The All-Pro wide receiver won't lack for suitors
Despite posting his sixth straight 100-catch season, it appears that Antonio Brown's time in Pittsburgh is coming to an end. There's no disputing his production — an NFL-record 686 catches over the past six seasons with 9,145 receiving yards and 67 touchdowns during that span — but Brown has appeared to have worn out his welcome in the Steel City.
Steelers president Art Rooney II has already made several comments that make it sound as if it's only a matter of when and not if the team cuts ties with the mercurial wideout. Where things went wrong is up for debate, but the final straw may have come in Week 17 when Brown didn’t play in what ended up being the team's season finale against the Bengals.
Originally declared out because of a knee injury, reports came out later that Brown was benched due to his decision to not take part in practice after getting in an argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. To make matters worse, Brown defied team officials when they requested he get an MRI on his knee after he said he was injured, and he also didn't return to the sidelines to support his teammates after halftime of the game against Cincinnati.
Whether the complete story ever comes out is anyone's guess, but it's telling that Pittsburgh has seemingly decided it no longer wants the player many believe is the No. 1 wide receiver in the league, especially considering the Steelers already experienced one season without the services of a talented playmaker, running back Le'Veon Bell.
But in Bell's case, Pittsburgh decided to move on with James Conner, who rewarded the team's faith in him by making the Pro Bowl. In that same vein, JuJu Smith-Schuster enjoyed a breakout season in which he finished with more catches and yards than Brown and perhaps his emergence has contributed to the team's apparent decision to move on from the four-time All-Pro.
If that is to happen, Rooney has made it clear that the Steelers won't just simply cut Brown and instead will look to work out a trade with another team. Either way, Pittsburgh will pay a price as Brown still has three years left on his contract that carries a cap hit of $22.2 million in 2019 alone. Even with a trade, the Steelers will take on nearly the same amount in dead cap space, although there will be some savings for them down the line.
So the next question becomes if not Pittsburgh, who wants Brown? On face value, there's no team that couldn't find a spot for them on their roster. However, there are plenty of factors here at play. Among those are potential fit, available cap space (to take on his contract), and what a team is willing to give the Steelers in return. Pittsburgh knows its leverage has already been somewhat diluted because the drama between Brown and the team has been so public, but it's hard to believe the Steelers will simply give him away either.
So with all of this in mind, here are the teams that appear to be viable landing spots for Brown along with some others that make sense or are fun to think about should Pittsburgh end up trading him.
Likeliest Landing Spots
Why It Could Happen: Before Jerry Rice shared last week that Brown wants to play for the 49ers "really bad," this was a pretty obvious pairing. San Francisco clearly has a need for a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, a role that the likes of Pierre Garcon in Washington and Julio Jones in Atlanta have thrived in when Kyle Shanahan was their offensive coordinator. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to return from a torn ACL and what better way to set him up for success than gifting him Brown? San Francisco also has ample cap space (projected $62 million) to fit Brown in. In fact, there's enough room for Brown AND soon-to-be former teammate Le'Veon Bell. But that's a discussion for another time...
Why It Won't Happen: The biggest reason this won't happen is simple, yet rather important. And that is what will the 49ers give up to get Brown? The contractual hit would be significant in and of itself for San Francisco, but regardless of where Brown goes in a trade, Pittsburgh also is on the hook for $22 million in cap space. So the Steelers aren't going to give him away and the 49ers aren't exactly flush with draft picks either, at least not in terms of volume compared to the team next on this list. It's hard to see San Francisco giving up the No. 2 overall pick for Brown but a package that includes a future first-rounder could be enough to entice Pittsburgh.
Why It Could Happen: It's the Raiders, can you think of any better team to put a "bad boy" on? Jon Gruden has complimented Brown on numerous occasions, both during his time as a broadcaster and since returning to the sidelines. Oakland has the cap space ($77 million), the draft inventory (three first-round picks!), and a gaping hole at WR1.
Why It Won't Happen: Because it's the Raiders and things never seem to go their way? Honestly, I think the biggest potential obstacle is do the Steelers really want to send Brown to the Silver and Black? Another thing to consider is whether Gruden would prefer Le'Veon Bell over Brown, although I could see him try to add both.
