It certainly feels like Antonio Brown has played his last game for the Steelers. The seven-time Pro Bowler went AWOL on his team at least three times since training camp, most recently in the days leading up to the Week 17 game against the Bengals.
Pittsburgh won the regular-season finale but missed the playoffs, which is hard to fathom given the talent on this roster. During his end-of-season press conference, coach Mike Tomlin was asked if Brown quit on his teammates.
"You can call it what you want," he said.
This isn't your response when a player doesn't quit on his teammates.
On Thursday, Steelers president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that while the team won't release Brown, he conceded that it's "hard to envision" the wide receiver in Pittsburgh when training camp begins.
Put another way: Business is going to have to be boomin' somewhere else. But where might somewhere else be, and how might the Steelers compensate for Brown's productivity?
First, let's take a look at landing spots that could make sense.
The Cardinals have $56.5 million in salary-cap space, according to Spotrac, and with Larry Fitzgerald mulling retirement and the team in desperate need of a downfield playmaker, Brown makes a ton of sense. His on-field productivity would also be welcome news to Josh Rosen, the 2018 first-round pick who is coming off a rough rookie campaign. Then there's new coach Kliff Kingsbury, fired by Texas Tech last season and most recently the USC offensive coordinator. He's considered an offensive innovator, which could appeal to Brown, who appeared frustrated at times with his role in Pittsburgh. (He'd also be going from one of the NFL's most successful franchises -- the Steelers haven't had a losing record since 2003, seven years before Brown was drafted -- to one of the worst last season; the Cardinals won just three times.)
In addition to the extra cap space, there's another reason to keep the Cardinals in mind. Back in October, there was speculation that the Steelers might be interested in trading for cornerback Patrick Peterson, who wanted out of Arizona before later changing his mind. With Brown now available for a trade, perhaps that deal is more likely; the Cardinals get one of the league's best receivers and the Steelers gets a top-flight cornerback to bolster a decidedly mediocre group of cornerbacks after Joe Haden.
Can you imagine? The Cowboys have $48.5 million in cap space, which ranks 10th in the league. And for as balanced as this offense has been, it's still below replacement level, according to Football Outsiders -- the offense ranks 24th overall, 19th in rushing and 26th in passing. You know what would help? Another downfield threat to pair with Amari Cooper, whom the Cowboys acquired for a 2019 first-round pick.
And if the Cowboys were willing to part with a second-rounder for Brown, we'd imagine the Steelers would listen; Brown, at 30, is six years older than Cooper though he's still playing at a high level. He'd give Dak Prescott two No. 1 wide receivers, which is noteworthy because Ezekiel Elliott led the team with 77 receptions during the regular season. Next on the list? Cole Beasley (66), whose contract expires in March. There's rookie Michael Gallup, who flashed down the stretch, but he's still a third or fourth option in this offense.
The 49ers' season was over shortly after it began; franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in late September and that came after Jerick McKinnon suffered the same injury in training camp. The offense, understandably, was a mess. The group ranked 27th overall (23rd in passing, 32nd in rushing). But with Garoppolo and McKinnon set to return, there is still no No. 1 receiver. Tight end George Kittle led the team in receptions (88). And while he's fast becoming one of the league's best tight ends, Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis -- the two leading wideouts on the team -- combined for 69 receptions. Put another way: fullback Kyle Juszczyk was third on the team in catches.
San Francisco has the cap space -- $46.4 million -- and the need. It also has some pretty good recruiters. Following Brown's practice blowout ahead of the Week 17 game, Kittle tweeted this on New Year's Day:
To which Brown responded:
And then, on Thursday, after Brown tweeted a photo of him shaking hands with Steelers president Art Rooney II and the cryptic message, "Good Business #Boomin," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley offered this:
The Colts have more cap room than anyone -- $122.4 million -- and they're arguably the most attractive destination on this list because of the success they've had under general manager Chris Ballard and first-year coach Frank Reich. But Ballard may not be inclined to devote a non-trivial part of that cap to Brown, who became a distraction on one of the NFL's best teams.
But there's also no denying that Brown would make the Colts better; Andrew Luck is having one of his best years, in part because he's finally healthy, in part because the offensive line is one of the league's top units, and in part because of the emergence of tight end Eric Ebron, who has taken some of the pressure off T.Y Hilton. But there is no clear third option. Brown would obviously solve that problem.
There's also this: running back Le'Veon Bell, who skipped the Steelers' 2018 season and will be a free agent in March, " " on Indianapolis, SNY.com's Ralph Vacchiano reported last month. Vacchiano added that Bell hasn't ruled out signing with the Jets -- or any other team with interest -- but seems to have the Colts at the "top of his list."
The feeling may not be mutual -- as we described above, Ballard could have other ideas about how to spend some of that $122.4 million. Still, try to wrap your head around what the Colts' offense, which ranked 10th this season, would look like with Brown and Bell taking the field.
The odds on this have never been longer; Rooney.
"There's not much we can do right now; we have time to make a decision," he told the Post-Gazette. "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.
"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."
But here's something to consider: What if the Steelers are able to get a second-round pick for Brown and then focus on finding his replacement in the 2019 NFL Draft? Pittsburgh has the 20th pick and we've had them taking a linebacker, cornerback or edge rusher . But if, say, the Steelers traded Brown to the Cardinals in a deal that included Patrick Peterson, that would address one of their biggest needs. Not only that, the team has a horrible track record when it comes to drafting cornerbacks (2016 first-rounder Artie Burns was benched midway through the season and never got his job back).
You know what position the Steelers have been insanely successful at addressing in the draft? Wide receiver.
And if they're able to land a player like Ole Miss' D.K. Metcalf, or N.C. State's Kelvin Harmon or Georgia's Riley Ridley, the offense could continue chugging along as one of the NFL's best units, while the Steelers defense landed secondary help in the form of Peterson.
In case you're wondering, Metcalf is our favorite receiver in this draft class. He's tall, well built, makes contested catches and can beat defenders deep. The two biggest issues are experience and health. Harmon is a lot like Metcalf and he's not quite as explosive, he has more experience. Ridley is a different player; he's Calvin Ridley's brother, and he's a great route runner who excels at high-pointing downfield throws.