Antonio Brown’s future NFL home likely will be Raiders

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There is real competition for Antonio Brown in trade, and I expect the Steelers to trade him as early as this week—but almost certainly before the March 17 deadline to pay Brown a $2.5 million roster bonus. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Brown’s chief suitors were Oakland, Tennessee and Washington, and I heard Saturday night there could be at least one more serious team. What Schefter’s three teams have in common: a strong head coach (Jon Gruden, Mike Vrabel, Jay Gruden) who won’t be afraid of bringing an incendiary device like Brown into the locker room. My gut feeling is the Steelers will get the first-round pick they’ve been angling to get for Brown, who turns 31 in July.

On Saturday night, I was talking about Brown’s fate with a long-time NFL GM and we discussed this point: Imagine Brown’s market—even after his disappearing act in the Steelers’ playoff-implications game in Week 17—if he’d said nothing and posted nothing Steelers-related on social media over the last two months. He continued over the weekend, telling LeBron James on his HBO show “The Shop” that he doesn’t take blame for the dissolution of his relationship with the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And he told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington: “I don’t even have to play football if I don’t want. I don’t even need the game … If they [other teams] want to play, they gonna play by my rules. If not, I don’t need to play.”

Is there anyone out there who can save Antonio Brown from himself?

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, Brown’s social rants took at least one team out of the trade market. Maybe Brown gets some pleasure out of damaging his market value so the Steelers won’t get as much in return. But there’s no question in my mind that he’s thrown cold water on his market, and some teams think he’d potentially be the kind of distraction—though a great player—that they don’t want.

The Raiders make the most sense. They have the ammo, with overall picks 4, 24, 27 and 35, and Jon Gruden needs a deep threat the way he needs oxygen. They have $72.9 million in cap room, according to Over The Cap. And if Jon Gruden is willing to re-do Brown’s contract after this season to add significant guaranteed money in 2020, Brown could be the three/four-year weapon to key the Oakland offense. (Smart money is on Brown playing 2019 under his old deal, a total of $15.125 million in salary and bonus; then, if he’s good on the field and not distracting off it, he could get a new contract. If he insists on a new deal day one, well, that’s going to be a problem.)

I keep thinking this about Brown’s situation: This too shall pass. His production over the last six years is peerless among NFL wideouts—his average season since 2013: 114 catches, 1,524 yards, 11 touchdowns—and I have not seen a player work at his craft harder than Brown does. I watched him at Steelers camp the last two summers work on the JUGS machine catching extra footballs long after every other receiver had left the field, doing it at times with aides pinning one arm away from his catch-radius to simulate surviving interference. I’m not saying he won’t eventually find something to make him unhappy in his new surroundings, but he’ll be motivated to prove he’s still great and not a cancer. Brown to the Raiders for the 27th pick (the Amari Cooper pick from Dallas, ironically) sounds about right to me.

NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

Read more from Football Morning in America here