SportsPulse: Despite their season being over, the Steelers remain in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell explains why the end may be near for Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh.
(Update: This earlier story has been republished to reflect Antonio Brown’s tweet on Tuesday saying that it’s “time to move on” from the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
What’s the best way to end unwelcome, unending drama?
Eliminate the “bad” actors, obviously, and that should probably mean exit stage left for Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh.
Heresy, you say?
Sure, he’s still one of the NFL’s elite receivers, snaring a league-high 15 TD receptions in 2018. He can go deep. He can take a 5-yard slant to the house. He’ll make the most spectacular of catches. And he’ll definitely dictate coverages.
Brown is every bit the diva his position is infamous for.
He’s been a distraction multiple times, including in a sideline fiasco after coach Mike Tomlin deactivated him following a week that allegedly included a temper tantrum directed at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during a Wednesday walkthrough before Brown began missing practices for an apparent knee injury and skipped the team’s Saturday meeting.
Brown had a sideline confrontation with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner during Week 2’s loss to the Chiefs. He was “disciplined” by Tomlin for missing a workout the next day. Brown unexpectedly skipped offseason sessions last spring. He live-streamed a victorious locker room after a playoff win in Kansas City two years ago while Tomlin was addressing the players (with choice words about the Patriots prior to Pittsburgh’s AFC Championship Game defeat) — another episode that incurred in-house punishment.
There are several examples of “AB” pouting when he feels like the Wi-Fi with Roethlisberger is blinking.
And on Tuesday, Brown tweeted that it’s “time to move on” from the team.
Since Brown developed into a perennial Pro Bowler in 2011, the Steelers have won three playoff games and reached the AFC title game once (that blowout loss at New England to end the 2016 season).
And what does it say when No. 2 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is named Pittsburgh’s MVP — by his teammates?
Trading AB may never make more sense.
He’s got a hefty contract — Brown just completed the first season of a four-year, $68 million extension, though it will look increasingly palatable as other wideouts get paid — but it may not be an impediment to a deal. (Factoring in cash considerations, NFL Network reported Pittsburgh would actually wind up saving $1 million even though Brown will count more than $22 million against the 2019 cap.)
Yes, Brown is 30, but he’s generally durable — last week’s apparent phantom knee issue notwithstanding.
But regardless of public relations and cap considerations in the near term — and money would obviously be recouped on the back end of any move — if Amari Cooper is worth a first-round pick, what would Brown fetch? The Steelers could certainly use new draft capital to continue rebuilding a problematic defense and shouldn’t be left in a lurch at receiver given Smith-Schuster’s development — his 1,426 receiving yards were 129 more than Brown had in 2018 — and second-round rookie James Washington’s expected emergence after he assumed a more prominent role in December.
And if Tomlin was prepared to continue enduring the headaches Brown causes, wouldn’t he have issued a more categorical denial about the possibility of moving on?
“I’m not going to speculate on trades and things of that nature,” Tomlin said. “We haven’t formally received a request in that regard, so I’m not going to speculate. I’m not going to speculate where the discipline and things of that nature might go. Just know that it’s going to be addressed.”
So let’s speculate and address this with a few potential trade partners.
Imagine the stylistic battles with Cam Newton if two of the league’s hippest stars engaged in battles of one-upmanship on the haberdashery front. Trivial matters aside, Newton and Co. could use a do-it-all deep threat to relieve some burden from Christian McCaffrey while allowing 2018 first rounder DJ Moore to grow on an arc potentially similar to Smith-Schuster’s. New owner David Tepper, who used to have a minority stake in the Steelers, would have valuable insight.
Green Bay Packers
I know, I know — the Pack typically don’t make daring forays into the trade or free agent markets. But let’s not typecast new-ish GM Brian Gutekunst too quickly. Let’s also remember that he has an extra first-round pick at his disposal this year if he wants to work something out. Lastly, with Randall Cobb headed to the open market, there is a need here — and Brown would certainly be the kind of upgrade that could revitalize Aaron Rodgers while giving a major boost to the next coaching staff.
One of this season’s AFC wild-card entries is clearly trending in the right direction. GM Chris Ballard is also flush with valuable picks — he has an extra second rounder this year to sweeten any deal — and more than enough cap space to accommodate Brown’s contract. And, did you know, Brown and Colts speedster T.Y. Hilton were childhood friends while growing up in Miami’s Liberty City? What a combo they could be for Andrew Luck — shades of Peyton Manning’s heyday with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
New York Jets
Like the Colts, they’ve got cap space to burn, so taking on Brown’s deal isn’t an issue. GM Mike Maccagnan also needs to start arming quarterback Sam Darnold with more weapons — just imagine dealing for Brown and signing Le’Veon Bell. And the Jets have historically loved stealing headlines from the Giants with major moves (that don’t always pan out). But is Maccagnan ready to part with the No. 3 pick of the draft — at minimum probably — especially given this year’s second rounder was already shipped to Ballard and the Colts in order to secure Darnold?
You may have heard they dealt Cooper to Dallas and now lack a bona fide No. 1 target in their pass game. You may have heard Jon Gruden and new GM Mike Mayock have five first-round picks spread over the next two drafts. Gruden and Mayock are also two guys with (scathing) senses of humor who appreciate talent — but either would also be more than willing to give Brown the tough love and straight talk he clearly needs sometimes. And, not for nothing, owner Mark Davis could use another attraction for a franchise that could be a traveling road show in 2019 before it settles in Vegas.
San Francisco 49ers
Another team with ample cap space. Another team in dire need of a top wide receiver for Jimmy Garoppolo in a division that won’t let anyone rests on their laurels. A team with a creative offensive coach, Kyle Shanahan, who could leverage Brown’s game-breaking ability in numerous ways. And, not for nothing, blossoming Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle would clearly embrace the help and has already caught Brown’s attention.
Speaking of NFC West arms races, what a tandem Brown and Russell Wilson might make. Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have a history of gambles — Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin, Jimmy Graham — and this would certainly represent another for an organization that just underwent a significant reboot of its locker room in favor of younger, more impressionable players. However this is a scenario where Seattle could theoretically offer a solid receiver in return — namely Doug Baldwin (Hines Ward 2.0 in Pittsburgh?) or Tyler Lockett — which could help offset the freight on draft pick compensation.
Few organizations love splashy deals more. In this case, it would be justifiable with Josh Doctson’s failure to flourish and Jamison Crowder’s contract expiring. Only the Cardinals had a less potent passing offense in the NFC in 2018, though quarterback Alex Smith’s style of play and subsequent leg injury were major factors in Washington’s demise — as was the season-ending injury to Paul Richardson, whose career numbers cast doubt on his reliability anyway. Brown could solve a lot of problems here, but obtaining him would be putting the cart before the horse given the mystery surrounding Smith’s status moving forward.
Business could be booming again in Pittsburgh — which just endured a massively disappointing campaign after opting not to pay Bell what he wanted — but the Steelers need to first initiate what would be yet another key business decision.
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