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A history of blockbuster wide receiver trades, and what that means for Antonio Brown and the 49ers

© Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

From a pipe-dream idea on fan message boards to, according to Vegas, the most likely outcome, the “Antonio Brown to San Francisco 49ers” offseason saga has been nothing short of fascinating so far. In a media landscape that is abound with reckless speculation and baseless claims that more often than not lead to barren results, it’s looking more and more likely that every member of the Faithful’s fantasy dream scenario may actually come to life.

As the NFL season went on, reports of off-field issues between Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continued from seasons past, despite the fact that the on-field product seemed minimally affected, with Brown going for almost 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Steelers, however, failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and their relationship with the seven-time Pro Bowler was seemingly severed beyond repair.

Since the end of the season, it’s seeming more and more likely that Brown is going to be the newest member of the 49ers. Steelers owner Art Rooney II has come forward saying it’s “hard to envision” seeing Brown returning to the team, Brown has been adding the 49ers and their players on social media, and he has even gone as far as telling Jerry Rice that he would like to play at Levi’s Stadium next year.

So here we are, waiting for a deal to be dealt. No player can be traded until midnight of March 13th, which allows for plenty of time to speculate this monster deal. Not only would trading the four-time All-Pro be one of the biggest blockbuster deals of the season, but it would potentially be the biggest trade for a wide-out in a decade. In that vein, let’s look at some of the biggest wide receiver trades of the recent past, and see what that means for the 49ers and Brown.

2017- Kelvin Benjamin traded from the Carolina Panthers to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a 2018 third and seventh-round pick.

Benjamin’s frame is the type that most NFL franchises covet, but his skill and performance on the field left the Bills wanting more, with Benjamin catching just 39 balls and two touchdowns in 18 games during his time in Buffalo. Earlier this season, he was released by Buffalo and claimed on waivers by the Kansas City Chiefs. With the third round pick they received in the trade, the Panthers selected nickel-corner Rashaan Gaulden, who recently signed a four-year, $3.44 million contract.

In his first full year since Benjamin’s departure, Cam Newton threw for almost 3,400 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2018, all improvements from the prior season. While the book on Kelvin Benjamin is not fully written yet, the story so far has been one of high hopes and diminishing returns.

2014- Percy Harvin traded from the Seattle Seahawks to the New York Jets for a 2015 sixth round pick.

The once explosive force who terrorized the NFC during his stint in Minnesota had become a negative presence in the Seahawks locker room as well as a major cap hit, holding a six-year, $67 million contract. The Jets decided to take his deal on, and in New York, he gained 350 receiving yards and ran for 110 yards, catching only one touchdown in eight games. Seattle used that sixth-round pick in a deal to trade up for receiver Tyler Lockett. The team has stayed relevant as a Super Bowl contender since the deal.

As stated above, the Harvin experience was unsuccessful in New York, and he was dumped along with head coach Rex Ryan at the conclusion of the 2014 season. Harvin followed Ryan to Buffalo for two fruitless seasons, and he retired from the NFL in 2017.

2010- Randy Moss traded from the New England Patriots to the Minnesota Vikings for a 2011 third and seventh round pick.

In theory, the addition of Randy Moss would give Brett Favre the deep threat he needed in conjunction with Sidney Rice to make a Super Bowl run. In actuality, however, he was highly critical of head coach Brad Childress from the beginning, and the entire experiment was a disaster. With the third-round pick in the deal, the Patriots selected Ryan Mallett 74th overall.

New England, of course, has maintained the consistent excellence that the team has shown for the entire Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, and will be competing for their sixth championship as a franchise in February. Moss, however, went on to spend the twilight years of his career with the Tennessee Titans and the 49ers, where he narrowly missed out on a championship of his own.

2008- Roy Williams traded from the Detroit Lions to the Dallas Cowboys for the 2009 first, third, and sixth round picks.

While Williams’ tenure in Dallas is nothing to turn your nose at, with 1324 yards and 13 touchdowns in two-and-a-half seasons, he came nowhere close to living up to the expectation Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had set for him. In addition to this trade, the Cowboys locked Williams in with a five-year, $45 million extension, $20 million being guaranteed. The Cowboys failed to reach the playoffs in the 2008 season, but in 2009 made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, capping off their 11-5 campaign.

The 2008 Detroit Lions completed their infamous 0-16 season after Williams’ departure but quickly turned their franchise around in the 2009 NFL draft, drafting franchise quarterback Matt Stafford with the first overall pick and tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the first-round pick from the Williams deal. The following season, the Lions finished 7-9 and have since maintained a presence in the league as a playoff contender.

This trade has become one of the hallmarks for over-evaluating talent, serving as a cautionary tale for NFL GMs ever since.

2007- Randy Moss traded from the Oakland Raiders to the New England Patriots for a 2007 fourth round pick.

After a seven-year stint in Minnesota of absolute dominance, Moss spent two uneven seasons with the Oakland Raiders where he gained a combined 1500 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. While those numbers are respectable for most NFL wide receivers, Moss’ time in Oakland, whether it was feuding with teammates or the front office, became a toxic affair for both the team and Moss.

In trading Moss, Oakland gave New England their deadliest target of the decade, going for almost 1500 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first year with the Patriots. New England, riding Moss’ massive season, completed a perfect regular season. The David Tyree miracle took away the Patriots’ fourth championship in seven years.

Oakland, however, continued to spiral into irrelevance after trading Moss. Using the pick they received from New England, the Raiders drafted cornerback John Bowie, who tallied two total tackles in his NFL career. Since 2007, the Raiders have had seven different head coaches and reached double-digit wins only once (2016), which was the first time they reached the playoffs since 2002.

Moss to New England is perhaps the best comparison for a potential Brown to the 49ers deal.

So, what does this all mean for the 49ers?

Despite the doom and gloom that the history of trading wideouts may portray, the fact of the matter is that, other than Moss to New England, none of those players come close to Brown’s talent at the time of their trades. While it is unlikely that the 49ers will give up this year’s second overall pick to snag him, due to defensive needs, acquiring Brown will cost a pretty penny.

Brown’s dominance and sustained excellence on the field is sure to command a high price in the trade market, and if the 49ers are as eager for him to join their team as he is, then parting with a future first-round pick is entirely within the realm of possibility.

With so many questions to be answered regarding his future, the only certainty is that it’s going to be fun to watch.


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