Weeks of Antonio Brown trade speculation came to an end early Sunday morning when the Pittsburgh Steelers reportedly agreed to send him to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks.
The star receiver also lands a lucrative contract upon joining his new team, reportedly becoming the NFL's highest-paid receiver with a three-year deal that will pay him up to $54.1 million and includes $30.1 million in guarantees.
Here are five key takeaways from the blockbuster trade.
Name a better businessman in today's NFL. How about in league history? The sports world will spend the coming days wondering how a talent like Brown could possibly net the Steelers no more than a couple of mid-round picks, and understandably so. There are several reasons the compensation ended up being what it was but, like everything else in this situation, the star receiver was at the controls.
The biggest winner from this deal, without question, is Brown himself. He wanted out of Pittsburgh, and he got out. He wanted nothing to do with Buffalo, so the reported trade that would have sent him to the Bills quickly fell apart. He wanted a new contract from whichever team traded for him, and the Raiders obliged. The fact that his new team is moving to Las Vegas in 2020 is a nice little bonus for the bank account, as the absence of state income taxes in Nevada only adds to his take-home. You can bet his contract is structured in a way that allows him to best capitalize on that next year.
Brown got all this done despite being only two seasons into the five-year extension he signed with the Steelers in 2017, and just one year after a contract restructure paid him another massive signing bonus last offseason. That pair of deals meant Pittsburgh would incur a crippling $21.1 million in dead money on the 2019 salary cap for trading him, an obstacle many considered a complete nonstarter when trade talk first surfaced. Yet he got out and got paid again, anyway. That just doesn't happen in the NFL. Much like we've seen from some star players in the NBA, this was a masterclass in finessing. And it's fair to wonder whether others who may find themselves in a similar situation in the future now have a blueprint to follow. Mr. Big Checks, indeed.
Long having leaned on an explosive crop of offensive playmakers to maintain a place among the NFL's elite, the Steelers suddenly find themselves in a spot nobody could have seen coming this time last year. Gone is Brown, who's posted six consecutive seasons of 100-plus catches and at least 1,200 receiving yards, and Le'Veon Bell will soon follow him out the door as a free agent. Plenty of blame for this mess will be thrown at the players, presumably from the team and fans alike, but in reality the Steelers brought a lot of this on themselves. This isn't simply a matter of bad luck with big personalities.
Let's start with Bell, who is headed for free agency after opting to sit out the entire 2018 season rather than playing on the franchise tag. One could reasonably argue that the Steelers were right to avoid the long-term deal he was seeking, but assuming he'd continue to go year-to-year, and potentially risk his long-term security, certainly blew up in their faces. Now a two-time All-Pro running back walks away for nothing, and the Steelers don't exactly come out of it looking great from a player relations standpoint. It's a business, they say, but that matters.
For Brown, the underwhelming trade compensation was, for the most part, taken out of the Steelers' hands. Pittsburgh's front office likely did everything it could to maximize the return, initially aiming for a 1st-round pick and more, but things on that front became more difficult when he went public with the team's drama and made it clear that he'd need a new contract. Brown has and will continue to be criticized for the way he went about it, but what's it to him? He got what he wanted and called the Steelers out in the process. Doesn't the team bear some responsibility? Brown's issues with the Steelers organization, tearing apart what once appeared to be a strong relationship, seem to run pretty deep. General manager Kevin Colbert supporting Ben Roethlisberger's regular and public criticism of teammates, while suggesting the veteran signal-caller has "52 kids" on the team, speaks to the exact issues Brown was raising. One player being treated so much differently, quarterback or not, isn't going to sit well with others. The issue with that dynamic doesn't just go away because the most vocal opposition is no longer there. For a team that prides itself on culture, the Steelers have a ton of work to do.
How's that for your first big move as a general manager? The ultimate wild card joining the Raiders after years as the lead draft analyst at NFL Network, few in the football community really knew what to expect from Mike Mayock. It's unclear what his role alongside Jon Gruden is for moves like this, as the head coach still has final say on all personnel decisions, but the early returns on the new organization structure are promising either way.
During a wild first offseason with Gruden back at the helm, the Raiders flipped a 2018 third-round pick to the Steelers for Martavis Bryant. The young receiver ended up not making the roster, rejoining the team for eight games, getting hurt, and then being suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his previous reinstatement. Again dealing with the Steelers a year later, and this time faced with a first-round-pick asking price, the Raiders come away with a future Hall of Famer for a third and a fifth. Brown will be 31 in July, and the move doesn't come without risk, but getting it done at that price is a no-brainer.
The resume speaks for itself - Brown is a massive addition for Derek Carr and the Raiders' offense. He's one of the few receivers in football capable of single-handedly taking over games, and a profile as an elite route-runner should give him the opportunity to continue his dominance for several years to come. Even more promising for Oakland, however, is the apparent approach taken in these talks. The Raiders being linked to Brown from the beginning had many wondering if Gruden would jump at the chance to get a superstar receiver he admires, not thinking twice about offering up the premium pick the Steelers sought. But at the risk of losing him to another team willing to go higher, the Raiders evidently stuck to their valuation, not moving any of their three first-rounders or, as it turns out, even their second-round pick (No. 35 overall). The Khalil Mack trade, seen by many as a panic move when contract talks weren't going anywhere, put a dark cloud over the team last season. Whether it's Mayock's incoming presence, Gruden finding his groove, or the two forming the strong tandem the Raiders envisioned, this savvy trade is a far more promising sign for the rebuild.
When the Raiders announced their move to Las Vegas, everyone within the organization spoke of a desire to win another Super Bowl for Oakland before leaving town. It was a nice thought, to be sure, but that whole idea went down the drain early on in Gruden's return season. Trading Mack just one week before the opener put a damper on any optimism, and the talent deficiencies throughout the rest of the roster were made abundantly clear thereafter. With the Raiders' plans for 2019 still up in the air throughout the year, a 4-12 campaign made for a disastrous potential sendoff.
Now, as the team seemingly closes in on a lease agreement to play one last season in the East Bay before the move, so too comes another chance for a proper goodbye. A Super Bowl would be a wildly unrealistic expectation, but Brown's arrival, in addition to a number of premium draft picks and perhaps a few free-agent signings, will make the Raiders a whole lot more interesting in 2019.
All of a sudden, this could become a team worth watching. Fans in Oakland have a reason to be excited, as do those waiting for the team's 2020 arrival in Vegas, and both are important considerations for the organization in this period of transition.
The general fan just may want to follow along, too. Nobody knows exactly how good the Raiders will be in 2019. The Brown trade alone certainly doesn't make Oakland a playoff contender, and it's just one of many moves to come as Gruden and Mayock look to reshape the roster this offseason.
Good, bad, or somewhere in between, though, one thing is for certain: this team will be one of the NFL's most interesting stories. A rock-star head coach known for his wild sound bites, the rare GM who is a household name among football fans, an All-Pro receiver big on both talent and personality, a highly paid quarterback entering a pivotal year, and, with a return to Oakland on the table, perhaps one more season of Marshawn Lynch.
The Raiders have "Hard Knocks" written all over them, and it just so happens they are one of the few clubs which, based on certain criteria, can be selected for the HBO training camp series without volunteering. Has there ever been a more obvious pick?