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If there’s one issue I’ve noticed Bucs fans are totally divided on this offseason, it’s whether or not the team should bring back Antonio Brown for the 2021 season. In today’s Bucs Briefing, we’ll look at the reality of Brown’s offseason market and future potential role on the team, before diving into the pessimistic viewpoint and the optimistic viewpoint on the star receiver’s potential return to Tampa Bay.

Realist’s Take

One of the biggest hurdles to predicting whether Brown will return to the Bucs in 2021 or not is cost. Brown is one of the most difficult free agents to predict a market for this offseason, with a civil lawsuit against Brown that alleges sexual lawsuit and rape not scheduled to go to trial until December 6, 2021. That puts almost a full season between Brown and his next known court date, which could entice a team enough to make the wide receiver a more lucrative offer than Tampa Bay can afford.

I asked two cap experts, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus and Over The Cap and Ian Whetstone, top NFL Twitter follow for those interested in the salary cap, what kind of offers Brown was likely to garner when he hits free agency in a few weeks. Answering unbeknownst to each other, both experts gave me nearly identical answers.

“I still feel like because of non-football reasons it’ll be 1-year, $3-$5M with incentives to boost it, but not more than that in base value,” Spielberger said. “Just too risky otherwise.”

“I think he’s looking at another one-year deal, and I would guess still not a ton of base value,” Whetstone said. “Maybe $3-5 million, with significant incentives on top?”

Both agreed that Brown’s contract offers are difficult to estimate, but it seems certain that Brown clearly isn’t commanding anything significant on the open market. Still, a team with more cap space like the Jaguars or the Patriots could make Brown a more enticing one-year offer, and offer more playing time, targets and opportunity to hit those incentives that will almost certainly make up a large portion of the receiver’s next contract.

Bucs QB Tom Brady and WR Antonio Brown

Bucs QB Tom Brady and WR Antonio Brown – Photo by: USA Today

Brown will also be 33 in July. Combine his age with his off-field and locker room concerns, and it’s unlikely he’s going to price himself out of Tampa Bay significantly enough to drastically change the financial picture for him. Brown is definitely in it for money more so than a Mike Evans, but at what cost? He’s 33 and he has to know that he’s in the twilight of his career, with a chance to end it with back-to-back Super Bowl titles. It’s pretty unlikely Brown will be on a better team than the Bucs this upcoming season, and I don’t know that enough money is going to be on the table to make him choose that over the steps to close his career on a high note that he can take in Tampa Bay.

As for the Bucs, if they feel they have the leverage in negotiations with Brown, they can probably bring him back for a year at about a $3-4 million cap hit laden with incentives, similar to what they’ll probably offer Rob Gronkowski. The team can afford to entice with incentives, given those would be applied to the 2022 cap, when the Bucs’ cap situation is currently positioned to be one of the top three in the NFL.

As for his role, Brown’s ability to play every wide receiver spot on a given snap is a huge reason why Tampa Bay was so interested in him last season, but Brown will never be a 1:1 replacement for the diversity of Chris Godwin’s skill set in the slot of a Bruce Arians’ offense. But Brown can still run every route from every alignment, and is excellent at working against press coverage on the outside. His ball skills remain outstanding, and the chemistry with Tom Brady started to click into place down the stretch of the regular season. Brown might also the Bucs’ best run-after-catch receiver, a role that mattered a lot more when offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich expanded the wide receiver screen package after the Week 13 bye week.

There shouldn’t be any concern about Brown finding a role in Tampa Bay, but it will come at the expense of Scotty Miller, whose production per target was off the chain in 2020. If Brown were to return, look for the Bucs to increase their four-wide receiver packages in 2021, although tight end O.J. Howard will also be back in the fold. There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Bucs’ offense, so Brown will need to buy in with a selfless mentality if he wants to be back in Tampa Bay.

Optimist’s Take

For Brown, there will be no better spot for him to play than Tampa Bay, unless his goal is a few more bucks or another shot at 100 catches. He’ll still get plenty of opportunities playing with Brady, and will assuredly benefit from almost never facing an opposing top cornerback in man coverage again. The production will come, and there won’t be a better locker room in the NFL to help keep Brown focused on football and out of trouble.

Bucs WR Antonio Brown

Bucs WR Antonio Brown – Photo by: USA Today

As for the Bucs, this is it. Their Super Bowl window may eventually extend beyond 2021-2022, but right now the next year or two is all they have been promised with Brady and this current group of skill players. Why not go all in again? Brown is still an outstanding talent that doesn’t come along very often at this affordable of a rate, and his understanding of the offense and connection with Brady is only going to grow in 2021. He’ll be hands down the best WR3 in the NFL, in an offense that can never be too loaded at wide receiver, and his ability to make an impact after the catch is a skill the Bucs other receivers lack outside of Godwin at times.

