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A Vegas getaway ruined and ‘never close’ calls

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Mike Mayock hadn’t rested since New Year’s Eve, the day he formally transitioned from make-believe television general manager to Oakland Raiders GM.

The longtime NFL Network draft analyst spent so much time inside the Raiders’ compound breaking down film and learning the job that coach Jon Gruden — the notorious workaholic — thought Mayock needed a break.

So Gruden, at the behest of Raiders owner Mark Davis, invited his GM and their respective significant others to Las Vegas for some relative R&R the weekend of March 8. After all, the new league year and free agency would be starting the following Wednesday.

Except their biggest job yet awaited them as soon as they touched down. Antonio Brown, the game’s best wide receiver, had undergone a tumultuous two months with the Pittsburgh Steelers and wanted out. He was available for trade and ready to negotiate exclusively with Oakland. And so over the course of the next two days, Mayock spent his Vegas getaway on the phone negotiating with Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who was at Brown’s home in Miami.

“Instead of having a nice double date, we dated [agent Drew] Rosenhaus and Antonio Brown,” Gruden said.

The Brown saga sent shock waves through the NFL because of the star power involved. Rarely is a player of Brown’s caliber available for trade, especially with three years left on his contract.

And the trade partners were at opposite ends of the spectrum with the player. While one NFL regime was imagining the possibilities with a new offensive weapon, another was in divorce proceedings with a player who disparaged them publicly, bizarrely dyed his mustache blonde and demanded more money after six straight 100-catch seasons.

Brown’s trade market didn’t promise a bevy of high picks. Even the Raiders, who coveted the instant offense Brown provided, were reluctant to part with significant capital.

Both sides made the best of an untenable situation, with Oakland giving up third- and fifth-round picks in exchange for Brown, who was re-signed to a three-year contract for $50.125 million with $30.125 million in guaranteed money and $4 million in incentives.

“I’m not aware of a guy with three years left on his contract to get $11 million of new, real money and having another $30 million in guarantees, fully guaranteed,” said Rosenhaus. “I’d never seen that before with three years left and not adding years. … We’ve all seen how many guys are cut one year into a long-term deal. It’s been kind of a one-way system. In this particular instance, you had a player who said, ‘This isn’t an ideal situation for me.’ For guys around the league, this is a positive development for players. And they have Antonio Brown to thank for it.”

The deal might have been made in Vegas, but over two-plus months it made its way from Florida to Alabama to Buffalo.

Best to make ‘clean break’

While Steelers players were cleaning out their lockers the day after the season ended with a 9-6-1 record, Brown already was thinking about where to store his cleats in 2019.

Rosenhaus first called Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert about Brown’s desire to be traded on Dec. 31, the day after the 2018 regular season concluded, Rosenhaus told ESPN. Brown wasn’t in the building that day, and players were trying to make sense of an exhausting Week 17 in which Brown was not present for a day of work.

Brown’s relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin had deteriorated. In the final week, Brown believed he was made a scapegoat for the team’s problems and stayed true to his story that Tomlin sent him home because of his injury.

“It just didn’t seem realistic it would continue in a healthy way moving forward,” Rosenhaus said. “I reached out to Kevin and said there doesn’t seem to be a productive solution outside of a trade. No one wanted to rush into a hasty conclusion. The feeling was, if there’s a way to salvage this, let’s explore this. It really wasn’t something I don’t think the team wanted to do out of the gate. But it became apparent to the club it was in everyone’s best interest to get a clean break.”

Technically, this wasn’t a formal trade request. Privately, it was time to entertain life without Brown. By mid-January, Pittsburgh believed Brown, who will turn 31 in July, would have at least a decent trade market, possibly garnering a first-round pick. Multiple league sources at the time forecast a “small but strong” market, which played out over the next two months.

Colbert met with Rosenhaus twice in January — at the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19 in Florida and the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26 in Alabama — to discuss Brown’s future. By that point, the Steelers were prepared for anything but hadn’t begun shopping Brown in earnest.

