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The Antonio Brown Trade Market Will Shape the NFL Offseason in Pittsburgh and Beyond

On the heels of a tumultuous year, the Steelers have made it clear they’re ready to deal their star receiver. What will the sweepstakes for him look like? And where does Pittsburgh turn next?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Well, that got out of hand in a hurry. On Tuesday, Antonio Brown met with Steelers owner Art Rooney II and tweeted a photo of the pair along with a caption that said “both [sides] agreed that it is time to move on.” A week after the superstar wide receiver took to social media (an ongoing theme of late) to once again demand a trade and bid farewell to Pittsburgh, all signs point to the franchise actually preparing to ship Brown out of town. What started as the type of inconsequential posturing we see from players and organizations all the time—who could forget Brown’s message directed at a former Steelers staffer following Week 2 of the 2018 season?—looks like it may end with Pittsburgh dealing one of the most productive receivers in NFL history. It’s still tough to reconcile how this happened, and it poses a number of questions regarding where the Steelers go from here.

Trading Brown, who’s finished with at least 1,200 receiving yards in each of the past six years, makes zero football sense from a financial perspective. If he were to be dealt before March 17 (when a $2.5 million roster bonus is scheduled to kick in), he’d cost the team $21.1 million in dead money this season. Considering that his cap hit for 2019 is set to be $22.2 million, that means Pittsburgh would get almost no financial relief if it ends up making a trade. The Steelers would essentially pay their best player more than $20 million to just go away. That blow could be softened if the team can recoup some decent draft capital, but the very public nature of this ordeal has such a scenario looking less likely by the day.

Purely on a football basis, the asking price for Brown should begin at a first-round pick. The Cowboys dealt a 2019 first-rounder to the Raiders in October to acquire wide receiver Amari Cooper, and even as a younger player on a more favorable deal, Cooper doesn’t carry the same value as Brown. Unfortunately for the Steelers, there are plenty of complicating factors. Brown’s spat with his team, his role in a domestic dispute, his beef with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and his increasingly baffling social media antics have diminished his trade value and limited Pittsburgh’s leverage. The Steelers may ask for a first-round pick in any Brown trade, but might not get the response they want.

Having to pay Brown $21.1 million to not play for them and not getting a top draft pick in return would be a huge setback for Pittsburgh, given the trajectory of the franchise. If Brown is indeed traded, the Steelers would be left with about $20 million in projected cap space to improve a roster that went 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs last season. That isn’t much, especially since that roster wouldn’t include the player who led the NFL in touchdown catches. Unless they come away with an excellent haul in April’s draft, it’s difficult to envision the Steelers being better in 2019 than they were last season. And with a QB who will turn 37 next week (and hasn’t exactly been a model of health), another lost season would sting even worse than it would for most teams.

Realistically, Roethlisberger has two to three relatively productive seasons, at most, remaining in the tank. Setting one of those on fire largely because of locker-room dysfunction must be tough for Pittsburgh fans to stomach. By siding with Roethlisberger in this tiff, the front office has made clear that its veteran quarterback is beyond reproach within the organizational hierarchy. Then on Wednesday general manager Kevin Colbert came right out and said it. The Steelers have hitched their future to a declining QB whose word is law in their building while deciding to jettison one of the five best receivers of all time. Even after accounting for the drama surrounding Brown, that decision feels so misguided it’s almost impressive. A few weeks ago, my feeling was that both sides would figure this out, as that seemed to be the only way the franchise could stay among the AFC’s contending class. But any possibility of a reconciliation has apparently disappeared.

So if we concede that Brown will play for a different organization next season, the question becomes which NFL teams should pursue him. The answer is simple: all of them. There are a few trade partners who we can obviously take off the table. The Steelers have made it known that they won’t deal Brown inside the AFC North or to the Patriots. There are also a handful of teams whose financial restrictions would likely preclude a deal, namely the Jaguars, Eagles, Vikings, Saints, and Bears. Beyond that, though, every other team in the league should at least make a phone call to Colbert to inquire. This is Antonio Brown we’re talking about. He has six seasons of at least 100 receptions and 1,250 yards on his résumé, more than anybody else in NFL history. He’s averaged 11.8 touchdown catches over the past five years. He’ll have cap hits of $11.3 million and $12.5 million, respectively, over the next two seasons (though Brown has expressed his desire for a new and fully guaranteed deal). If I were a GM right now, I wouldn’t care what color his mustache was or what he wanted to be called. Hell, if I could snag Brown for a second-rounder, I’d drop-kick a punter en route to getting Mr. Big Chest tattooed on my forehead.

Among the teams that should take Colbert’s temperature, a few have the resources and the roster construction to be considered front-runners in the Brown sweepstakes. That group starts with the teams rolling in cap space. Every franchise with at least $65 million in projected room also happens to have a need at receiver. That includes the Colts, Jets, Browns, Bills, Texans, Raiders, and 49ers. Other than division rival Cleveland, each of those trade partners would make some sense. Imagine dropping Brown into an offense with DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson, and Will Fuller in Houston. I’m almost afraid to think about what Kyle Shanahan could do with Brown in San Francisco, for fear that I might pass out.

And outside of teams flush with cash, there are a couple of others that could conceivably be motivated to swing a deal. Dallas has more than $49 million in space, a glaring hole at wide receiver, and no hesitation about pulling off blockbuster moves, future consequences be damned. Green Bay would also be a logical fit, as the Packers offense needs a shot in the arm and GM Brian Gutekunst has about $35 million in cap space with which to work.

Of all the possible Brown destinations, though, one seems to stand alone. The Colts have a league-leading $107.6 million in cap space, along with an extra 2019 second-round pick they acquired from the Jets last year in the trade that netted New York Sam Darnold. Indianapolis also has a glaring hole in its receiving corps opposite T.Y. Hilton, who just so happens to be a friend of Brown’s and a fellow product of the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. It’s possible that Colts GM Chris Ballard, who tore Indy’s roster down to the screws after he arrived in 2017 and has since built it into a playoff contender, feels that dealing for a personality like Brown could compromise the excellent plan he already has in place. But the point of stockpiling draft assets and cap room is to acquire the best talent possible, and Brown certainly qualifies as such. An offense with head coach Frank Reich at the helm, Andrew Luck at quarterback, and Brown and Hilton on the outside would be absolutely terrifying. While Pittsburgh may be reticent to give another AFC team the key that could unlock a powerhouse, stranger things have happened. Stranger things have happened with this story alone.

Talents like Brown come around once or twice in a generation. When guys like that are available, there’s an obligation for NFL decision-makers to do everything in their power to get them. And that makes the way this has unfolded for the Steelers all the more puzzling. Over the past six years, Pittsburgh has watched Brown transform into one of the most prolific players in history. Now, as the franchise enters the twilight of Roethlisberger’s career, it’s prepared to do so without the best receiver of his era.