Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown to the 49ers? Chris Biderman breaks down the search for a star wide receiver
The 49ers have prided themselves on sticking together in the locker room despite going 10-22 in Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons as coach. Team chemistry has not been a problem while Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have turned over most of the roster since taking the reins.
But Year 3 of Shanahan’s tenure will come with increased pressure and expectations. San Francisco mostly received a pass for going 4-12 in 2018 because franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sustained a season-ending knee injury three weeks into the season.
The expectation is Shanahan will guide the 49ers toward playoff contention next season with his system firmly in place paired with an upgraded roster.
The pressing question as the new league year inches closer March 13: Will the team make a push to trade for embattled Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, who announced on social media this week the Steelers plan on trading him this offseason.
Between the lines, there’s plenty of logic to adding Brown. He led the NFL with 15 touchdown catches last season while San Francisco had the league’s worst red-zone offense. He set a record for most catches (582) over a five-year span (2013-17). He has the speed, shiftiness and route-running chops to beat man-to-man coverage, which is what Shanahan prioritizes when evaluating receivers.
And the 49ers are likely to part with one of their top wideouts, Pierre Garçon, leaving a sizable void at the position. They’ll enter 2019 with roughly $65 million in cap space, which would be more than enough to absorb Brown’s $15.125 million figure.
But how would Brown, who turns 31 in July, fit in the locker room, given his lengthy history of creating distractions?
The mercurial personality sat out practices before a must-win game against the Bengals in Week 17 with a playoff spot on the line after getting into an argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during practice. He reportedly was often late or didn’t show for team meetings throughout the season. The Pittsburgh Post Gazzette this week reported he left the team for a week during training camp and again later in the campaign following a loss to the Chiefs, which included a sideline tirade during the game.
Suffice to say, those are things that don’t mesh with what Shanahan and Lynch are trying to build inside the 49ers’ locker room.
“It always starts with guys who are going to help you win. But I just feel through experience you learn that not one guy is really ever worth it, if he’s going to hold people back,” Shanahan told The Bee before last season for a story about building team culture. “And so if you want to bring in someone real talented when you’re trying to change something, who doesn’t have the right attitude, as soon as you lose a couple games in a row ... that person’s going to make it very hard.”
Brown’s attitude behind the scenes in Pittsburgh helped torpedo one of the most talented teams in the AFC that entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations. The dissension in the locker room led to the team finishing with a 9-6-1 record while missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Things have been rosy in San Francisco’s locker room, despite all the losing, because Shanahan and Lynch have prioritized finding players with team-first priorities and work ethics that help set the tone for teammates. Those are traits of the team’s best players: Joe Staley, DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman and George Kittle.
“I think creating our culture has been a lot easier than expected,” Shanahan said. “And I think that’s because we got a good group of people. I think you can say whatever you want, but if you want to create a culture and you don’t have the right type of people, you will not create that.
“Guys can pretend and trick you. But when adversity hits, you’re going to find out who people really are. So it’s very important to have the right type of people, even if they’re not a finished product. You’ve got people who care about football who aren’t entitled, who want to earn everything, who want to work, they got one goal and that’s to be the best they can. Those are the type of people you can work with and you can build that culture the right way, because you know how important is it to them. It’s just as important to that person as it is to you. And when everyone’s like that, it’s easy to be hard on people, it’s easy to hold people accountable. Because everyone kind of thinks the same. Everyone wants to be their best.”
The 49ers dealt with plenty of adversity after Shanahan said those words, highlighted by Garoppolo’s injury and running back Jerick McKinnon’s ACL tear before Week 1. The locker room seems closer and more motivated entering 2019 because of it.
Adding Brown could help get San Francisco back in contention in the NFC West with the high-powered Rams and typically stingy Seahawks. Or Brown’s antics that became so problematic with the Steelers could bleed into the 49ers’ locker room and force Shanahan to wonder why he went against his culture-building principles for just one player.