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.