FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the New England Patriots during the second quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are “closing in on” a deal to send star wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Buffalo Bills, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, in a trade sure to send shock waves around the NFL.

Rapoport noted Washington, the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans had emerged as the front-runners in the Brown sweepstakes, but Buffalo had remained in the mix in “stealth” mode. 

However, Brown responded to an NFL post on Instagram regarding the move, calling it “fake news.” 

BNBlitz.com’s Vic Carucci later reported the Bills had “inquired” about Brown but no deal was “imminent.” Carucci added he spoke to a source who deemed the deal “unlikely.” 

The 30-year-old has established himself as the NFL’s most productive wide receiver since 2013, registering at least 100 catches, 1,200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns passes in six straight seasons.

He was typically elite again in 2018, catching 104 passes for 1,297 yards and 15 scores in 15 games, failing to score a touchdown in just three contests last season.

But it wasn’t a lack of production that led to his apparent departure from Pittsburgh.

Instead, Brown had reportedly become a locker room distraction and had his attitude called into question.

The public first caught wind of his actions during the 2017 postseason, when he live-streamed head coach Mike Tomlin‘s locker room speech on Facebook Live following a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Tomlin blasted Brown’s decision.

And the wide receiver apologized on more than one occasion—both on Twitter and later in an interview with Bleacher Report.

“It was a dumb mistake,” Brown told Mike Freeman. “Can’t believe I did it, and it won’t happen again. I promise you that.”

He added: “The big thing I learned is that I have some growing up to do, and I’m going to do it. I learned a lot from it and will keep learning. I’m going to rebuild the trust with my teammates and my coaches. I promise you that, too.”

But the issues with Brown went past that one incident, as Freeman reported at the time.

“Yet it’s also true that in speaking with several Steelers players, it’s clear some felt Brown’s ego was starting to get out of control,” he wrote. “They added that some coaches, including Tomlin, believed the same. Some in the organization thought Brown cared too much this season about his stats.”

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger noted some issues he had with the receiver.

“He’s one of the best in the business, and the plays that he makes and has made over his career are so special,” he said of Brown on his 93.7 FM radio show in January 2017, per Chris Adamski of TribLive.com. “I think sometimes that overshadows the extra stuff: the hands up, the arms up, the frustrations, the pouting, the things like that.”

Any problems with the team appeared to be largely behind Brown throughout the 2017 regular season. But hints emerged that not all was well behind the scenes—from a sideline outburst in October 2017 to saying he felt he couldn’t express himself in June 2018. 

Then there was his reaction to a former Steelers employee in September 2018, who suggested much of Brown’s success was due to Roethlisberger, replying “trade me let’s find out” in a since-deleted tweet.

And while there weren’t issues for most of 2018, the team benched Brown for the season’s final game—with a playoff berth on the line—after he chose to sit out practice in the lead-up to a Week 17 showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals, according to Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“The disagreement occurred Wednesday morning during a routine walk-through practice that precedes their regular afternoon practice on the South Side. Brown was disgusted and threw a football in Roethlisberger’s direction, several sources said.

“After that, Brown did not practice the rest of the week. According to a source, it was Brown’s decision not to practice with his teammates.”

He also “did not attend Saturday’s walkthrough practice and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel,” and though he expected to play against the Bengals, he was benched and reportedly left Heinz Field at halftime.

One player described the situation and Brown’s handling of the incident “embarrassing” and “the worst I’ve seen,” per Dulac and Bouchette.

After the season, the receiver seemingly tweeted his desire to be traded. 

Add it all up, and the Steelers felt Brown’s talent didn’t outweigh any distractions.

Still, giving up on arguably the top receiver in football will be second-guessed, and Buffalo will get a star if the deal goes through. Obviously, the Steelers didn’t feel moving forward with Brown was a tenable situation, but the Bills will be thrilled to add his production and will surely be more than happy to take the good with the bad.

Brown will provide a much-needed boost to a Buffalo passing attack that was one of the league’s worst a season ago. The Bills ranked 31st in the NFL in passing in 2018.

Buffalo drafted Josh Allen seventh overall a year ago to be a franchise quarterback, and now, he will have a proven playmaker on the outside to help him fulfill his potential.

Last season, Zay Jones was Buffalo’s leading receiver in both yards (652) and touchdowns (seven). Robert Foster (541) was the only other Bill to top the 500-yard plateau. Of note, Brown had more yards (1,297 to 1,193) and touchdowns (15 to 10) than the team’s top two wideouts combined.

In other words, this move has the potential to change Buffalo’s offense.

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