As NFL training camps begin to ramp up, so too has the free-agent rumor mill. Star wideout Antonio Brown is interested in a return to football, and the Baltimore Ravens are reportedly high on the list of teams he wants to join.
But for his stellar play on the field, the seven-time Pro Bowler has faced his share of controversy off it. After being traded to the Oakland Raiders by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 2019 season, Brown repeatedly butted heads with Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and was released a few days before the season began.
Then after being picked up by the New England Patriots, several sexual misconduct allegations arose, and Brown was cut from the team after one game. And this offseason, Brown pleaded no contest to felony battery and burglary charges stemming from an altercation with a truck driver.
So is the on-field production worth the baggage for the Ravens?
“I think it’s a decision that every person ultimately in a position of power has to make,” ESPN NFL reporter Jeff Darlington said on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 4. “I don’t necessarily know if you can put the other stuff aside for an organization that [is six years removed from the Ray Rice scandal]. It remains a very dark spot for that organization.”
Brown was suspended for the first eight games of the 2020 season by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy with regard to his recent incidents. Darlington said it’s possible but unlikely that the suspension will be lengthened barring any additional news about his off-field behavior. That means the earliest he would be eligible to play for Baltimore if he signs with the team is Nov. 15 against the Patriots.
And if that happens, Brown would bring an immediate impact. Across parts of 10 seasons with the Steelers and Patriots, he posted 11,263 receiving yards and 75 touchdowns during the regular season and is a four-time first-team All Pro.
But there are a couple of on-field concerns. Brown has been out of the league for nearly a year and is likely past his prime at 32 years old. For CBS Sports NFL analyst Phil Simms, even if the risk is worth taking, it might not be necessary.
“It’s such a unique football team … and I think I’m leaning toward just don’t go down that road,” Simms said on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 10. “You’re going to talk about him nonstop. The press is going to cover him nonstop. And it’s going to be talked about in the locker room nonstop. It takes away from the team. It’s a little bit of a distraction. And … the whole team in general, their roster is unbelievable.”
Baltimore operates a run-first offense but is also deep at receiver. Marquise Brown, Willie Snead and Miles Boykin combined for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, while tight end Mark Andrews is a favorite target of quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Adding Antonio Brown would bolster the team’s depth but could also take away opportunities for younger receivers like Boykin and rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Still, Simms sees Brown as a real threat in the Ravens’ offense if they acquire him.
“I don’t think you can sit there and you play the Ravens and go, ‘We have to double team Antonio Brown and hope we can stop the rest,’ because you won’t stop the rest,” Simms said.
Beyond the high levels of production, Brown has a personal connection to the Ravens. Marquise Brown is Antonio’s cousin, and he and Jackson have reportedly lobbied the organization’s management to acquire Antonio for at least this season. But while both Simms and Darlington said it is important for general manager Eric DeCosta to consider his stars’ wishes, it should ultimately be the boss’s decision.
“Lamar Jackson does hold some weight in the organization and so too does Marquise,” Darlington said. “That said … you cannot let the players in the locker room make that decision because it’s too divisive. And quite honestly, Antonio is a guy who can be a really good teammate but can be a real headache for upper management.”
Though Darlington said no contract appears imminent, it is a situation that bears watching. The other major player in the Brown sweepstakes is the Seattle Seahawks, though their interest has reportedly waned in the last few days.
Still, Darlington said that Brown’s credentials and talent is what’s keeping him around, despite the off-field controversies. But for Darlington, his skill might not be enough to outweigh the potential pitfalls of signing the veteran receiver.
“If I was a general manager … I would have a difficult time trusting that the situation was going to unfold in a net positive,” Darlington said.
For more from Darlington, listen to the full interview here:
For more from Simms, listen to the full interview here: