Antonio Brown trade rumors: Conflicting reports emerge about potential Bills trade as free agency nears

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Just when it looked like the Antonio Brown saga was on the verge of reaching a stunning conclusion with a reported trade between the Steelers and Bills, confusion has emerged, leaving Brown's future as murky as before.

Late Thursday night, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers were "closing in on a deal" that would send Brown to the Bills. Rapoport later elaborated by saying "the deal is close to being done." However, Brown immediately called the report "fake news" on Instagram. Not long after, The Buffalo News' Vic Carucci refuted Rapoport's report. Citing an NFL source, Carucci reported that "no deal is imminent" and that another league source called the trade "unlikely."

This is where we are as of 1 a.m. ET on Friday:

It's worth noting that since the Steelers are trading Brown, they don't need to get his approval. They can send him wherever they want. But if Brown were to make it known ahead of time that he'd refuse to play for the Bills, the Bills almost assuredly wouldn't complete the trade. Brown did say recently that he doesn't even need to play football anymore. He could, in theory, always threaten retirement. 

Even if the deal is in the final stages of being completed, as Rapoport reported, it'd still be impossible to grade the trade for either side without knowing the exact terms of the deal. The Bills own picks No. 9, 40, and 75 in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft. The Steelers probably wouldn't get a top-10 pick for a receiver who will turn 31 over the summer unless they're swapping first-round picks, but they could get either of those other two picks for arguably the best receiver in football, who requested a trade after clashing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin.

It'd also be difficult to grade the Bills' acquisition of Brown without knowing how they'd plan to address his contract concerns. Brown has indicated he wants more guaranteed money. If the Bills, who will make a trip to Pittsburgh during the upcoming season, are close to trading for him, they're likely willing to placate him.

The Bills were never really considered a possible destination for Brown during the sweepstakes in large part because they're considered to be in the beginning stages of a rebuild after drafting Josh Allen last year and finishing 6-10 this past season. But the Bills certainly do have a need at receiver. 

In 2018, Zay Jones led the team with 56 receptions, 652 yards, and seven touchdowns. Related: The Bills averaged 174.6 passing yards per game -- only the Cardinals' passing attack was worse -- and Allen finished the season with a 52.8 completion percentage, two more interceptions than touchdown passes, and a 67.9 passer rating behind a bad offensive line. 

Brown, easily the most productive receiver in football since he entered the league in 2010 (he ranks first in all three major statistical categories in that span), would be the best receiver Allen ever could've dreamed of teaming up with. From a pure football perspective, Brown would make the Bills a better football team. And if Allen can learn to harness his deep ball and throw passes with any sort of accuracy -- admittedly, a huge if -- they could be a dangerous duo. 

But from Brown's perspective, it'd be impossible to see the reported trade as a win. He'd be going from Big Ben, a future Hall of Famer, to an inaccurate second-year quarterback who looks significantly better as a runner than a passer.

As of early Friday morning on the East Coast, it's still not clear if the Bills are on the verge of acquiring Brown almost exactly 10 years to the day they signed Terrell Owens. Clarity might not arrive until Friday morning, when the majority of the country wakes up. 

What we do know is that the reported deal between the two teams would be a stunner that no one saw coming, and that -- regardless if the deal does or doesn't materialize -- Thursday night will go down as one the wildest nights in NFL history that didn't involve the playing of an actual football game. 

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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