First, the Steelers — most notably, team president Art Rooney II — wanted to hear from Brown directly. Corralling everyone involved for a meeting took time, with several scheduling “misfires,” Rosenhaus said. They settled on Feb. 19 at the West Palm Beach Airport. They arrived in separate cars, shook hands across from the terminal and headed to a meeting room.

“Once we all got together … really the summation of it was we are all disappointed that we are at this point,” Colbert said. “The point we made to Antonio was, ‘Look we love you as a player, we thank you for what you did for us for the past nine years. I am disappointed we didn’t get you a Super Bowl and I still think you are a Hall of Fame candidate.'”

Brown’s bizarre behavior on social media had been off-putting for the franchise. He grew the mustache, posted a highlight video saying goodbye to Pittsburgh before the team even agreed to trade him and criticized Tomlin and Roethlisberger publicly.

But the team remained patient, figuring the in-person meeting would curb those issues.

Brown highlighted to Rooney his “spectacular” nine years in Pittsburgh and requested they take a picture together.

“There was always a sense of doing things a right way,” Rosenhaus said. “Never at any point was there bad blood. And his commentary died down after that, out of respect for that meeting.”

All parties understood Brown would be a Steeler in 2019 if a trade partner couldn’t be found, Rosenhaus said. But they didn’t discuss contingencies because of confidence a deal would materialize.

Brown and Rosenhaus outlined criteria for the trade: A quality quarterback, a winning organization which would give Brown a new contract and a head coach with a sound offensive background and philosophy.

That new contract was a hurdle for many teams. Brown had deemed himself “Mr. Big Chest,” and that meant he wanted new guarantees on his remaining three years (at approximately $39 million) with Pittsburgh.

The New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans had legitimate interest at points during the process, according to a source. The New England Patriots were believed to have interest, but the Steelers had no plans to send an All-Pro to a perennial AFC favorite.

The belief was at least one team was willing to trade a first-round pick if the contract hadn’t been a factor, a source said.

The Steelers granted Rosenhaus clearance to speak with the Buffalo Bills early in the week of March 4. That meant the Steelers felt comfortable with draft compensation and it was time for Brown to get involved.

Rosenhaus spoke with general manager Brandon Beane on March 5, and Beane made clear then he would tweak Brown’s remaining deal but wouldn’t redo it. That was a nonstarter for Brown, so both parties agreed it wouldn’t work and never revisited.

In the early hours of March 8, NFL Network reported the Bills were “closing in” on a deal for Brown, who quickly called any deal with Buffalo “fake news” on social media. Rosenhaus woke up in the middle of the night to the story and worked to clarify, knowing a deal was not in place.

“I never spent a lot of time with the Bills on this,” said Rosenhaus, who stressed Brown’s issue with Buffalo was solely contract-related, not an unwillingness to play there. “We were never close.”

That was too bad for the Steelers, who felt strongly about Buffalo’s package, according to a source. Many around the league believed part of the package included swapping Pittsburgh’s No. 20 overall pick for Buffalo’s No. 9 pick.

By March 8, the Steelers didn’t have an overwhelming favorite and were simply looking for the best package.

Raiders get in late

Despite being linked to Brown since he first went on the market, the Raiders, who have three first-round draft picks and four picks in the first 35 selections, were not in on him until much later in the game.

Oakland made earnest efforts to land Brown on the afternoon of March 8, as the Steelers had granted Rosenhaus permission to speak with the team.

“When AB came into the picture, it wasn’t something that we necessarily planned for,” Mayock said. “I thought somebody would give [Pittsburgh] a first-round pick, and we weren’t willing to give up one of our three. So when the Buffalo deal fell through and, all of a sudden, we had an opportunity to make a play for him, Jon and I were 100 percent in agreement that, at the right price, we had to go do it. He’s a game-changer. He’s one of two or three offensive players in the league you have to game plan for every week, talking about non-quarterbacks. So we felt like it was something we had to do.”

Brown believes he has a few prime years left and is eager to prove he’s not a Steelers creation.

But Rosenhaus and Oakland were still trying to bridge the money divide by the evening of March 8. Rosenhaus left Brown’s home in Miami that night thinking a deal might be off completely and new teams would need to emerge. Rosenhaus declined specifics on the exact sticking point with Oakland, but he acknowledged both sides weren’t “on the same page” on the two key elements of the deal: new money and overall guarantees.

