There is no doubt that Antonio Brown remains one of the top receivers in the NFL coming off a 104 catch, 1,297 yards and an NFL leading 15 TD season. The Redskins also have one of the clearest needs at the wide receiver position. Their top four receivers (Doctson, Crowder, Richardson, Harris) combined for 121 catches, 1,486 yards and 6 touchdowns. Of those two of them (Crowder and Harris) are impending free agents and might not be back. Despite all of that Brown just doesn’t make sense for the Redskins based on a number of factors and trading for him could do more harm than good.
While Brown is still near the top of his game and among the top receivers in the league, he is going to be 31 this coming season and is under contract for three more years. He should still be highly productive in that time, but instead of being a top 5 (if not the best receiver) in the league he could be more like a top 15-20 guy. That is still pretty good and at a reduced price of $15.1M in cap dollars this year (based on the Steelers being responsible for his SB money), that is a pretty good value. Receiver prices have skyrocketed in free agency, so there is a fair amount of value here. Going forward it looks even better as Brown would currently count just $11.3M and $12.5M versus the cap in 2020 and 2021.
Brown’s price in terms of trade value also seems likely to be lower than it should be. Given his very public antics in Pittsburgh the last 6 months or so and the Steelers clearly shopping him, they can’t expect to get top value for him via trade. His impending roster bonus and his age also figures to help limit the return the Redskins would need to give up. While it’s not entirely clear what the Steelers are expecting back in a trade, it’s reasonable to assume that the Redskins could protect their top 15 pick in trade talks. Maybe something in the neighborhood of their 2nd Rd pick and a late round pick could be in the range to get it done. That is less than Brandin Cooks has been traded for each of the last two years and he’s far younger.
So if Brown is still very productive, comes at a reduced cap and trade cost, why doesn’t he make sense for Washington? Well the answer is complicated and involves assumptions and future planning, but does show a greater risk than the potential reward.
Money: While $15.1M is a great price for a top tier receiver, the Redskins aren’t in a great cap situation. While it’s possible they can create more money, that just either pushes money forward or creates more holes on the team (i.e. cutting Josh Norman). If they create more holes that only weakens the argument that the Redskins should act like contenders (see below). While they could restructure Brown’s contract that again only pushes money forward, and takes away some of the value of him having non-guaranteed money in 2020 and 2021.
Given Brown’s antics of late there is a fair chance he could look to force an extension as part of any trade negotiation. While this is somewhat of an assumption, I can’t imagine Brown or his agent are thrilled with his current yearly cap numbers based on the new contracts of receivers the last year or so. Also they probably do want some guaranteed money to protect from Brown being released, as well as some injury protections. The value the Redskins would be getting from Brown’s contract could definitely be lessened or wiped out entirely if there is an extension involved.
Production: Yes Brown had almost 1,300 yards and 15 TDs last year, but receivers are the most dependent position on the field. Brown did that with Ben Roethlisberger as his QB as part of the number six scoring offense (4th in yards). Brown’s numbers wouldn’t have come close to that with the Redskins last season. Even when Alex Smith was healthy the Redskins passing offense was anemic and only got worse once he went down with injury. Yes Brown would have improved their numbers somewhat, but he would not have made the Redskins a good passing offense. It’s tough to say exactly what Brown’s production would have been, but likely it would have taken a notable hit.
The Redskins currently are looking at Colt McCoy (who is coming off his own injury) as their starting quarterback. There is a lot of talk about the Redskins drafting a quarterback in the draft, but at the 15th pick they might miss out on the first round talents. If they try to trade up that will cost even more picks, which would now be lessened with the Brown trade. Any 2nd or 3rd round QBs (assuming they even have those picks) probably shouldn’t be counted on to start. McCoy is among the top back-up QBs in the league, but if looked on as a 16 game starter his outlook is pretty poor. Even if the Redskins were to draft a 1st round talent, rookie QBs aren’t typically known for quality production. Last year was one of the best QB classes in a while, yet of the 5 quarterbacks that got a significant amount of playing time, only Baker Mayfield showed himself to be an adept passer. So regardless of what route the Redskins go they are likely looking at below average QB production.
