Antonio Brown is a great wide receiver. Not good, but great. I’m writing this right up top because I don’t want you to think I’m just an idiot.
Brown has netted at least 1200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in each of the last six seasons. He’s as electric as any wideout in the league, a threat to score at literally any moment. He’ll waltz into the Hall of Fame when his turn comes.
To give you an idea of how that compares to what San Francisco 49ers fans have been watching, the last San Francisco wide receiver to break eight touchdowns was Michael Crabtree in 2012, which seems like yesterday compared to the last 1200-yard receiver (Terrell Owens in 2002).
Despite the morbid picture that those basic facts paint, the 49ers would be well-served to pass on the opportunity to acquire the talented Mr. Brown. Unless his trade value is far less than expected, Brown simply isn’t worth what the team would part with.
The value of a player to any one team is different than that player’s objective worth — especially in a sport like football, and particularly for a position like wide receiver, where there are so many interconnected parts working together towards success. How productive a pass-catcher is depends not only on his ability and execution, but also on his quarterback, head coach and offensive coordinator’s job performance (to name a few).
This is not to denigrate what Brown has done with what I would call a very good QB, a middling head coach and a succession of pretty good coordinators; he is undoubtedly the primary author of the vast majority of his own success. Even if he wasn’t, he would be far and away the best player at his position on the 49ers.
The argument against making a play for Brown is about opportunity cost — what would you give up to get him, and what would you otherwise be able to do with those assets?
Brown’s value is a complicated equation, in part because the Steelers are on the hook for a big chunk of money no matter what they do. Even if they trade or cut Brown before next season, Pittsburgh will take a cap hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million on the receiver.
Most of the reporting surrounding a potential trade suggests that Pittsburgh would want a first-round pick in any deal, and in all likelihood even more than that. It has been suggested the negotiations might start in the neighborhood of the Khalil Mack deal, and why not? Isn’t Brown as impactful on one side of the ball as Mack is on the other?
In a vacuum, this is a price befitting a superstar receiver. The problem for the 49ers is how many other, more important holes they have to fill.
San Francisco simply cannot trade its first-round pick for a 30-year-old wide receiver — passing on the opportunity to acquire an elite pass rusher at a relative bargain price for years to come would be nothing short of criminal malpractice.
Even if the Steelers were willing to accept an offer centered around the Niners’ second rounder, this would be unwise. That pick could be used to help a beleaguered secondary, or even to draft one of the top wide receivers in this draft — a player who would undoubtedly be significantly worse than Brown, but also significantly cheaper and likely to improve over time.
Which brings us to the cost issue: Any team that traded for Brown would have him under contract for $15 million in 2019, $11 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in 2021, none of which would be guaranteed. This contract would likely remain a great bargain for its duration, and could be wiped clean without penalty if something went wrong. It would be a tremendous value deal.
The 49ers could accommodate those numbers, mathematically speaking; they have somewhere around $65 million of space heading into this offseason. Unfortunately, a hopeful reading of their roster would dictate that this money also needs to provide answers at cornerback, defensive line, linebacker and probably offensive guard.
Certainly they will attempt to answer some of those questions through the draft, but part of the franchise’s problem the last several seasons has been a lack of veteran solutions. San Francisco doesn’t need another Tarvarius Moore or Cassius Marsh — it needs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
Moreover, the timelines of the two parties in question here simply don’t line up how you’d like. Brown is still operating at a Pro Bowl level — as his career-best 15 TDs this past season can attest — but he slipped considerably this season in yardage and his catch rate has been down for the last two years. He’ll turn 31 before next year’s training camp.
This doesn’t mean Antonio Brown is done, but if his best isn’t behind him it certainly won’t last more than another year or two. This iteration of the 49ers is not built to peak in the next two years. They are simply not very likely to compete for a title while Brown is still one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
The appeal is obvious — it’s understandable that a fan base composed of folks who grew up watching some combination of John Taylor, Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens longs for a more explosive receiving corps. The opportunity cost is prohibitive, though, particularly given the presence of George Kittle as a lead pass-catcher and Kyle Shanahan’s ability to scheme the Dante Pettises and Marquise Goodwins of the world into open space.
Would Antonio Brown be open more, or more open? Of course. He would be the best receiver on the team by a country mile. Hopefully I’ve convinced you that I realize that, and that, again, I’m not just an idiot.
It’s not that Antonio Brown isn’t great, he’s just not a great option for this 49ers team at this moment in time.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.