The San Francisco 49ers seemed to signal what they want the culture of their still-transitioning organization under coach Kyle Shanahan to look like when they opted not to trade for superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, whom the Raiders acquired from Pittsburgh for a third and fifth round draft pick this past week.
Their vision was of a product absent the kind of embarrassment that has swirled since at least 2015; a product without sideshows or controversies, and most importantly without serious legal troubles.
While Brown has been routinely panned in the media for his public feuding with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin, what has perhaps not been discussed enough are the allegations of off-field misconduct. The NFL is investigating Brown after a Florida police report alleged he shoved the mother of one of his children to the ground in January. No charges were filed by the woman, though the league could still suspend him under its player conduct policy.
In a separate instance last year, Brown publicly threatened a writer who had profiled him for ESPN’s The Undefeated, tweeting, “wait to I see you bro we gone see what your jaw like” at reporter James Washington. Brown later apologized through a team-issued statement.
Passing on Brown marks a step by the 49ers toward regaining a positive culture after they were stained by the prolonged presence of linebacker Reuben Foster, whom they released last season when he was arrested and charged with first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence battery, his third arrest in 10 months. That Brown was available for two mediocre draft selections demonstrates how toxic he had become to Pittsburgh.
Now, San Francisco must address from elsewhere a barren receiving group in need of a consistent threat opposite of Dante Pettis. Outside of Golden Tate and perhaps John Brown, there aren’t any clear upgrades among the 2019 free agent class. So the 49ers might need to use a second-round draft pick on a wide receiver for the second straight year, with potential targets including Paris Campbell (Ohio State), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) and Marquise Brown (Oklahoma).
Samuel is perhaps the most intriguing option of that trio because he comes as a complete receiver rather than a speed-first threat. Campbell and Brown might too closely resemble the game of Marquise Goodwin, who has already locked down the deep threat specialist role in San Francisco. As a senior at South Carolina, Samuel caught 62 passes for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns on a middling SEC team.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo needs help, whether it’s through free agency or one of those draft prospects. Beyond Pettis and tight end George Kittle, his options do not approach good enough for someone tasked with turning this franchise around. Football Outsiders, an advanced statistics website that aims to track the true ability of individual players, did not place another 49ers receiver in the top 40 of its defense-adjusted value over average or defense-adjusted yards above replacement metrics. In other words, San Francisco lacked quality depth at the receiver position, and not adding another receiver could set Garoppolo up for failure.
It doesn’t seem like complacency will be an issue, though. San Francisco hasn’t been shy about its desire to give its highly paid signal-caller additional places to go with the ball, openly expressing that goal to prospects at the NFL Combine.
“They’re looking for a receiver,” said Riley Ridley, a wide receiver from Georgia the 49ers could also target. “I hope that it’ll be me. They’re looking for guys that will get in and turn the system around.”
All that’s clear now is that such a turnaround won’t involve Antonio Brown, even though by purely on-field production standards he was the most gifted player available by a significant margin, having exceeded 1,200 yards in six straight seasons.
It should be a relief for the 49ers that Brown is not in the picture, no matter how many touchdowns he scores in Oakland or how dire San Francisco’s own playmaker search becomes. There will be other options out there who do not pose such an existential threat to the ethos of the organization. It’s up to general manager John Lynch to find them.