Pittsburgh Steelers team president Art Rooney sent the strongest message since the end of the season that trading wide receiver Antonio Brown is a realistic possibility.
In an exclusive interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rooney said the team would not release Brown following his end-of-season antics but that “all other options are on the table” and that as things stand now, it would be “hard to envision” Brown being with the Steelers when they report to training camp this summer.
That's a pretty damning statement to make on perhaps the game's best receiver, although given that the team believes Brown quit on them down the stretch.
Prior to Week 17, which was a must-win game for the Steelers to make the playoffs, reports indicated that Brown hurled a football during practice in the Wednesday leading up to the game at a teammate (reported to be QB Ben Roethlisberger) and sat out the remainder of the week of practice, along with skipping team meetings.
It was reported that Brown had a knee injury that week, but that excuse turned out to be bunk. Brown missed the finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, even though he reportedly showed up at the stadium expecting to play in the game. The Steelers won, but the Ravens also won and knocked their division rivals out of the postseason.
Brown's future with the team clearly is up in the air.
“There’s not much we can do right now; we have time to make a decision,” Rooney said. “We’ll look at all the options. We’re not going to release him, that’s not on the table. But I will say all other options are on the table."
A reconciliation remains an option in order for Brown to remain in Pittsburgh.
“Whether the situation can be reconciled and have him back on the team next year, we’re a long way away from thinking that can happen. We’re not closing the door on anything at this point,” Rooney said.
The Steelers likely will make a decision prior to the start of the league's year on March 13, when trades can start to occur. Brown is due a $2.5 million roster bonus four days later on March 17, so it stands to reason that the team would decide his fate prior to that.
Brown has not returned phone calls from the team — including Rooney, head coach Mike Tomlin and others who have reached out. Brown sent out a cryptic tweet on Thursday following Rooney's comment with a picture of the Brown and Rooney shaking hands and the caption, "Good Business #Boomin."
Trading Brown comes at a significant cost. Following the four-year, $68 million contract extension he signed with the team two offseasons ago, the Steelers would incur a major salary-cap hit. But they also could clear more than $15 million in savings for his salary this season, even if it hurts in the short term. Right now, the Steelers are about $28 million under the cap, but that only accounts for 38 players currently under contract.
Still, another team must meet the Steelers' asking price for any theoretical trade, and it's no guarantee one will step up at the right return.
A team such as the San Francisco 49ers could be interested, as they have the cap space and the need for a wide receiver to help spur the offense. Brown also is very close with Pro Bowl TE George Kittle and has started following several 49ers players and the team's official account on Twitter, so make of that what you wish.
Perhaps the Colts or Jets, two teams flush with cap room, could place an inquiry. The Raiders also are stocked with draft-pick currency (three first-rounders) and need WR help. You'd be hard-pressed to imagine the Steelers trading Brown inside the division, even if there will be discussions in a lot of front offices around the league about the pros and cons of making an offer.
But there might be just as many teams that are leery about taking on a high salary, even for a player as talented as Brown is, given that he essentially quit on his teammates prior to a crucial game. You can probably rule out, for instance, new Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians from any provisional trade-destination list, as he and Brown aren't necessarily on the best of terms.
The Steelers now have two months to figure it all out. There's plenty to sort out with the team in general after missing the postseason, and the recent rash of drama that has inflicted it the past few years clearly has had an effect on the on-field product. Whether Brown possibly could come back remains a big hurdle if Rooney's words are to be believed.
“That’s one of the questions we have to answer — whether we can get to a point where we all feel good about him being on the roster next year," Rooney said. "We have a way to go before we feel good about that.”
The Steelers have feigned hardball in the past, shopping Roethlisberger in the 2010 offseason — or making it seem like they were, anyway — and applied the franchise tag for successive years on disgruntled running back Le'Veon Bell (a player they're now likely to lose this offseason), even while he, like Brown, appeared to play fast and loose with Tomlin and the team's rules.
They also previously cut LeGarrette Blount and James Harrison following those players' perceived breaks from rank, but those situations clearly were different from what's going on with Brown — an elite player in the prime of his career. How they deal with this situation is likely to result in either the pain of losing a great player, and the financial cost that comes along with it, or in the potential awkwardness of bringing back a player who undermined the team when it needed him most.
That's why this story is so tricky — and so fascinating — as the Steelers head into one of the more critical offseasons they've had in a long time.