SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There has been nothing subtle about the flirtation between Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and the San Francisco 49ers. Or, better put, between various players on the Niners' roster and Brown.
Before we dive into the pros and cons of a potential union between the 49ers and Brown, let's recap the very public evidence indicating that Brown would like to be a Niner and that potential Niners teammates would like to remove the potential qualifier from the equation.
Sup? @AB84— George Kittle (@gkittle46) January 1, 2019
Soon after rumors of a potential divorce between Brown and the Steelers began to spread in January, 49ers tight end George Kittle tweeted at Brown, a move that Kittle told Jim Rome during Super Bowl week was the result of a dare from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Brown responded positively to Kittle's tweet and his response spurred a retweet from Garoppolo himself. Brown then followed various 49ers-related accounts.
All the emojis and tweets were one thing, but Brown's apparent interest in the 49ers seemed far more real when 49ers legend Jerry Rice joined the fray, telling 95.7 The Game, a radio station in San Francisco, that Brown wants to come to San Francisco "really bad." That was after Brown posted an image on his Instagram of a FaceTime conversation he'd had with Rice. Brown even went so far as to post a doctored photo of himself in a Niners uniform embracing Rice.
In the end, even after Brown officially requested a trade Tuesday and thanked Steelers fans via Twitter, none of that stuff matters much because it doesn't account for the only variables that truly count: whether the Steelers will actually trade Brown, what the price would be if they do, whether the 49ers decision-makers are truly interested, what they'd be willing to give up and how that would compare to other offers the Steelers could get.
At this point, the Steelers haven't been in a hurry to move Brown, though owner Art Rooney II has acknowledged that it's "hard to envision" Brown still with the team come training camp while also keeping the door open for a reconciliation.
For their part, the Niners have not and will not publicly comment on potential interest in Brown out of deference to the NFL's tampering guidelines.
But coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have long maintained they will always at least explore any option that could make the team better.
With that in mind, here's a look at what Shanahan, Lynch & Co. must weigh when it comes to Brown.
The case for acquiring Brown
First, the easy part: Brown is one of the best receivers in the NFL and the 49ers have a pressing need at the position. Kendrick Bourne led San Francisco receivers last year with 42 catches for 487 yards. Over the past 15 seasons, the 49ers have not had a receiver post more than the 85 catches and 1,179 yards they got from Anquan Boldin in 2013. Since Brown became a full-time starter in 2011, he has averaged 103 receptions, 1,380 yards and nine touchdowns. In the past five seasons, Brown has averaged 115 catches, 1,529 yards and 12 touchdowns. He'd instantly be the best 49ers wideout since Terrell Owens, an easy fit in Shanahan's receiver-friendly scheme and the ideal complement to Kittle.
He could be a bargain. If Pittsburgh trades Brown, it will accelerate the rest of his $19 million signing bonus to this year, eating $21.12 million in dead money on the salary cap. If the Niners traded for Brown before the fifth day of the league year, they'd be on the hook for cap numbers of $15.125 million in 2019, $11.3 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in 2021. For one of the league's best wideouts, that would be excellent value, especially since the Niners project to have between $60 million and $70 million in cap space.
There is no A.J. Green or Julio Jones to be found in this year's draft class, meaning the Niners are unlikely to take one with the No. 2 overall pick or even after a trade down to a spot lower in the top 10. They could still find needed help at the position later on, but none would have the quick and significant impact of someone like Brown. Likewise, the free-agent market is barren when it comes to top-end wideouts.
The case against acquiring Brown
Would Brown fit in the locker room? The 49ers have a tight-knit team, and the reason Brown could be available in the first place is because of the off-field issues he has had in Pittsburgh. Brown reportedly skipped practices before Pittsburgh's season finale on Dec. 30 after he clashed with teammates, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. More recently, reports surfaced that Brown allegedly pushed the mother of his daughter to the ground in Florida on Jan. 17. Brown was not arrested in the alleged incident and his lawyer released a statement saying "the closed police report proves that Antonio Brown did absolutely nothing wrong." The NFL has said it is reviewing the incident. Brown is also facing two lawsuits stemming from an April incident in which he allegedly yelled at security and threw items off an apartment balcony. On Tuesday, Brown was found guilty on a reckless driving charge that resulted from a November incident where he cited for driving over 100 miles per hour. Considering the Niners' recent history with linebacker Reuben Foster and his many off-field problems, taking on Brown might be too much to handle for a roster full of impressionable young players.
The cost could be prohibitive. It's unclear what Pittsburgh would want in a trade, but it's hard to envision the Niners parting with a first-round pick for Brown, and even a second-round choice or two seems as if it's more than what San Francisco would be willing to offer. Anything less than that and Pittsburgh would have to weigh whether it would be better off simply keeping Brown rather than taking little compensation and eating so much dead money. It's also possible that Brown could demand a new contract or new money be added to his deal in the event of a trade. As mentioned above, Brown would be a bargain under his current deal, but a new deal on top of major trade compensation doesn't seem like a combination that would fit San Francisco's plans.
Brown will be 31 at the start of next season. He doesn't seem to be slowing down at all in terms of production, but there aren't many players who can maintain his level of dominance into their mid-30s. If the Niners are going to give up anything of significance, they'd have to be convinced Brown can maintain a reasonable approximation of his production for at least the three years left on his contract.