Should the Packers Trade for Antonio Brown?
Adding an elite wide receiver in Green Bay is always going to be a tantalizing prospect. It’s easy to see why. When you have a Hall of Fame quarterback, people naturally connect the dots. It’s why the Packers have been connected to names like Randy Moss, Odell Beckham Jr., and now Antonio Brown.
Though he has several years remaining on his deal, Brown has reportedly asked the Steelers for a trade. Just this week, he announced he’s “moving on” from Pittsburgh despite still being under contract.
Despite being among the betting favorites to land Brown, there’s no tangible evidence that the Packers are interested in making a trade. But let’s explore the situation anyway. Should the Packers trade for Antonio Brown? And if they did, what would it take to make it happen?
What would it cost the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown?
One simple fact prevents NFL stars from moving around as often as their counterparts in the NBA or Major League Baseball: it can be really expensive to get rid of players.
The short explanation for why comes down to how bonuses and guaranteed money are tied to the salary cap. While a player can get things like a signing bonus paid up front when he agrees to a contract, for salary cap purposes the signing bonus is prorated over the life of the contract.
Between various bonuses and restructuring considerations, trading Brown would end up accelerating about $21 million worth of bonuses into Pittsburgh’s 2019 salary cap. That means that while they’d take about $22 million off their books in 2019 by jettisoning his salary, the accelerated money coming onto their cap would mean the Steelers would ultimately only save about $1 million by trading Brown.
However, trading Brown would also free up about $18 million in cap space for the Steelers in 2019 and $19 million in 2020, neither of which are inconsiderable amounts.
Complicating this picture somewhat is Brown’s bonus situation. Brown is due a significant roster bonus on March 17. If the Steelers are going to do a deal, that’s probably the deadline.
What would it cost a team to get Antonio Brown?
When assessing potential trades, it’s always good to look at recent similar trades as a guideline. In Brown’s situation, there’s a perfect case study. In October, the Raiders shocked the league by landing a first-round pick for receiver Amari Cooper, whom they dealt to Dallas shortly before this year’s trade deadline.
Though Cooper played well, he’s hardly the caliber of player that Brown is, even though Brown is significantly older. Comparing apples to apples, it seems like the Steelers expect to start negotiations for Brown at a first round pick and take the best offer above that from the available suitors.
But Brown is only available at all because the Steelers are tired of dealing with the various personal and professional headaches he causes (of which there are many). The Steelers are not selling from a position of power here. They’re not selling high by any means. A first-round pick would normally be an easy ask, but Brown just being Brown may push that down a bit.
However, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport suggests rival general managers have put their price on Brown at around a second-round pick, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone trying to buy low.
So whom do you believe? It’s probably best to assume negotiations will start at with Rapoport's “rival GMs” offering their second-round picks, getting turned down, and offering bigger trade packages as a result. Even if the Steelers don’t ultimately get a first for Brown, a second-round pick along with another second or third rounder could be enough to get the deal done.
On the low end, it can’t be forgotten that Hall of Famer Randy Moss was acquired for a fourth-round pick when his team was ready to move him. The cap-related particulars of the Moss deal are extremely different than Brown’s, but it’s a good reminder of the fact that bad situations can be leveraged to acquire good players for cheap. Should the asset the Steelers are trying to move become even more distressed, true fire sale prices might not be that far off.
Should the Packers trade for Antonio Brown?
Antonio Brown has been a very good player for a very long time. That’s never been a question. But in a hypothetical trade, that’s not what the Packers would be weighing. Green Bay must consider the two questions concerning every potential acquisition: what kind of player are they getting and what will it cost.
The cost question brings the more straightforward answer, as we’ve already laid out. It will take some combination of picks now and cap space in the future to bring Brown to Green Bay. That’s the easy part to assess. You either like the combination it will take to get him or you don’t.
It’s a lot more complicated to figure out what version of Brown the Packers would be getting. Brown’s stats have been consistent for each of the past six seasons. In that stretch, he’s averaged 119 catches for 1,590 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 2018 totals of 104 catches, 1,297 yards, and 15 touchdowns are barely off that pace.
But Brown’s numbers have been accumulated in something of a vacuum. Since 2013, he’s been the unquestioned number one option in Pittsburgh. He’s a talented receiver, to be sure, but as we saw with Davante Adams in 2018, putting up big numbers when there aren’t any other notable options around doesn’t always translate into success.
You can argue the semantics of who would be the number one receiver in Green Bay between Brown and Adams, but someone’s targets would diminish. Would Brown be okay with his numbers taking a hit in Green Bay?
[Aside: I have nowhere else to put this, so I will point out here that Davante Adams had 89 more yards, seven more catches, and six more explosive plays than Brown did in 2018 on just one more target.]
The Packers also have to weigh the fact that Brown turns 31 in July. Some age-related decline is inevitable, and Brown has already shown some signs of decline. His catch percentage has declined in each of the past four seasons; he caught 71.3% of his targets in 2014 but just 61.9% in 2018. Even if Brown’s contract is palatable for the next three years, is it worth rolling the dice for a player on the wrong side of 30 for the third consecutive offseason?
If he can be close to as productive as he’s been over the past few seasons in Green Bay, the answer is probably a yes, albeit one with some significant caveats. Even if there’s a chance he could be had for the price of one 2007 Randy Moss, it’s probably a moonshot. Assuming the Packers are comfortable with everything else (the big contract, the attitude, the rumors of domestic violence), the trade costs alone probably scuttle the deal.
It’s fun to think about, but Antonio Brown is probably not making his way to Green Bay.