On March 9, Rosenhaus spoke with Colbert, who encouraged trying again with Oakland, according to a source. So Rosenhaus reconnected with Mayock in the evening for more fruitful talks. Rosenhaus worked from Brown’s large dining room table while the player waited for the green light to tweet out a photoshopped picture in a Raiders uniform.

Shortly after midnight on March 10, Brown posted the image to #raidernation after both sides agreed to a deal: the Steelers acquired Oakland’s 66th and 141st picks in the 2019 NFL draft in exchange for Brown.

“Kevin Colbert from Pittsburgh did a great job in getting this thing close,” Mayock said. “Drew Rosenhaus was amazing because there were some times where I wasn’t sure if we were going to get there or not. Anytime you have a high-profile negotiation like this, there are points to be made by both sides. You have to get through some things. Drew did a great job keeping this thing alive.”

Of course, the Raiders had to ask about Brown’s ugly departure from Pittsburgh. They came away satisfied.

“I did do a pretty deep dive with some of the Pittsburgh people I know,” Mayock said. “But the point is, for the majority of his career, could you criticize him for wanting the football more? Sure. But tell me a great wide receiver that doesn’t want the ball, right? So, he’s got some of that in him. But at the end of the day, he was a positive force in that building for a lot of years. Whatever happened last year, happened.

“The way I look at it is the opposite — I look at it like … he’s a little pissed off, he’s got something to prove [and] I think he’s going to come out and prove it in Oakland next year and we’re going to be the beneficiaries.”

The connection between Gruden and Brown was instant. Mayock arrived to work and was delighted to see the two watching 400 clips of Brown’s play in Gruden’s office like “little kids in the laboratory” while Brown was in town to sign his deal.

Brown, though, did not see himself as a trailblazer in his introductory media conference on March 13, hours after the league year began.

“I’m not here to sell all the characteristics of what is this or what is that,” Brown told ESPN that day. “My actions will speak louder. I’m here with a lot of pressure. A lot of optimism. I’m just embracing it all. Obviously, I know there’s a lot of work to be done. Today is just the first day of getting started. I’m excited about the process. We’ve got a lot of things to show, a lot of things to do. Today is just the first day of getting those things started.”

A ‘disappointing’ breakup

Tomlin played a pivotal role in selecting Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, spent nine years watching his career explode and managed the player’s eccentricities almost daily.

But in the end, Tomlin summarized the breakup as simply “disappointing” and “unfortunate” before leaning on a cold NFL reality.

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Ryan Clark goes off on Antonio Brown after his posts attacking JuJu Smith-Schuster saying that it is uncalled for.

“Change is a part of our business and we’re comfortable with the talent we have and our plan to add to that talent and develop that talent,” Tomlin said.

The Steelers have more chances to do just that. They didn’t get the first-round pick they coveted early in the process, but getting Oakland’s 66th pick was important because it was basically a late-second-round pick. Plus, the team — fresh off a year-long headache over Le’Veon Bell‘s holdout — wanted to move on from another disgruntled player.

Colbert isn’t concerned with how Brown’s behavior might have affected the trade market.

“I can’t estimate what their challenges were,” Colbert said. “We were excited to get a third and a fifth, especially as high as those picks are in those respective rounds. As I stated, now we have four picks in the top 83, and 10 picks in the top 219, so we are picking once out of every 21 picks, so we are in much better shape draft-wise than we were prior to that trade. … We found something that we were excited about and we made the deal without hesitation.”

Despite averaging 1,500-plus receiving yards a season since 2013, Brown was willing to throw away his connection with Roethlisberger in exchange for a Las Vegas star turn for the Raiders’ 2020 relocation.

The wounds are raw for Steelers fans. Years from now, perhaps healing can begin.

“He’s excited about being with the Raiders, but that won’t take away from the overwhelmingly positive experience he had in Pittsburgh during nine years with everyone affiliated with the team,” Rosenhaus said. “He wants to maintain a relationship with the Steelers as one of the best to ever put on the uniform.”

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NFL, NCAA team up for safety improvements

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INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL is teaming up with the NCAA to make football safer.

