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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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