After years of drama in Pittsburgh, perennial All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown has formally demanded a trade from the Steelers. Brown has been one of the best overall players in the league in recent years, averaging 114 catches for 1524 yards and 11 touchdowns per season since 2013, all best in the NFL over that 6-year stretch. However, he might not draw as much in a trade as you’d think. Not only do the Steelers have no leverage now that he’s publicly demanded a trade, but he’s also going into his age 31 season and could be on the downside of his career. His contract (39 million over 3 years remaining) isn’t a bad value at all, as the Steelers paid out 19 million of his 4-year, 68 million dollar extension in a signing bonus two years ago, but that raises another concern. Brown is quitting on his team less than 2 years after they gave him a 19 million dollar signing bonus and an additional 10 million in new money in the first year of the deal. That won’t be looked upon favorably around the league.
It’s tough to guess what the Steelers could get for Brown as there really isn’t a good recent comparison. Randy Moss was traded for just a 4th rounder in 2007 at around the same age, but he also was coming off of a 42/553/3 slash line in a season in which he didn’t try hard on a hapless Raiders team. Brown might not be the best teammate, but he always gives effort on gameday and is coming off of another strong season, leading the league with 15 receiving touchdowns. I’d imagine they can get more than a 4th rounder, but it may not be by much, given the circumstances. The Steelers probably won’t like the offers they get, but ultimately don’t seem to have much of a choice, as it’s hard to see this relationship getting repaired.
Given that Brown being traded is seemingly inevitable at this point, the question now becomes where will be play in 2019. While most teams might like to add Antonio Brown to their roster, that list gets much smaller when you remove teams that don’t have pressing needs at wide receiver, teams that don’t have the cap space to add him, and teams that the Steelers wouldn’t trade him to. It’s already been reported that the Steelers don’t want to trade him in the division or to the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, for obvious reasons, and I would imagine they wouldn’t want to trade him to any of the teams that are coming off strong years, as they still view themselves as contenders and wouldn’t want to give a fellow contender their missing piece. I excluded all teams that won at least 12 games in 2018, which eliminates the Rams, Saints, Chargers, Chiefs, and Bears.
I also excluded bad teams who are rebuilding and likely wouldn’t want to trade for a soon-to-be-31-year-old wide receiver, which eliminates the Cardinals, Raiders, and Dolphins, teams that currently have negative cap space, which eliminates the Jaguars and Eagles, and teams with limited cap space and more pressing needs elsewhere, which eliminates the Vikings, Buccaneers, Falcons, Lions, and Giants. The Seahawks and the Cowboys are also excluded because the former already has 2 wide receivers making 8 figures annually and the latter already made a big splash move for a receiver and won’t have much cap space left after extending Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Byron Jones, and DeMarcus Lawrence. That leaves 10 teams with a realistic shot of trading for Brown, with varying degrees of likelihood.
10. Green Bay Packers
I almost eliminated the Packers before this. They went just 6-9-1 last year, but that’s unlikely to fool the Steelers into sending Brown to Green Bay to team up with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. The Packers have plenty of incentive to trade for Brown and could easily be the highest bidder, as Rodgers struggled by his standards last year while playing with inexperienced receivers, but that’s precisely the reason why the Steelers wouldn’t want to see Brown in Packer green. He could easily be their missing piece, especially if they stay healthier on defense. This is still a possibility, but I’d consider this unlikely, especially since Rodgers and the Packers beat the Steelers in their most recent Super Bowl appearance. I doubt they’ve forgotten that.
9. Indianapolis Colts
At 10-6, the Colts weren’t good enough to be eliminated prior to this, but they were arguably the best team in the NFL in the second half of last season and adding Brown, who would fill a big need at wide receiver, would make them all that much better. While that gives them plenty of incentive to try to trade for him, it also would probably give the Steelers a lot of pause about trading him to them. Especially since the Colts will still have plenty of cap space to work with in free agency even after acquiring Brown, the Steelers could easily regret sending Brown to Indianapolis.