Two of the league’s top medical experts, Jeff Miller and Dr. Allen Sills, spent Monday and Tuesday in Indianapolis meeting with NCAA officials, college team doctors and trainers. Both told The Associated Press they hope it’s just the first of many meetings.

The focus until now has been primarily on concussions. But Miller and Sills are placing even more attention on the prevention and treatment of lower-body injuries such as sprained ankles, strained hamstrings and knee problems.

League officials have been collecting data about cleat traction and how cleats release from different playing surfaces in an effort to keep players healthy. They also believe college researchers can help expedite the process.

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Police — Former RB ‘He Hate Me’ Smart missing

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Police in South Carolina have put out a missing person advisory for former Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers running back Rod Smart.

The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office says that Smart — perhaps best known for his “He Hate Me” jersey in the XFL — was last seen Wednesday in Indian Land, South Carolina.

“It is unusual for him to be out of touch for this long,” police wrote in the advisory. “Mr. Smart’s family is worried about his safety and well-being.”

Smart, 42, played in one season for the Eagles (2001) and four with the Panthers (2002-05). He came to fame for his “He Hate Me” nickname, which he was allowed to put on his jersey for the one season of the XFL in 2001.

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Fantasy football — When to expect a breakout for WRs, and when to give up on them

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For a long time, the rule was the same: Year 3 is the breakout age for NFL wide receivers. It hardly mattered if the player struggled during his first two seasons. That third year is when you wanted him on your radar. That’s when he would make or break his career.

Then 2014 happened.

Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry were all in the top 31 among fantasy wide receivers, and the likes of Allen Hurns, Taylor Gabriel, Brandin Cooks, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, John Brown, Donte Moncrief and Martavis Bryant made noise as well.

That historic season has raised expectations for rookie wide receivers, but production has returned to earth in recent seasons. That begs the question: Is Year 3 still an important season for wide receivers?

The answer: Sort of.

How long should you wait for a breakout?

If we look at the current stable of star wide receivers (we’ll use my latest 2019 top 25 for reference), 21 of them posted their first season with 150-plus fantasy points — roughly the threshold you’d need to reach to achieve a top-40 fantasy campaign — in their first two seasons. The exceptions are Davante Adams (third year), Adam Thielen (third), Julian Edelman (fifth) and Tyler Boyd (third).

A list of all wide receivers who have entered the league since 2007 shows that 125 have posted at least one season with 150-plus fantasy points. Interestingly, 123 of them first achieved the feat prior to their sixth season in the league. Here’s a breakdown of when those receivers reached that threshold for the first time:

Rookie season: 36 (29 percent)
Second season: 44 (35 percent)
Third season: 23 (18 percent)
Fourth season: 12 (10 percent)
Fifth season: 8 (6 percent)
Sixth season: 2 (2 percent)

Some simple math tells us that a whopping 64 percent of wide receivers who will reach that 150-point mark at some point in their career have hit it by the end of their second season. An astounding 82 percent have by the end of their third season and 92 percent by the end of their fourth season.

What does it all mean? Two things come to mind:

1. Year 2 appears to be the more accurate “breakout” year for wide receivers.

2. If a wide receiver hasn’t broken out by the end of his third season, he’s a long shot to ever reach fantasy relevance. And if he doesn’t by the end of his fourth season, you can all but cut bait.

This season’s breakout candidates

Let’s apply what we learned above to 2019 and beyond.

For starters, let’s go back to my 2019 rankings. I noted that everyone in my top 25 has already managed at least one top-25 campaign. If we dig deeper, we find a few players who have yet to reach that goal.

The first is the 49ers’ Dante Pettis, who is entering his second season after a promising rookie campaign (104 points). No worries here, as the 2018 second-round pick is right on track and positioned for a big role in his second season. The same can be said for the likes of Christian Kirk, Keke Coutee, Michael Gallup, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Anthony Miller and James Washington. All failed to reach 150 points as rookies, but history suggests there’s no need to worry just yet.