Some young quarterbacks have found their stride by year two, but others still take another year or two. So if that is the way the Redskins go, they could be looking at average or worst QB production for all three years of Brown’s current contract. That is not ideal if you are looking at maximizing the value of Brown and getting the most out of the trade.
Competitiveness: If the Redskins (or any team) is going to spend the money and picks to acquire Brown, they should be looking to be competitive for the 3 year time frame that they would have him under contract. Brown is now in his 30’s and while he should still be productive, you don’t want to waste these last couple of years of top end production. Even if you were to extend him (which might be a requirement) the Redskins can’t expect him to still be the same receiver in 2022 and beyond.
So how competitive can the Redskins be in 2019 and over the following two seasons. For the last four years the Redskins have been fairly competitive. They made the playoffs in 2015, just missed in 2016, and saw their last two years slip away in large part to a massive number of key injuries. They bring to the table a defense with a great defensive line, a very good edge rusher in Ryan Kerrigan and an above-average corner group. The rest of their defense is a bit unknown with some major holes looming. On offense they have one of the better offensive lines (if healthy), a quality TE and a young running back with a ton of upside. Brown would help fill one hole at receiver, but unless Josh Doctson or Paul Richardson step up, he might be easy for teams to focus on.
That is not a terrible core for the Redskins to work with, but there are a lot of question marks including some key positions like QB and EDGE rusher. With limited money to fix the roster (particularly if you trade for Brown), the Redskins could look to make even more drastic cuts. While it’s assumed they’d cut Vernon Davis, if they were to cut Jordan Reed or say Josh Norman on defense, that would create further holes on the team. Those cuts would make sense if the Redskins were rebuilding, but they don’t line-up as much with a team going out and acquiring a 31 year old receiver.
Brown would obviously help the Redskins competitiveness a bit, but really unless they get a quarterback who can give them at least above average production, it’s tough to think the Redskins can make the playoffs. Maybe drafting a rookie QB this year could put them in a position to be a playoff team in 2020, but that is far from a guarantee.
Keeping Brown happy: It’s tough to speculate all of the reasons why Brown has grown unhappy in Pittsburgh and has essentially forced the Steelers to trade him, but it’s fair to wonder if he would be more content in DC.
Brown would be going from perennial contention, not just for the playoffs but potentially the Super Bowl in Pittsburgh. Where he benefited from playing with a top 10 QB, in a top 5-10 offense, giving him the ability to put up elite numbers. At the same time earning two strong extensions and being well compensated. With the Redskins Brown couldn’t count on any of that, outside of the money still being pretty good. Though as mentioned above he would have zero dead money on his 2020 and 2021 seasons so that could allow the Redskins to cut him/trade him without penalty. Brown probably wouldn’t be thrilled with that arrangement and could force some sort of extension/re-negotiation as part of his deal.
If Brown were to get frustrated with his situation in Washington it could have lasting impact. Not only would it represent a waste of the money they paid him and the picks they used to acquire him, but it could disrupt the team. The Redskins had multiple issues of players speaking their minds last season and that led to the release of Pro Bowl caliber safey D.J. Swearinger. Longer term concerns could be if Brown doesn’t mesh with a rookie quarterback, it could cause major headaches going forward as well. With all the dysfunction the Redskins have had in recent years it could create even further problems/concerns for any potential new head coaching candidates if Gruden is replaced after this season.
In a vacuum I think there are enough positives to outweigh any concerns about age, keeping Brown happy and any potential contract extension, but the Redskins situation isn’t in a vacuum. If they were a team with plenty of cap room, a quality quarterback, and were a serious postseason threat, I would fully support trading for Brown. The Redskins though aren’t any of those things and in fact in a couple of areas are the exact opposite of what the Redskins need.
Trading for Brown to see his production drop, eat up your cap room and to likely miss the playoffs is a real questionable plan. Even if there is someway to hope for a better outlook in 2020 and beyond. Brown will improve the Redskins, but it’s not worth it if they can’t maximize the value.