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The Antonio Brown Trade Offers a Glimpse Into the Raiders’ Future

Jon Gruden and the Raiders were a punch line for much of the 2018 season. Yet after acquiring the most prolific wide receiver of his era for two mid-round draft picks, the team is showing that it may have a plan after all.

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The NFL’s great Antonio Brown saga is finally over. After a wild couple of months, during which Brown appeared on The Masked Singer, bashed the Steelers’ brass in numerous interviews, and repeatedly took to social media to criticize Pittsburgh and provide status updates on his trade demand, the most prolific wide receiver in the league is now a member of the Raiders. On Sunday, Oakland dealt third- and fifth-round 2019 draft picks to nab the five-time All-Pro and instantly remake its offense. In the end, Brown managed to get everything that he wanted. He’s no longer on the Steelers, where Ben Roethlisberger will continue to rule over the organization. And the new deal Brown received from the Raiders will pay him up to $54.1 million (with more than $30 million guaranteed) over the coming three seasons, giving him the raise he so desperately wanted.

From Oakland’s perspective, dealing for Brown makes sense on several different levels. The Raiders had nearly $75 million in available cap space before swinging the trade and possessed more draft capital than any other team in the league. After dealing away both Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper last fall, they still boast three first-round picks heading into this April. With the Raiders’ resources and Jon Gruden ready to reshape his roster, virtually any move was on the table. Rather than overpay for a veteran pass catcher in free agency, the second-year head coach and personnel chief elected to chase the most productive receiver of his era.

Brown’s dead-money hit of nearly $22 million and the relatively modest trade price of two mid-round picks point to how supremely motivated the Steelers were to get Brown out of their building. They also speak to how many teams could have pulled the trigger on this type of deal. Franchises like the Colts, Packers, and 49ers could have easily forked over the capital necessary to land Brown, but Oakland was the only one willing to put this on the table. Brown’s demands for a new contract and supposed threat to hold out if he was sent to an undesirable location (sorry, Buffalo) may have complicated the process, but the Raiders ultimately didn’t have to pay an exorbitant price to acquire the only player in NFL history with six straight seasons of at least 100 catches and 1,284 receiving yards. In fact, compare the Brown trade to the Cowboys’ October trade for Cooper—which required Dallas to relinquish a first-round pick—and it seems like the Raiders straight-up pulled off a heist.

Of course, Pittsburgh’s reasonable demands may be an indication of how much of a managerial headache Brown can be. He sat out of the Steelers’ Week 17 matchup against the Bengals last season after missing practice, and he’s feuded with Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin even before his monthslong get-me-the-hell-out-of-Pittsburgh publicity tour. The NFL is also investigating Brown’s involvement in a domestic dispute.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars
Antonio Brown
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

But his talent is undeniable. His route running is clinical, and his highlight reel is seemingly endless: See here, here, and here.

Gruden and Raiders owner Mark Davis presumably also made this move while considering their plan to market the franchise as it prepares for its move to Las Vegas in 2020. Brown’s three-year deal ensures that the Raiders will have one of the NFL’s biggest stars as they try to build their brand and fan base in Nevada. For teams with an established locker-room chemistry and culture, the risk of bringing Brown into the fold might not have been worth it. But the Raiders are essentially starting from scratch and had more motivation to make a headline-grabbing move than any other team in the NFL. Gruden’s roster is such a blank slate that casual fans would be hard-pressed to name more than three players on it. Brown immediately becomes the team’s most recognizable personality, and for a franchise striving for relevance, that’s significant.

Brown also has the potential to rejuvenate a group that finished last season ranked 25th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Quarterback Derek Carr experienced his fair share of struggles in his first go-around under Gruden, and if the team decides to ride with him as its starter again this fall, Brown’s presence should give the passing game a dimension it sorely lacked last season. Oakland’s leading receiver in 2018 was tight end Jared Cook. You could argue no team in the league was in greater need of a top-tier pass catcher.

The biggest question about the 2019 Raiders, though, is whether Gruden believes Carr is the short-term answer at QB. Rumblings out of last week’s combine indicated that the coach is smitten with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. There’s no telling at this point whether the rumors about Arizona’s interest in the Oklahoma star are legitimate or merely a smoke screen to drive up the value of the no. 1 overall pick. Yet if the Cardinals are willing to trade down, Oakland seems like a natural partner. Beyond that, it seems that dealing for Brown could embolden Gruden to make a bold move for Murray if he has the chance.

After dealing arguably its best players on both sides of the ball last season, the Raiders appeared to be squarely in rebuilding mode entering 2019. But an aggressive move like this could alter that timeline. Carr carries a $22.5 million cap hit into this season, but that may not be enough to dissuade the Raiders from pursuing Murray. The first overall pick comes with a cap hit of about $5.9 million in the first year of his deal. Considering the Raiders still have more than $50 million of cap space after acquiring Brown, spending close to $30 million on two quarterbacks would be palatable. Remember, this team is also armed with those two first-round picks from the Cooper and Mack trades. If Gruden covets Murray, no team is better positioned to pull off a trade with the Cardinals for the top pick.

With Brown already in the fold, the Raiders finding their quarterback of the future would give the team an identity it hasn’t yet established during the red-faced early days of the Gruden era. It’s possible that Brown will come to infect this organization much in the same way he did Pittsburgh, but that’s a gamble the Raiders will happily accept for third- and fifth-round picks. Gruden has been justifiably raked over the coals for several decisions he’s made after taking over in Oakland, but he deserves praise for this one. The Raiders were always the most logical end to the NFL’s great Antonio Brown saga. But give credit to Gruden for having the gall to pull a trade off.