Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown has firmly distinguished himself as a top-tier NFL receiver. His statistics over the past three seasons set him well above those posted by his peers, and he's won his own team MVP award in 2013 and 2015. Based on this information, it can be objectively deduced that Brown is a pretty valuable member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unless, of course, your name is Nate Burleson.
Burleson, an 11-year NFL veteran and current analyst with NFL.com, recently compiled a list of the NFL's five most valuable receivers, including DeAndre Hopkins, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, and, not kidding, Doug Baldwin. Notably, Burleson did not include Brown in this list.
Before we unpack this, it's important to consider two important factors; that list-making is a truly subjective art, and how Burleson defines value. In this list, Burleson expressly stated that his goal was to list five guys who made their respective offenses "significantly better" while also exhibiting all-world traits.
Now, it's fair to assume that over the course of making this list Burleson considered the fact that A) Brown plays in an offense in which he is a featured, high-volume target, and B) an All-Pro quarterback throws Brown the football. Hopkins, for example, caught 111 passes for over 1,500 yards 11 touchdowns last season in an offense in which five different quarterbacks took snaps. If Hopkins was paired with, say, Aaron Rodgers, it's fair to assume his numbers could be even better.
Burleson likely also considered an uncharacteristic four-game stretch in which Brown averaged fewer than 50 receiving yards per game after Ben Roethlisberger suffered an injury in Week 3 of the 2015 season against St. Louis. This could potentially lead observers, including Burleson, to conclude that Roethlisberger benefits Brown more than Brown benefits Roethlisberger.
From 2004 (Roethlisberger's rookie season) to 2010, Roethlisberger hit the 4,000-yard mark just once. From 2011 (the season in which Brown become a regular contributor in Pittsburgh's passing attack) to the end of the 2015 season, Roethlisberger his this mark three times. He averaged 328 yards per game in 2015, so if injuries did not cost him four full games, not only would Roethlisberger have easily eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark, he likely would've had a crack at the 5,000-yard mark. In this way, it is evident that the relationship between Brown and Roethlisberger is mutually beneficial.
There's no question that Brown is one of the league's best receivers. His numbers prove it, his accolades prove it, and the innumerable compliments that he's received from opposing coaches and players prove it. While other factors, including a coaching change and revamped offensive line, have caused the Steelers' rise from "defensive powerhouse" to "offensive juggernaut," perhaps the most central theme in this paradigm shift is Brown's rise to superstardom.
Statistics mean nothing without context, so the only way to truly appreciate Brown's value is by witnessing him in action. Not only has he become arguably the game's cleanest route runner, but he also has the ability to, as they say in basketball, move without the ball. One of Roethlisberger's hallmarks is that he has the ability to extend plays by shaking off would-be tacklers. Knowing this, Brown has become a master of simply getting open. Additionally, Brown commands double- or triple-teams, thereby allowing his teammates to get open, and, with the exception of a vicious Vontaze Burfict-induced concussion, he has never suffered from any troublesome injuries. He rarely fumbles, he's a deep-threat as well as a possession receiver, and while he lacks Hines Ward's blocking skills, he still competes hard during running plays.
So, in the spirit of subjectivity, we will live and let live regarding Burleson's list. However, if you make a list of the league's five most valuable receivers and fail to include Antonio Brown, it's safe to say that you've committed an unforgivable football sin.