Press Coverage

Antonio Brown's NFL employability: Still worth risk? For which team?

In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JEFFRI CHADIHA leads off a roundtable on Antonio Brown's employability.

The longest running soap opera in the NFL just offered its latest twist this past week. The league announced that free agent wide receiver Antonio Brown will be serving an eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the league's personal-conduct policy. That punishment will start in Week 1, whether Brown is on a roster at that time or not, and he's also subject to another penalty if the league finds evidence to support the sexual assault allegations made against him by a former personal trainer. So after endless months of relentless drama, there is once again the possibility that Brown could be playing football this year.

Anybody who follows the NFL surely knows Brown's tale by now. He's had well-publicized beefs with all three teams that have employed him since the start of the 2019 calendar year: the Steelers, Raiders and Patriots. He's been irate about the helmet he could use on the field and he's been plagued by foot issues related to an ill-fated trip to a cryotherapy chamber. Brown also has retired once, unretired, implied he's retiring again, changed his mind once again, received two years of probation (after pleading no contest to battery and burglary charges related to an alleged attack on a moving truck driver), lost millions in potential revenue and created countless controversial posts on social media.

In short, he's been an absolute mess.

Even with everything that has swirled around Brown of late, he remains an intriguing figure. He's only 32 years old and has accomplished a lot in this league. During his 10-year career, the former sixth-round pick has been named to seven Pro Bowls, earning first-team All-Pro honors four times. When focused, Brown arguably has been the best wide receiver in football. Over the six-year span from 2013 through 2018, Brown averaged 114 catches for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns per season.

This all brings us to the topic of the day for Press Coverage. My colleagues (Judy Battista, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter) and I have covered a ton of pro football, so much that we all know it takes a lot for the NFL to lose interest in a player with talent. We all realize Antonio Brown is good enough to get another job this year. The question we'll ponder in this space is whether A.B., after everything he's gone through, is actually still worth the risk. Let me open this up to the floor ...

MICHAEL SILVER: It was about a year ago that we began to understand the depth of Brown's bizarre behavior during his star-crossed stay with the Raiders, which included an unexcused absence during training camp that the Hard Knocks producers did everything in their power to ignore.

Eventually, after reportedly uttering a racial slur at Raiders GM Mike Mayock, Brown was released -- and the New England Patriots, as well as millions of NFL fans, fell into a familiar trap.

All Brown needed, many believed, would be a locker room with a "strong culture," and he'd fall in line and follow the rules. Surely, the aura of Bill Belichick alone would be enough for Brown to turn on the charm and be the second coming of 2007 Randy Moss.

I was a skeptic, largely because of Brown's pattern of seemingly unstable behavior and the poor direction in which that was trending. When the Patriots signed Brown last September, I told Rich Eisen, "I give this four weeks."

He lasted 11 days. Then New England released him amid allegations of sexual assault.

Since then, as Jeff touched on above, Brown has been through a lot. Most significant, in my view, is that Brown has said he's undergoing mental health treatment. Obviously, this is much bigger than football, and if mental health professionals can help guide Brown to a better place, it would be a wonderful development.

It would also open my mind to the notion that he could make a dramatic comeback during the second half of the 2020 NFL season and give a contending team a huge lift.

It's a big if, and there's a lot we don't know. I do know that two very well-run franchises with strong locker room cultures, the Seahawks and Ravens, have done due diligence. In each case, they've received positive reports from players who've spent time working out with Brown during the offseason, and as I reported in June, they've internally discussed the possibility of signing him.

I'd love to see Brown get another chance. But most importantly, I hope he gets his life in order -- otherwise, as we saw last season, it's not going to end well for A.B. or anyone involved with him.

JIM TROTTER: First things first: I do believe Brown will be signed. The greater a person's talent, the more opportunities he/she gets to screw up. That's applicable in society at large, not just the NFL, and Brown's talents are indisputable. He is a Hall of Fame-caliber player, blessed with amazing hands and precision route-running. He also has a legendary work ethic. So when (not if) he joins a team, he will have an immediate impact.

But I'd like to spin this in a different direction and address whether he should get another chance. My personal opinion is that he should not until and unless he is cleared in the NFL's sexual-assault investigation. Brown has denied the charges, but his unstable behavior over the past two years speaks to a need to proceed with caution rather than expediency.

An owner has to ask whether the ends justify the means and if how you win is less important than whether you win. To me, there should never be a workplace where men who abuse or assault women are given second chances. Some things should be non-negotiable. I feel the same about DUIs. If a player is convicted or pleads down in a DUI case, he should be banned from the league. Harsh? Yes. But the NFL has an anonymous safe-ride program that's designed to keep players from drinking and driving. Even so, some will still throw back a few and get behind the wheel, endangering the lives of innocent citizens as well as themselves. Non-negotiable.

Back to Brown. The allegations against him are disgusting. Signing him without knowing the results of the investigation sends an implicit message that what you tolerate you condone, which is why no club should sign him until and unless he is cleared of the allegations.

