Entering the 2019 season, the Green Bay Packers possess one of the NFL’s premier pass catchers in Davante Adams and a handful of promising young wideouts. Accordingly, the prospect of adding a superstar wide receiver represents a luxury rather than a necessity.
Of course, that hasn’t prevented some in and around the NFL from connecting Antonio Brown, the All-Pro receiver that the Pittsburgh Steelers have formally placed on the trading block, to the Packers as part of their post-Mike McCarthy offensive rebuild.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Brown would make a difference in Green Bay, the same for any team acquiring his services. A multi-skilled wideout adept at both beating coverage with pristine route running and vertical speed, Brown has few peers across the league. Since entering the league in 2010, Brown ranks first in receptions (837) and receiving yards (11,207) and second in receiving touchdowns (74). Impressively, his production hasn’t fallen off in recent years, as Brown led all players in receiving yards in 2017 and led them in touchdown catches this past season. By any objective measure, Brown remains one of the game’s premier offensive weapons.
However, any potential acquisition of Brown must take more than his on-field exploits into consideration.
Despite Brown’s repeated attempts to torpedo his own trade value -- a list that includes conducting a 9-minute Instagram Live stream from an elliptical and an impromptu Twitter question-and-answer session in which he claimed Ben Roethlisberger to have an “owner mentality” -- Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the team wouldn’t deal the star wideout for an unsatisfactory return. “We are open to shopping around the league to see what may be available in exchange for [Brown’s] services but by no means are we going to make a trade or any type of move that will not be beneficial to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization,” Colbert said during his media availability Wednesday. “Specifically, we will not be discounting [Brown] on the trade market and we certainly will not be releasing [him].
”Right now the perspective is the best thing to do is seek a trade, and if we can, great. If we can’t, we’ll deal with that at that point. But I don’t think any relationship is irreparable.”
Colbert chose his words carefully. While Brown tried to inform the world that Steelers owner Art Rooney II agreed that the two sides would part ways, the team has left the door open for the wideout to return. That approach makes sense considering Pittsburgh’s rapidly closing window for title contention and Brown’s lack of leverage (he has three years remaining on his deal, making a holdout especially difficult for the player). It also means the Steelers don’t have to accept a poor or significantly below-market offer for their star receiver.
For the Packers or any team interested in exploring a trade, that means offering more than a mid-round pick or two in order to secure Brown’s services. The Packers, armed with extra selections in the first, fourth and sixth rounds, certainly possess the draft capital to satisfy the Steelers’ demands. Even so, dealing away premium picks for one player -- even a genuine field-tilter like Brown -- would limit Green Bay’s ability to address the myriad holes throughout the roster.
And Brown could see his talents wane as he approaches yet another birthday. The wideout turns 31 in July, and though he hasn’t shown any significant signs of slippage, players at his position don’t typically age gracefully. Since 2000, only four wide receivers have earned first-team All-Pro honors in their age-31 season or later. Brown will likely remain an effective player over the next few years. However, any team acquiring him will have paid a high price for All-Pro production, not merely good play.
Brown’s contract demands further complicate the matter. As currently constituted, his cap hits over the next three years range from a little over $22 million to $18 million and change. Yet a post-trade Brown would only cost the Packers an annual average of just under $13 million as the prorated signing bonus would remain on the Steelers’ books. That figure could drop even lower if a trade takes place after his $2.5 million roster bonus triggers on March 17. That contract makes acquiring Brown a palatable proposition for Green Bay.
However, despite having three more seasons on a deal that included a $19 million signing bonus and the bonus due later this offseason, Brown desires a new agreement with some substantial new guaranteed money. “I ain’t doing no unguarantees,” the receiver declared on social media. “ If your team got guaranteed money, they want to get to know me and work with me, tell them to call me.” Especially if those demands come with the expectation of a raise, Brown could become the most expensive non-quarterback offensive player in the league.
All of those factors make trading for Brown a difficult proposition for the Packers, who need to maximize Aaron Rodgers’ remaining seasons without committing the type of error that could spoil the entire run. The peak version of Brown could help the offense significantly, but an older version with lesser skills but a top-of-the-market contract could quickly become an albatross for the team.
Perhaps that prospect gives the Packers reason not to consider any marquee receivers this offseason. The Packers could simply stick with their existing core and invest a draft pick or a reasonably priced veteran to the mix. While that unit wouldn’t garner comparisons to Green Bay’s otherworldly receiving corps of 2011, it would still grade as one of the better units in the league.
But if the Packers do desire a major talent infusion at wideout, they might have another option: the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr.
While Brown’s team has formally put him on the trading block, Beckham’s situation looks far murkier. The Giants have publicly denied that they intend to deal their star receiver, but a series of media reports and some cryptic posts from Beckham on social media suggest that a divorce could happen later this offseason. If the receiver does become available, the Packers have some compelling reasons to pursue him.
Beckham checks a lot of the same boxes as Brown from an on-field standpoint. The Giants’ star receiver established himself as an elite vertical threat from his earliest seasons. Beckham also routinely beats defenders on shorter breaking routes by utilizing his quickness. And though Brown runs more pristine routes, Beckham possesses superior overall athleticism as well as some of the best hands in the game.
Other factors do separate the two receivers, however. While Brown turns 31 in a few months, Beckham remains 26 until November. That youth provides Beckham with a longer runway to perform at a high level, a factor that could appeal to the Packers as they try to win both in the present without limiting themselves during the final few years of Rodgers’ career.
And Beckham’s contract reflects that runway. A new deal he signed before the 2018 seasons keeps him locked in through the 2023 season, the same length of time the Packers have with Rodgers under his current agreement. Beckham’s deal averages a league-high $18 million per year, but much of that amount stems from his $20 million signing bonus that will remain on the Giants’ books. For Green Bay or any team acquiring Beckham, the annual cap hits would dip to $16.75 million in 2019 and then drop again to the $14 million range or less for the remainder of the contract, eminently affordable totals for a player of his caliber.
Just as importantly, Beckham hasn’t made any new contract demands that could change the risk calculation for the Packers. That gives the team flexibility if it decides to change course after a few years, something that could prove impossible with Brown under his proposed new deal.
Because the Giants haven’t officially put Beckham on the market, his price tag remains unclear. His contract situation, age, and absence of a trade demand will likely force a suitor to pay more than it would for Brown. Even so, the difference might prove somewhat negligible given Pittsburgh’s unwillingness to settle for pennies on the dollar and New York’s apparent frustration with Beckham.
Ultimately, the Packers might determine that they have too many holes elsewhere to invest more heavily at wideout. After all, Adams has established himself a premier receiver during a nearly record-breaking 2018 campaign, and he has already signed a lucrative veteran contract. The team feels optimistic about Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, two rising second-year players who outperformed their draft status as rookies. And, of course, Rodgers’ presence ensures a reasonably high floor for the passing game even without another top-shelf talent in the receiving corps.
Still, if the Packers want to jump into the market for an elite receiver, they have better options than the Steelers’ disgruntled superstar.