Why It Could Happen: The Colts went 10-6 and won a playoff game with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL and other than adding a defensive playmaker or two don't really have any glaring holes on their roster. Even with T.Y. Hilton as the current No. 1 target, adding Brown would make Andrew Luck and Indianapolis' offense even more dangerous. The Colts also are flush with cap space (projected $117 million, most in the NFL) so not only is adding Brown's contract not a problem they also could end up being a player for the aforementioned Bell.
Why It Won't Happen: Again, the return is important for Pittsburgh, especially since any trade to an AFC team gives Brown more opportunities to come back and haunt his former team. Indianapolis could potentially offer one of its younger players as part of a package, but unless that's rookie All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard (not going to happen Steelers fans) or perhaps second-year safety Malik Hooker, it's probably going to come down to the quality of picks the Colts are willing to offer. They do have an extra second-rounder this year that could interest Pittsburgh. The other reason Indianapolis may not be willing to trade for Brown is chemistry. With so many young players is it in the team's best interests to add a fiery, combustible personality like Brown (or Bell for that matter?). And how well will Brown and Hilton co-exist?
Why It Could Happen: The rumors have already started that the Broncos have interest in possibly trading for Brown, and it totally makes sense. Demaryius Thomas is gone, Emmanuel Sanders is recovering from a torn Achilles he suffered in December and will turn 32 in March, and rookie Courtland Sutton is unproven. Team president John Elway has made no secret to the fact that Denver's offense needs to be fixed and he's got $45 million in cap space to address it and other holes on his roster. The Broncos also have a surplus of 2019 draft picks, including an extra fourth- and fifth-rounder, thanks to the Thomas and Trevor Siemian trades.
Why It Won't Happen: Vic Fangio is a first-year head coach so making sure Brown is happy may not be something you want to add to his to-do list right out of the gates. But the biggest reason I don't see this working out is the quarterback. If Brown can't get along with Ben Roethlisberger, a six-time Pro Bowler who has won a Super Bowl, how do you think it will go with Case Keenum? In fact, there's no guarantee that Keenum will even be Denver's starter next season as the Broncos could look for a new one in free agency and/or the draft. The uncertainty surrounding the QB position doesn't bode well for Brown's chances of ending up in the Mile High City.
New York Jets
Why It Could Happen: Sam Darnold needs a No. 1 target and new head coach Adam Gase knows full well what productive wide receivers can mean to a quarterback and the offense. The Jets also have the second-most projected cap space ($98 million) in the league and what better place for Brown to play than in the Big Apple?
Why It Won't Happen: The Jets have an extra third-round pick but none in the second (or sixth) this year. That could limit their ability to offer the Steelers an appealing package of draft picks. As much as Gase may want to add Brown, how will that impact Darnold's development, not just as a quarterback but also as one of the team leaders and the face of the franchise? If Brown comes in he has to be for Darnold, not against him and it just may not be worth the risk to find out. And unless New York is planning on really making a splash this offseason it may simply come down to which soon-to-be former Steeler do you want more? Brown or Bell?
Why It Could Happen: Larry Fitzgerald is undecided on whether he wants to return for a 16th season but either way, Josh Rosen needs a No. 1 target. Christian Kirk could be that guy, but Brown already is. And what better way for new head coach Kilff Kingsbury to make a splash than to roll out an offense that features Rosen throwing the ball to Brown? There has already been some talk about a potential trade for Brown that would send perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson to Pittsburgh. That would fill a definite area of need for the Steelers.
Why It Won't Happen: Peterson alone probably won't get the deal done so how much more are the Cardinals willing to give up? This is a roster with numerous holes so does it make sense to spend so much on just one piece? Can Rosen, who is no shrinking violet himself, and Brown not only get along but also put up big numbers together?
Other Teams to Consider
(in alphabetical order)
Why It Could Happen: Because when it comes to Jerry Jones, never say never. Yes, he added Amari Cooper but he also really wants to win another Super Bowl and his team's season came to an end against a team (Rams) that has two legitimate wide receivers. Michael Gallup could develop into a solid No. 2, but Jones is not known for being patient. Dallas also has enough cap space ($55 million) that it should be able to take care of its biggest priorities (i.e., sign DeMarcus Lawrence) and still find a way to add Brown.
