but that tired cliché has almost become a kiss of death for risk-taking teams.
Brown’s situation is so bizarre that we can’t even see it clearly from the Steelers’ selling perspective. For example, we’d normally assume that they would not deal Brown to an AFC rival like Baltimore, Cleveland, New England or Indy (all teams that could use another starting wide receiver, by the way). But given how heinous Browns’ “down side” appears, perhaps the Steelers would indeed ship him to a rival, hoping he’d poison their locker room. (Maybe it’s just urban legend, but some believe that San Antonio Spurs basketball czar Gregg Popovich was trying to do that to the dynastic Chicago Bulls when he dealt Dennis Rodman in 1995.)
If Brown is willing to take a new contract, that would make a team’s immediate cap space less of an issue, as almost every deal can have a cap-friendly structure. (It’s not apples to apples, but recall back in January 2014, the Saints were a projected $12 million OVER the salary cap … before signing safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract.)
With this mindset, all 31 teams are (theoretically) in play for Brown. But any team that would want to do a new deal will have to go through Pittsburgh’s front office in order to talk with Brown and Rosenhaus. Any projection of Brown’s next destination amounts to total guesswork because, right now, it’s impossible to know who and what Brown really is—and what the Steelers will accept in return. Stylistically, he fits into any team’s scheme.
For most of his career he has lined up on an island on the weak side, drawing double teams and winning in space. That makes him most appealing to teams whose scheme often features two-and three-receiver route combinations:
New York Jets
Los Angeles Chargers
New York Giants
Teams with highly-schemed aerial assaults—featuring pre-snap motion, nuanced formationing and quick, defined throws—could incorporate Brown seamlessly. That’d be:
Los Angeles Rams
And then there are the teams whose quarterbacks have unique sandlot playmaking abilities and would value Brown’s sense for uncovering late in the down—a skill he mastered playing with one of history’s greatest playmaking QBs, Ben Roethlisberger. Those teams:
Don’t be surprised if Brown winds up somewhere that most people think was totally unexpected.