Antonio Brown’s ability to make huge plays with the football in his hands had the potential to be era-defining.
The former Steeler, Raider and Patriot was as au-fait with the ball tucked under his arm as he was without it and threatened to tear teams apart with nothing more than his footballing instinct.
Put him on punt returns, kick returns, as a gadget weapon or as a receiver and he will quite literally return the favour with game-changing stat lines that he can deliver almost totally independently of the performance of the rest of his team.
In the midst of a hectic season for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, Brown would produce quite conceivably the greatest back-to-back receiving games that the sport had ever seen, as he notched a total of 313 yards and five touchdowns in wins against the Green Bay Packers in Week 11 and then the Tennessee Titans in Week 12.
In fact, despite playing just a single game of the 2019 season, Brown still ranks in the top two of all of the major receiving categories since 2013 with 68 touchdowns and over 9200 yards.
In reality then, the good side of Antonio Brown is very easy to understand.
However, if you’ve followed the NFL at all in the last two years, the career trajectory of the Miami-native has taken a very different turn, leading some to question whether Brown will ever play under the NFL name again.
Making a name for himself
Making his way through the high-school and college sporting systems, Brown was never held in the regard that some of the other top NFL prospects were in their early years.
Despite being a well-decorated athlete in the Miami-Dade area, Florida State University turned down Brown on academic concerns which led to his ending up at Division-II school, Central Michigan University.
He set school records in every category and came just two yards away from recording 1000-yard receiving seasons in all three years at Michigan, yet ranked as just the 37th best player at his position before the 2010 NFL draft in which he was eventually selected by the Steelers in the sixth round.
In the steel city, Brown quickly developed his name as one of the top special teams' players, and although he suffered a Superbowl loss to conclude his rookie season, he followed it up with his first Pro Bowl selection in 2011 as a punt returner.
The 2012 season began with the Steelers offering Brown a huge new contract extension that seemed to provide him with a huge confidence boost on the field and a huge ego boost off of it.
Over the next four campaigns, he would be selected to the Pro Bowl every single year from 2013-2017, one of the highest honours available for players, but would also be fined numerous times by both the league and his franchise as both struggled to contain the media vacuum that Brown was quickly becoming.
By the time 2018 came round, Brown had already been fined multiple times by both the league and the Steelers, for all sorts of things from cleating punter Spencer Lanning in the face on a return, to excessive celebrations and even going live on Facebook from the dressing room following a Wild Card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
He finished the season on the bench in Week 17 following an argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which proceeded a run of missed training sessions and an online dispute with fellow Steelers receiver Juju Smith-Schuster after the season had concluded.
The disagreement, which stemmed from Smith-Schuster being voted as the team’s most valuable player (MVP) caused Brown to go back and forward with his team-mate over the course of two weeks on social media, eventually leading to him requesting a trade from the team that had drafted him.
New beginnings, same old issues
A switch to the Buffalo Bills seemed to be on the cards for Brown until an online tirade from the player put pay to any hope of the move occurring and the Steelers were forced to wait until March when the Oakland Raiders offered a third and a fifth-round pick for the star receiver.
Despite achieving the move and the contract that he was looking for, a five-month spell as a Raider included giving himself frostbite to both his feet in a cryotherapy chamber, a dispute over the style of the helmet he would wear and then a heated on-field disagreement with General Manager Mike Mayock which eventually led to his release without pay and fines totalling over $260,000.
On the same day that Brown was released by Oakland, the New England Patriots signed the Central Michigan alumni to a one-year deal worth about $15 million in preparation for a Week 2 debut against the Miami Dolphins.
Although Brown would eventually play in the game and record his first touchdown in non-Steeler uniforms, he would then face allegations of sexual assault by a former trainer which would ultimately force the Patriots to part ways with Brown and release him once more.
Whilst still under investigation for those charges, Brown would be convicted of felony burglary of a vehicle and misdemeanour battery following an incident outside his house with the driver of a moving truck on March 20th.
Eventually pleading no contest to the indictments in June, Brown escaped any jail time but did receive two years of probation, 100-hours of community service and psychological evaluation for his part in the incident.
With Brown's conviction in the rear-view mirror, he has been seen working out with several of the league’s top quarterbacks in the last month as he tries to earn himself a chance at a team’s roster for the 2020 season.
The Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson and Dwayne Haskins of the Washington Redskins have both posted social media clips of them training with Brown, with both teams looking for more help at the receiver position ahead of the season’s opener.
The Baltimore Ravens are also big targets for Brown, where his cousin, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown already plays as a receiver with fellow Florida native Lamar Jackson at quarterback.
From the limited clips that Brown and friends have posted to social media, there already seems little doubt that he still possesses the blazing speed and immense hands that made him a top-three receiver in the league.
What is not as obvious is whether Brown himself is ready to commit to football.
Having seen the distraction and mess that he has left in his wake over the course of the last two years, teams will need to have a serious discussion about whether the on-field production is worthy of the off-field headaches.
This article was written exclusively for Golear.co.uk by Alex Lewis.