Why It Won't Happen: Because Brown is not a "must" with Cooper now in the fold and not necessarily a "need" because of the promise Gallup showed late in the season. Dak Prescott also isn't exactly in the same category as Ben Roethlisberger when it comes to quarterbacks who can air it out, which hasn't been Dallas' M.O. on offense either.
Why It Could Happen: No disrespect to Golden Tate (who isn't with the Lions anymore), but Brown would give Matthew Stafford something he hasn't had since he was throwing it up for Calvin Johnson. Detroit's offense could really use some sizzle, especially if you are going to stay committed to Stafford over the long haul. Adding Brown also would give the fans a reason to get excited and be somewhat of a homecoming for the former Central Michigan star.
Why It Won't Happen: The Lions appear to be a team in the midst of a multi-year rebuild while trading for Brown is more of "win now" move. Head coach Matt Patricia is already under enough pressure so it doesn't make sense to add Brown to his plate. Also, I have a hard time seeing Stafford, who is more laid back and a leader by example rather than emotion, and Brown getting along famously.
Fun to Think About
(in alphabetical order)
Why It Could Happen: Because the Bills haven't had a real No. 1 wide receiver since the days of Eric Moulds and Andre Reed. (Terrell Owens' 2009 cameo doesn't count, sorry.) Josh Allen needs help and the Bills have the cap space ($87 million) to make it work. Buffalo also has some extra draft picks this year to play with.
Why It Won't Happen: Brown just doesn't seem to fit here. Yes, the Bills need to get Allen more weapons but a committee approach seems to be the wiser approach rather than to make the investment in Brown. A rebuilding team like Buffalo needs to acquire as many draft picks as it can to build up the roster rather than trading away a bunch of them to get one piece.
Why It Could Happen: Who doesn't want to see Baker Mayfield throwing it downfield to Brown? Jarvis Landry is a fine wide receiver, but adding Brown would bring Cleveland's offense to an entirely different level. Cap space isn't a problem and you don't think Brown wouldn't love two shots against his former team each season? Oh, and putting Brown and Mayfield on the same team screams "Hard Knocks" encore does it not?
Why It Won't Happen: Who doesn't want to see Baker Mayfield throwing it downfield to Brown? The Steelers that's who! Other than Baltimore and New England, Cleveland is probably next on the list of teams Pittsburgh won't trade Brown to. Even if the Browns were to offer Myles Garrett AND Denzel Ward, the Steelers won't trade with a division rival.
Why It Could Happen: Mike McCarthy is gone, but he's being replaced by another offensive-minded guy in Matt LaFleur. If Aaron Rodgers is going to go down, he's going to go down throwing so why not give him another premium target? Outside of Davante Adams, Rodgers has already expressed his displeasure when it comes to some of the younger wideouts the Packers have added in recent seasons.
Why It Won't Happen: Because Rodgers has Adams and Green Bay has plenty of other issues and positions that need to be addressed. Brown's ego may be too big even for Rodgers to tolerate (or it may be something he doesn't want to compete with).
Why It Could Happen: Because it's the Patriots and this seems like just the type of move Bill Belichick would pull off to basically tick off the rest of the league. Also, remember what another oh-so-talented, cast-off wide receiver did when he joined forces with New England and Tom Brady in 2007? Lastly, several current wide receivers on the roster are pending free agents so decisions will have to be made at the position this offseason.
Why It Won't Happen: Because it's the Patriots and they are probably second only to the Ravens on the Steelers' list of teams they will not trade with. In fact, it could more like a 1A and 1B situation. Also trading away lot of picks for one player doesn’t seem like a move Belichick would sign off, even if it's for Brown.
New York Giants
Why It Could Happen: Could you imagine Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. together? (Especially if Dwayne Haskins is the new starting quarterback? Start dreaming now Giants fans.)
Why It Won't Happen: Can you imagine Brown and ODB sharing the same locker room let alone huddle? There aren't enough passes to keep these two alpha dogs (dare I say divas?) happy. If this pairing was to happen I don't think Giants fans would have to worry about Eli Manning being the quarterback. He would probably beg for his release.