There is also little contractual risk involved, as Brown won’t cost the team much and will almost certainly have personal conduct language in his contract so the team can retrieve any guarantees if the 11-year veteran does get into trouble again. The locker room is also rock solid, so there is little concern that Brown will have a negative impact there either. And if he screws up, the team is in position to move on with no impact on their cap situation beyond this season.

Pessimist’s Take

Brown is a ticking time bomb, and the Bucs have made a lot of purposeful moves over the past few years in order to be an organization that stays out of those kind of headlines. I’m all for second chances for people and athletes, as long a there is a real acceptance of past transgressions and a real quest to speak and act in opposition to the behaviors once exhibited.

I’ve seen and heard nothing from Brown to indicate that he truly is a changed person, or that he believes he was really at fault for the downward spiral that became his NFL career in 2018-2019. In fact, the penultimate time Brown was in front of a microphone he spent more time addressing “haters and doubters” and “overcoming adversity” than what he had learned or how he had grown and changed as a person.

If that change hasn’t happened, can Brown really be counted on to stay on the straight and narrow with a full offseason between now and the next time he’s back in the facility? And do the Bucs want to be in the headline if he falters again? Tampa Bay has made it a point of valuing character in the building of its current locker room, so is signing Brown worth continuing to deviate from that principle?

Bucs WR Antonio Brown

Bucs WR Antonio Brown

I won’t deny Brown’s brilliance as a player, but Miller was this team’s leading receiver when Brown started his first game for Tampa Bay last November. If Brown is back, Miller’s snap counts will again be limited, even if the Bucs deploy more 10 personnel (four wide receivers). Is taking that kind of explosiveness and speed off the field really worth it? Miller’s yards per target were 24th in the league last season, and that’s with the team feeding him a bunch of quick screens early in the season before realizing his talents were better utilized elsewhere.

Miller is far more one-dimensional than Brown, but in the Bucs’ vertical-based offense, there is a real value to having him on the field more often than he’ll be out there if Brown returns. Add in Tyler Johnson eating into more of Miller’s snaps as they split the fourth receiver role, and you can see where it will be hard to get Miller enough snaps to maximize his value.

Brown is a great talent, but he’s aging and the Bucs need to figure out what they have in Johnson and Miller. Their wide receiver room is already loaded, and the former Steelers star might not be worth the drama that seems to inevitably come with him. Tampa Bay has gone this far unscathed with Brown, perhaps they should consider getting out before things take a turn for the worst.

Final Take

Although the pessimist’s take made the correct points about character and how it should matter in the case of re-signing Antonio Brown, the reality is that we know this is a football decision. The Bucs made their bed with Brown’s history of transgressions when they originally signed him in 2020, now they have to lie in it.

On the field, there is no question that having Brown on the Bucs in 2021 makes them more of a contender to repeat. He is still an outstanding football player and there has been very little drop-off from his prime in Pittsburgh. Brown’s biggest issues last year were mastering the playbook and getting on the same page as Brady, neither of which should be concerns in 2021. Yes, finding ways to get Miller on the field will need to be a priority, but Brown is clearly the more talented all-around player.

If Brown is as affordable as the salary cap experts Pewter Report spoke with, the Bucs are likely to extend an offer, especially if they are able to re-sign their more important free agents as expected. And it would probably be in Brown’s best interest to accept, making it more likely than not that the troubled, but talented star receiver returns to Tampa Bay for at least one more run at a world championship in 2021.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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Captain Sly
3 months ago

Great write up Jon, to me AB is the Golden key to how our FA falls this year. If you get AB for 1yr $4mil that’s extreme leverage for when negotiating other deals. Bucs priority is at pass rusher so you better find a to keep Shaq or replace him because tying up most of your cap at WR is not Smart Money.

LVBUC2
3 months ago

We have a lot of weapons’, a lot of moths to feed.
I would franchise Godwin. During that time I would see if there is a team that wants to give us a 1st round or more for him. I would sign Brown to a 3 yr dear averaging around 5 million a year.
Evans, Godwin at 16 million, Miller, Johnson < Evans, Brown 5 million, Miller, Johnson and 1st round draft pick plus space to sign other players. You got to take emotion out of it.

Horse
3 months ago

Here’s my thoughts. Bown’s YAC is average at best. Brown is not a deep threat anymore. If contract is loaded with incentives, can that cause a different kind of issue as to reminding Brady over and over he needs the ball. Brown’s drop passes and blocking is more average than not. How much real value is there still left, Conclusion: I would only sign him if there was cap space at the end of the line, not the beginning.. .

SenileSenior
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

Agree!

Eddie
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

Dropped passes. I seemed to remember Goodwin had much more drops that Brown who had soft hands , as do Evasns and ran precise route.

Horse
3 months ago

One last thought here Jon. Why would Brown be worth more than Brate? Clearly Brate has done much more than Brown. That would be SLAP IN THE FACE TO bRATE.