JUDY BATTISTA: I happened to cover the last game Antonio Brown played, for the Patriots against the Miami Dolphins last season. It was squeezed in between his poisoned departure from the Raiders and his poisoned departure from the Pats. At the time, we all focused -- correctly -- on the departures and the reasons for his forced exile. Because of the circumstances -- the NFL was just about to begin its investigation into the rape accusation leveled by Brown's former trainer -- we did not spend much time on how he looked in that one game last September.

What I remember about that game: Brown looked very, very good, especially considering he had signed with the Patriots just a week earlier. He lined up outside and in the slot, ran the ball on a reverse and caught a touchdown pass on a perfectly placed back-shoulder toss from Tom Brady. For strictly football reasons, it's no wonder Brady did nothing to hide his displeasure with the Patriots' decision to release Brown just a few days later. Based on that performance alone, you can understand why Brady wanted to play with Brown -- and why Lamar Jackson and apparently Russell Wilson are still lobbying to play with him. Even with limited practice, A.B. was clearly capable of still being among the best -- if not the best -- receiver in the NFL.

Of course, for Brown, the last few years have never been strictly about football. His very public behavioral deterioration was alarming. That the last few months have been relatively quiet is much more important for the resumption of his career than how many balls he catches off the JUGS machine. If we can get a positive answer to the most important question -- Is Brown healthy, mentally and emotionally? -- then the answer to the question Jeffri posed is easy: Brown is absolutely worth the risk if you believe the risk has been minimized.

But not yet. The NFL is still working on its investigation into the trainer's rape accusation, and when that probe concludes, Brown could be suspended for additional games. Thus, if any organization were to pounce on Brown right now, those front-office decision-makers wouldn't just be signing a player who'll be unavailable until Week 9 (at the earliest) -- they'd be signing a player who is still the subject of an ongoing investigation into sexual assault allegations. I've been disappointed by decisions of teams and the NFL before, but that would be quite a statement about how little value a franchise places on women.

Having said that, once that investigation is over -- and even if Brown has to serve an additional suspension for that allegation -- I think he could ultimately be worth the risk and should get a chance to play again. Once the investigation is complete and the NFL has reached its conclusion, Brown's status will no longer be in limbo. Everyone will know where he stands with the league. And a well-structured organization could take a low-risk/high-reward chance on a dynamic player who would help any offense. If he goes to a team with a strong coach and a strong quarterback -- and yeah, a strong PR staff -- even Brown at his worst can do little damage. He would simply be released if trouble were to flare up again. Seattle and Baltimore are certainly places that could absorb Brown and just as easily slough him off, if need be.

Only Brown and the people closest to him can tell teams if the downward spiral he was on has ceased. I suspect his history -- particularly the way he forced three teams to give up on him -- will limit his suitors anyway. I hope Brown is healthy. I hope his behavior, within a team and outside of it, has changed. And I hope that when the investigations are over, he gets a chance -- a limited, tightly-prescribed one.

CHADIHA: This is a tough one for me. I agree with what everyone already has said: Brown has so much talent that it's impossible to think he's going to go unsigned all year. My issue is that he's been off the rails for so long that it's hard to not see trouble on the horizon for whomever employs him next. The man was jettisoned by three different franchises within a span of seven months.

I'd actually love to see Brown playing football again, just because he's one of the most dynamic players in the game when he's right with himself. The problem is that he hasn't been right for a long time. The highlights of the player who consistently dominated defenses for years have now been overshadowed by the continual images of a young man in obvious distress. I don't know if a return to the NFL means Brown actually will conquer the mental-health demons he's been battling.

My guess is that Brown ends up on a playoff-caliber team with an incentive-laden deal. As Judy said, any franchise that signs him is going to want a reliable escape hatch in the event that he becomes a headache again. I'd even say the quarterback he ends up with is more important than the head coach. As much as Lamar Jackson has lobbied for Brown becoming a Raven, I don't think Baltimore's front office wants the star signal-caller potentially facing the controversy that would come if Brown went south. Seattle's Russell Wilson has faced far more difficult moments within his own locker room and his experience might make it easier for him to help Brown stay on the straight and narrow.

I truly believe Brown is best served if he doesn't walk into his next job feeling entitled. He obviously had that sense when he was with the Raiders and that situation disintegrated at warp speed. Brown seemed to be on his best behavior in his first few days in New England -- when Tom Brady was taking him under his wing and the Patriots viewed him as a critical game-changer in a limited offense -- and then the news broke about his former trainer, Britney Taylor, filing a civil lawsuit that alleged Brown of rape and sexual assault. A few days after that lawsuit became public, a female artist told Sports Illustrated that Brown allegedly made unwanted sexual advances towards her in 2017.

This is the main issue with Brown. It would be one thing if a team knew all this stuff was behind him. However, a franchise has to believe Brown: 1) has grown up; 2) has learned from his past mistakes; and 3) did not commit the crimes that he's accused of in the sexual-assault case. That's a lot to hope for, even in a league where talent trumps everything.

So, do I think Brown will find a job? Yes. Do I think he's going to be worth the risk in the end, particularly when teams already have enough to worry about with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? From everything I've seen over the last couple years, I just can't find a way to believe that's the case.

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