The NFL playoffs start this weekend, yet the biggest story revolves around Pittsburgh Steelers disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown, who has six consecutive 100-catch seasons and is one of the best players of the past decade, might be on his way out. If his social media habits offer any real indication, there’s a chance he wants to come to the 49ers.
Brown followed the team’s Instagram account this week, soon after he was tweeted at by burgeoning star tight end George Kittle, to which Brown responded with a starry-eyed emoji. Brown also posted a picture of Jerry Rice on his Instagram story. This is the 2019 equivalent to passing love notes in humanities class.
It all comes as CBS Sports reported Brown would prefer to be traded rather than return to the Steelers, although coach Mike Tomlin denied Brown made a formal trade request in his end-of-season news conference Wednesday.
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The 49ers, under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, have vowed to be aggressive adding game-changing players. Examples they’d point to: trading for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and admitted interest in star pass rusher Khalil Mack after he was traded from the Raiders to Chicago.
“I think that’s our nature,” Lynch said this week. “When we can improve ourselves as an organization, we won’t hesitate to take that opportunity.”
But there are notable factors to consider before outlining why, or why not, the 49ers should pursue the four-time All-Pro.
Brown’s contract could make trading him difficult for the Steelers. Next season is the third of a five-year, $72 million extension. The guarantees in his deal mean Pittsburgh would be dealt with $21.12 million in dead cap money if he’s traded before June 1. They would only save more than $1 million in cap dollars for 2019.
A post June 1 trade would come with just over $7 million in dead cap money, with some $14 million in dead money carrying to 2020.
Either way, trading Brown is an expensive proposition for Pittsburgh. But if the situation is too toxic to work out, the Steelers might have figure out a way. Otherwise, they bite the bullet and try bringing him back.
Let’s take a look at the cases for and against the 49ers making such a huge deal for the possible Pro Football Hall of Famer:
The case for trading for Brown
The 49ers were the NFL’s worst team in the red zone this season, scoring touchdowns on 41.2 percent of their trips. Their receivers combined for 16 touchdowns, while Brown had 15, the most in the NFL and the most of his nine-year career. His talent and production is undeniable.
Receiver is one of San Francisco’s most pressing needs. Pierre Garçon, 32, ended both seasons with the 49ers on injured reserve. His production took a precipitous drop in 2018, with 24 catches for 286 yards over eight games with his average dropping from 63 yards per game to 36. He ended his season in December to have arthroscopic knee surgery.
Marquise Goodwin was unable to back up his promising 2017 campaign, logging 395 yards on 23 catches while dealing with injuries and a family issue during which he stayed away from the team in Weeks 12 and 13.
Goodwin has had more than 431 yards once in six seasons, indicating the front office might be leery of counting on him to produce as a sure-fire starter. Goodwin might be best suited to be part of a rotation that includes an established No. 1 target like Brown and promising second-year wideout Dante Pettis.
Additionally, the draft class isn’t expected to have top-flight talent at receiver. The free-agent class is similarly bereft. Adding a receiver via trade might be the best, and most likely, avenue toward giving Shanahan and Garoppolo a weapon who could dramatically upgrade the the league’s 21st-ranked scoring outfit.
It might cost the 49ers a package that includes a first-round draft pick. It’s more likely that pick would come in 2020 rather than their No. 2 overall selection this year. The team would be banking on picking much later in the round following a full year with Garoppolo starting. And Brown’s salary could fit easily within a projected $64 million in cap room.
The case against trading for Brown
Lynch and Shanahan have made it clear: Locker-room culture is paramount as they try to rebuild a winning roster.
The theme from the locker room has been Kumbaya even with a 10-22 record in two seasons, which players have said is the leading reason they’ll be back to playoff contention in 2019.
Everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction, and players are happy to come to work every day. That wasn’t the case in recent years, even when the team had better records in 2014 and 2015 under previous regimes.
“I’m excited also because of the people here, the staff, front office, head coach, coaching staff, the people that they’re bringing in. It’s a different feeling,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “I’ve said it all year. I said it last year. And I really do believe in what we’re doing.”
Brown hasn’t been nearly as simpatico with the Steelers, who have never finished below .500 in his career. His problems with teammates reportedly stem back to training camp — and he left the team on three occasions this season, including last weekend’s must-win finale against the Bengals.
His fit in the locker room, particularly as one of the team’s highest-paid players, will be under the microscope right away.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported Brown decided to sit out practice last week after getting into a heated dispute with teammates. ESPN reported it involved quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Brown reportedly skipped Saturday’s walkthrough.
Then there’s the cost. Brown has $42 million left on his contract. And he’ll be 31 at the start of next year, which is significantly more advanced in his career than someone like Odell Beckham Jr., 26, who has also been mentioned in trade talks over the past year.
Finally, the 49ers are projected to have just five picks in the draft. They seem like a team more likely to add draft picks than deal some away from their war chest. Adding Brown would likely include a package centered around at least one first-round choice (likely in 2020), which would make their rebuilding effort even more difficult if Brown didn’t work out.