Trading A.J. Brown wasn't solely about the salary cap for Tennessee Titans | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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This couldn’t have been just about money. I believe there’s still a lot we all don’t know – and probably aren’t going to know – about what happened in recent days and weeks to separate the Tennessee Titans from one of their bestand favorite players in A.J. Brown.

It’s difficult to accept or defend something you don’t fully understand.

So I couldn’t wholeheartedly agree with general manager Jon Robinson trading Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles and drafting wide receiver Treylon Burks to replace him.

But I did respect it.

For all the moves Robinson has and will make for the Titans, few - if any - will be more indelibly significant than what he did Thursday night.

I'd imagine, too, that he'd prefer a move so consequential to be an addition. This was subtraction. This was the GM of a contending team opting to send away one of the most promising young talents in franchise history with a year remaining on his rookie deal.

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Say what you will about Robinson, but that took guts.

It took conviction. It took self-confidence in his own beliefs and background – a nod to the New England Patriots here – as it pertains to team-building and when and where to draw a line, no matter how difficult that line might be to explain to a howling fanbase.

If this doesn’t work out, if Burks proves more bust than boom, if receiver Robert Woods doesn’t recover well from his knee injury, if quarterback Ryan Tannehill keeps backsliding and the Titans fall off a cliff next season, slamming a window shut on the franchise, it’ll go back to Robinson trading a player that so many viewed as untradeable.

When Robinson executed the Brown trade and subsequent selection of Burks from Arkansas, he did it while in a draft room alongside the team owner, Amy Adams Strunk, and reigning NFL coach of the year Mike Vrabel – who has often exalted his close relationship with Brown, so much that he said not long ago that Brown wouldn’t be on the trading block as long as he was the Titans' coach.

Considering all that, I have to believe it had to do with more than just salary-cap space.

A front office typically trades away a top player for one of two reasons. Either the team has looked at the pieces it has on the board and concluded they aren’t enough and that the slate needs to be wiped clean – or it genuinely believed that this was best for continued success in the short and long term.

In the Titans’ case, it certainly wasn’t the first one. Since a 12-win season, they paid Harold Landry handsomely to keep him – they’re not operating on the cheap – and added Woods and Austin Hooper. They’re trying to win now, and they should be.

That’s why it’s tough to sell anyone – including players on the team – on why the Titans are better positioned to go win a Super Bowl this season without Brown than they would have been with him.

Robinson’s public explanation, heartfelt as it might have been, didn't satisfy that.

He declined to delve into the specifics of the negotiation. He said the gap between what Brown wanted financially and what the Titans were willing to pay was hopelessly vast, necessitating a tough decision to cut ties now, thus allowing the team to snag a talented first-round pick like Burks to try to keep the offense chugging along as best they could.

“I just come back to the gap that we were going to have to bridge there,” Robinson said, “and it just seemed really too far for us to really make any progress.”

Here’s what Robinson didn’t answer and what doesn’t make sense: Why weren’t the Titans willing to spend more for an elite talent like Brown?

Or at the very least keep negotiating?

There was no deadline. Just because the Titans were far apart with Brown in April didn’t necessitate trading him well before his rookie deal expired after next season. 

Brown is reportedly getting about $25 million a year from the Eagles. He told ESPN’s Turron Davenport that the Titans’ offer "topped out at $16 million per season with incentives that would have driven the deal up to a $20 million average," though I've been told that the Titans were willing to go firmly to $20 million a year.

Brown told Davenport that “I would have stayed if they offered me $22 million.”

I do not believe the unbridgeable gap was a matter of only $2 million. 

My understanding is that Brown's representation was playing an aggressive brand of hardball. That he had stopped communicating with the team. That he was promising to stay off the field entirely until a new deal was reached. That he perhaps wanted to be traded.

From the Titans’ perspective, I believe this breakup had become a matter of principle as much as it was the price of a new deal.

Something prompted the Titans to conclude that Brown – be his agent’s actions or demands or lack of communication or even Brown’s disgruntled social-media act – was no longer worth the hassle or such a hefty price tag.

That they would, in fact, be better off drafting Burks instead of re-signing Brown.

So the Titans walked.

That’s a strong GM move, by the way.

A weak GM – one relatively insecure in his job – doesn't do that. He instinctively throws money at a player of Brown’s caliber to avoid an unpopular result.

If there was ever any doubt, there shouldn't be now about Robinson's status. He is rock-solid with the Titans. He works for an owner that clearly has his back and trusts a GM who has been able to turn around a struggling franchise. And why not? Robinson hasn’t had a losing season since he got here.

Until that happens, by definition, he's no loser.

That's true no matter what my email inbox is screaming about him at the moment.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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