Captain Sly
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

“Slap in the face to Brate” This is not a fair comparison. Brate plays TE and TE have never earned as much as WR, Brate also has never made a Pro Bowl where as AB has been 7x including 4x 1st team All Pro & 2 SB rings to boot. Excuse me while I get wipes to clean up my coffee I just blew everywhere!

replica
Reply to  Captain Sly
3 months ago

I think the slap in the face to Brate would be letting him go and keeping Brown, not comparing dollars. Lets also not forget Brown has not been all pro or even a pro bowler in years

Captain Sly
Reply to  replica
3 months ago

Sorry guys but I don’t know what else to say or how else to say it. It’s two different positions. Come On Now!

drdneast
Reply to  Captain Sly
3 months ago

Agreed Capt.Sly but the reasons you cited to support your argument about Brown were based on facts that were three of four years old. Brate is overpaid at $6.5 million but Brown would be over paid at anything over $3 million. They are both probably worth the same amount since OJ Howard seems to take up permanent residence at the trainers table every year.

ScottC543
3 months ago

Was there a single Miller catch with ANY YAC last year? Yes, he made some big plays for us, but I can’t remember a single one where he ran with the ball after making the catch.

AB was just getting fully up to speed at the end of the year. He’ll be better here next year than he was this. Re-sign AB for a reasonable number for a year or two, and fit Miller in where you can when the game situation is right.

drdneast
Reply to  ScottC543
3 months ago

Yes, many.

SenileSenior
3 months ago

Yes, I believe that the Buccaneer brain trust is focussed intensely on this year and the effort to produce another Super Bowl winning season. I also believe that Licht and the Glazers are looking to the future as well. I am ambivalent about bringing AB back. He is an superb performer and a heckuva insurance policy for our offense. However, if his presence on our roster means sacrificing the longer term benefits of having Scotty Miller then I would be opposed to bringing AB back this year. As a long suffering Buc fan I don’t want to see that significant of a dropoff after… Read more »

eaustinyoung
3 months ago

AB still has an absurdly high ceiling compared to most receivers. He’s just an insane athlete and has hands like glue.

drdneast
Reply to  eaustinyoung
3 months ago

I just don’t see a lot of teams jockeying in line to sign a 33 yo WR with a Borderline Personality Disorder.
I believe the Bucs were the only team to offer him a contract and even though he had a good year, so did a lot of other good but not great receivers out there.
The incentive laden contract seems to be the way to go and you can never have enough good players.

bucballer
Reply to  drdneast
3 months ago

Agree drdneast. Incentive laden indeed. Look, AB is an asset to this team. No doubt. The reason he is here to begin with is Brady! U have Brady talk with him about his commitment to the Bucs and their desire to go all in with another chance to win a ring. Licht knows what price he has slotted for AB. If AB balks, then he is gone. There will not be a shortage of WRs that would love to play with Brady. It’s not hard. He either wants to play with Brady another year or not. I don’t think a… Read more »

PatrioticChief
3 months ago

It would surprise me if AB was the most productive receiver on the roster in 2021 if he stays healthy and keeps his nose clean. No disrespect to Godwin or Evans but even at the height of their powers they weren’t as good as AB was. Yes, AB may not be the best receiver in the NFL anymore but with half a season and an offseason under his belt he will be a force for Tampa. We’ll see what happens with his off the field stuff. There is a difference between giving him no offseason, half a year to grind,… Read more »

Dave
Reply to  PatrioticChief
3 months ago

It also wouldn’t surprise anyone at all if he was suspended for 8 games In August, because he punched a barista at Starbucks in the face, because they forgot the Splenda in his coffee. Sadly enough, I think that’s more likely, than him leading the team in receiving lol

bucballer
Reply to  PatrioticChief
3 months ago

AB is definitely not better than Evans or Godwin! Not even AB has 7 consecutive 1000 yard receiving seasons! AB is a good WR now(33). He WAS a better WR earlier in his career. He is a valuable asset to the team. But he’s not WR1 or WR 2. He is a solid WR 3. Let’s not get it twisted. He will have a problem making it through a 17 game season. Pay accordingly! Keep in mind, that the Bucs with Brady at QB can find a WR3 To replace AB very easily. In fact, I think our WR 3… Read more »

Saints Fan
3 months ago

Stop low balling. Gronk and AB are not going to play for less than $5M. There are bums in the NFL making more than that. Will end up more like $6M e.

Captain Sly
Reply to  Saints Fan
3 months ago

Wow! Closet Ain’ts fan snuck on the pirate ship to lecture us on managing the cap..You just paid your noodle arm QB $50mil to choke & a backup gadget QB $18mil to run wildcat while somehow trading picks for an overpriced, injury prone LB who got injured yet Again. Yeah we’re the Champions but let’s copy the Ain’ts and see where that gets us. Not!

ScottC543
Reply to  Captain Sly
3 months ago

Thank you for that reply.