8. Houston Texans
The Texans are in a similar boat as the Colts in that adding Brown would help them immensely and they have the cap space to add him easily, but the Steelers might not want to send Brown to a team that looks like an annual playoff contender in the AFC with Deshaun Watson under center. If the Texans got Brown, they’d be able to play him, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller at the same time, which would be a nightmare for opposing defenses, including the Steelers.
7. Tennessee Titans
The Titans aren’t as good as the previous 2 AFC South teams, but they could become a contender in a hurry if they acquired Brown and Marcus Mariota stayed healthy for a full season. Corey Davis could be a budding #1 receiver, but he’s still young and they don’t have anyone proven opposite him, with both Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor underwhelming last season. This is more likely than the Steelers sending him to the Packers, Colts, or Texans, but I still don’t see this as a strong possibility.
6. Denver Broncos
The Broncos have some promising young receivers, but their only proven veteran is Emmanuel Sanders, who tore his achilles in December, putting his status for the start of the 2019 season in doubt. Sanders’ 10.25 million dollar salary for 2019 is not guaranteed and the Broncos could save that entire amount against the cap if they were to let him go. They could release him and replace him with Brown via trade. Likely not true contenders in the AFC even with Brown, the only reason they aren’t higher on this list is they’ve been a thorn in the Steelers’ side in recent years, winning 4 of the past 5 matchups, including a pair of playoff games and an upset win in 2018 that ultimately caused the Steelers to miss the post-season, so the Steelers may not want to see Brown in Bronco orange.
5. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers rank relatively high because they are an NFC team and you have to believe the Steelers would prefer to send Brown to the NFC. They aren’t an obvious fit for him though because they have minimal cap space (about 19 million as of this writing) and a pair of talented young receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel who played well down the stretch in 2018. That’s not to say they couldn’t use a player of Brown’s caliber, but they might prefer to commit their remaining cap space to other parts of the roster.
4. New York Jets
The Jets were a bad team last year, but I think they are officially no longer in rebuild/teardown mode. Now that they have a quarterback of the future locked in, it’s time for them to start building around him and they have the second most cap space in the league to build with. With an underwhelming free agency class, the Jets may see acquiring Brown as a better use of their money than paying a similar amount to someone like Golden Tate, even if it means parting with a draft pick. The Jets don’t have a second round pick because of their trade up for Darnold last year, but they do have a pair of 3rds thanks to their trade of Teddy Bridgewater to the Saints, which could be intriguing to the Steelers. The Steelers also probably wouldn’t have to worry about the Jets becoming a contender purely from the addition of Brown.
3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are similar to the Jets in that they have a young quarterback who needs a #1 receiver, while simultaneously not being good enough to scare the Steelers off from sending him there. They also have a ton of cap space, 4th most in the NFL. The only reason they are higher than the Jets is because they currently have 9 draft picks in 2019, while the Jets have just 6.
2. Washington Redskins
You could argue that the Redskins, who currently don’t have a quarterback, should have been eliminated with the other bad teams that are rebuilding, but owner Dan Snyder doesn’t know the meaning of the word rebuilding and trading for Antonio Brown when he probably wouldn’t even make them a playoff team is the exact kind of splash move he loves making. Given their history of acquiring expensive veterans, the Redskins could be the highest bidder for Brown and the Steelers would have no worries about seeing Brown in the Super Bowl if they sent him to Washington.
1. San Francisco 49ers
I thought about putting the Redskins first because of their history, but the 49ers are too good of a fit, as they check every box. They’re an NFC team that’s unlikely to make the Super Bowl in the next couple of years. They have plenty of cap space and a need at wide receiver. They’re also a team on the rise that has incentive to add a player of Brown’s caliber and free agency is an underwhelming option this year. Brown is also reportedly very interested in going to San Francisco and any team that acquires him will want to make sure he’s committed to them long-term, given how he quit on the Steelers just two years after receiving a huge extension and signing bonus.