Play Him? Cut Him? What Should the Patriots Do About Antonio Brown?

Not even 72 hours had passed from the first reports of Antonio Brown’s signing with the Patriots before the circus followed closely behind.

Brown, after arriving in New England on Sunday, finds himself in the midst of a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault and rape in Florida in 2017 and 2018.

Even the rosiest of projections for Brown’s tenure in Foxboro came with potential distractions, but this is a whole other level.

It doesn’t look like Brown’s career with the Patriots is over before it begins, at least not yet. He was at practice on Wednesday afternoon wearing No. 1 rather than his customary No. 84, which currently belongs to the suspended Ben Watson.

Speaking at his press conference on Wednesday morning, Bill Belichick was both in rare form and brief. After beginning with praise for this week’s opponent, the Miami Dolphins – who lost 59-10 to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, mind you – Belichick deferred to official statements already made by the Patriots organization, as well as Brown’s representation on the matter.

As the interrogation from reporters on the Brown matter began, the only question Belichick gave a definitive answer to was whether or not the wide receiver would be at practice.

What about the game on Sunday?

“We’re taking it one day at a time, just like we always do,” Belichick said, his press conference flaming out after a little more than 4 minutes.

The Patriots seemingly have three options with how to proceed with Brown, none of which are ideal.

Let Brown play as the legal process resolves itself

True, the Patriots didn’t have to give up any draft capital to acquire Brown, but they did just hand him a $9 million signing bonus. They have a right to protect their investment.

There’s precedent for New England allowing players to remain on the active roster while under investigation for various offenses, including Julian Edelman and Albert Haynesworth in 2011, as well as Randy Moss prior to Super Bowl XLII (charges against Edelman and Moss were ultimately dropped, while Haynesworth pleaded no contest).

The NFL Players Association would likely file a grievance if Brown were released, given Brown has not yet been convicted of any crime.

On the chance that this is all some big misunderstanding, what the Patriots have in Brown is a consensus top-five receiver in the NFL who is coming off of the best six-season stretch in league history for anyone at the position. Why move on from him before you have to? New England is the favorite to win Super Bowl LIV with Brown, and his presence is enough that you can daydream of atoning for 2007 and watching the Patriots finish off a 19-0 campaign in what could be Tom Brady’s final season.

Jumping to conclusions is always dangerous, no matter how heinous the accusations.

Release Brown

It's far from an apples-to-apples comparison, but New England did release Aaron Hernandez after he was arrested in June 2013.

Cutting Brown would cripple the team’s cap space for the remainder of the season, but it would rid the team of Brown and any other potential distraction that may pop up as it pertains to his case. He’s been using Stickum for far more than just his gloves with the amount of trouble that seems to follow him around.

Subtracting Brown before he even plays a snap for the Patriots would lower the ceiling for New England’s offense, even if it looked invincible in a mesmerizing performance against Brown’s old teammates on Sunday.

Still, Brown’s history of causing problems in Pittsburgh and Oakland is well-documented. While the majority of his reputation stems from being a nuisance in the locker room, he’s also been accused of domestic violence and child endangerment in the past.

Inevitably, there’ll come a week where both Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon surpass 100 yards receiving while Brown finishes with two catches for 12 yards. That’ll go over great, right? Just ask JuJu Smith-Schuster how Brown reacted when he was named Pittsburgh’s team MVP in 2018.

There’s also another side to the coin that few people have brought up: are we sure Brown isn’t about to enter decline? He’s 31, with nine years of NFL wear and tear already on his body. While Brown was stupendous in 2018, catching 104 passes for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns, he caught only 61.9 percent of his targets – his lowest mark since becoming a full-time starter in 2013.

The Patriots almost always move on from a player a year early rather than a year late. Throw in the risk of sending the locker room into turmoil and it should feel like a no-brainer, even if upside remains tantalizingly high.

Hope that Brown winds up on the commissioner’s exempt list, maintaining Brown’s rights

This is hardly a best-case scenario given the seriousness of what Brown’s accused of, but the fact is that these remain allegations.

The commissioner’s exempt list, which is, in essence, a paid suspension, has been used in recent years for players such as Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown and Kareem Hunt.

Having faith in the commissioner’s office is a bold leap of faith, of course. Roger Goodell wasn’t exactly, um, helpful after the alleged removal of air pressure from footballs in 2015 (as an aside, if the current situation surrounding Brown doesn’t expose just how ridiculous Deflategate was, I’m not sure what will).

Losing Brown indefinitely would hurt New England’s offense, but would it cripple it? Chances are slim to none the civil suit would be resolved before the end of the season, meaning that Brown would in all likelihood become a free agent prior to his removal from the exempt list.

This situation, just like everything involved with Brown these days, is fluid. Information that’s relevant now could change completely in the next 24 hours.

A player with Brown’s immense talent seldom becomes available, though it becomes easier to understand when you realize that Brown is a human soap opera.

No matter what else pops up, the Patriots are likely to have to make the call themselves on whether or not Brown debuts on Sunday. Suffice it to say, they don’t need him to take on the Dolphins.

If at all.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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