The second player in my current rankings who has yet to reach 150 points is more notable: Will Fuller V. He is entering his fourth NFL season but has yet to clear 134 points in a single season. Injuries have been the obvious culprit (17 missed games), so it’s possible he could fall into the aforementioned 10 percent of receivers who reach the mark in their fourth season. If we extrapolate Fuller’s per-game production over 16 games, his point totals would’ve been 146.5 as a rookie, 181.1 in 2017 and 243.0 last season. The latter would’ve ranked 14th at the position. Hope remains for the vertical threat.

Other notable players who have yet to clear 150 points despite at least two seasons in the league: Packers WR Geronimo Allison, Panthers WR Curtis Samuel, Dolphins WRs Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant, Redskins WR Josh Doctson, Jaguars WR Chris Conley, Bengals WR John Ross, Ravens WR Chris Moore, Chiefs WR Demarcus Robinson, Patriots WR Phillip Dorsett and Broncos WR Tim Patrick.

History says most of these players will never emerge but that there will be a few exceptions. Let’s take a look at a few players from the list who are well positioned for a 2019 leap and could be those exceptions:

Allison, who went undrafted in 2016, has yet to finish a season as a top-100 fantasy wide receiver, but he was well on his way to a breakout in 2018. Working as Green Bay’s No. 3 receiver, Allison was averaging 7.25 targets per game and sat 28th in fantasy points through Week 4 prior to suffering a variety of injuries. He’s the favorite for No. 2 duties in 2019, which could allow a late breakout.

Samuel is another player on the list who appears primed for a 2019 leap. After producing 179 yards on 19 touches during an injury-plagued rookie season, the 2018 second-round pick put up 578 yards and seven touchdowns on 47 touches (137 fantasy points) in 13 games last season. Injuries have been an obvious issue, but Samuel is still only 22 years old and no lower than second in line at wide receiver for targets in Carolina.

Miami is in the midst of a rebuild, but Wilson is a name who could emerge in an offense with more questions than answers. The 26-year-old sat 25th at the position in fantasy points in 2018 prior to a season-ending hip injury. His primary competition for snaps in 2019 will be DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and Grant. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Wilson leads the team in targets.

Ross is worth a note, as the former first-round pick and 40-yard dash record holder enters his third season. It’s possible Ross will be rejuvenated in Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s offense, but it’s hard to want to invest much in a player who has arguably been the least efficient receiver in the league over the past two seasons. Ross scored an unsustainable seven touchdowns (4.8 OTD) last season and has caught a horrific 35 percent of 60 career targets. It’s possible the 23-year-old takes a huge step forward this season (as Nelson Agholor and Tyler Boyd have the past two years), but that makes Ross worth no more than a late-round flier.

The impact of NFL draft position on fantasy relevance

To wrap up this study, I took a look at draft pedigree to see how it translated to 150-plus-point seasons. This should be no surprise, but there is a large correlation.

Incredibly, 73 percent of wide receivers selected in the first round since 2007 have posted at least one season with 150 or more fantasy points. The average season of their career in which they achieved the feat was 1.7. In fact, 27 of the 32 got there in their first two seasons, with Nelson Agholor, Tavon Austin, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Robert Meachem managing it in Year 3. At least one first-round wide receiver from each draft class has hit the mark except for 2008 (none drafted) and 2016 (Corey Coleman, Will Fuller V, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell).

Of course, the hit rate declines relatively consistently as the draft progresses, with wide receivers selected in the sixth and seventh rounds extreme long shots for fantasy success. The likes of sixth-rounders Antonio Brown and Pierre Garcon and seventh-rounders Julian Edelman and Stevie Johnson don’t come along often. This should give you pause about investing in 2019 sixth- and seventh-round picks, including Kelvin Harmon, KeeSean Johnson and Travis Fulgham. Even if you feel one of the late-round picks could succeed, you should exercise patience. Of the seven sixth- or seventh-round wideouts who have reached the 150-point plateau, only Brown did it prior to his third season.

By the way, note that 19 undrafted wide receivers have reached the 150-plus-point mark during this window, though they aren’t included in the chart since it’s nearly impossible to track all undrafted wide receivers who have made a stop on an NFL roster. The hit rate would figure to be between 4 percent and 7 percent — a range we see for sixth- and seventh-rounders.

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