Antonio Brown is a paradox. On one hand, he is an iconoclast who has challenged many of the standard assumptions concerning the modern prototype for NFL receivers. On the other hand, Brown has attained his current status at the vanguard of the league’s receiving hierarchy by upholding—and outperforming—many of the conventions that have enabled his peers to thrive.
Brown’s most identifiable hallmark, arguably, is his route running ability, which is terminology that falls somewhere between “gritty” and “high motor” on the meaningless qualifier spectrum without proper context. To provide some objective evidence confirming Brown’s superiority as a route runner, consider this: according to NFL’s Next-Generation Stats, Brown averaged 2.92 yards of separation at target, which was the best mark in the NFL by 0.15 yards. What this figure indicates, obviously, is that Brown is the best receiver in the NFL when it comes to getting open. To inject some hyperbole, this is a remarkable statistic. Brown is faster than his pre-draft 40-time indicates (Brown claims to have run a 4.35 last year), but Brown was not listed among the league’s fastest ball carriers in 2015 or 2016. More generally, Brown is fast but rarely is he the fastest dude on the field.
Naturally, Brown’s ability to gain separation (and 2.92 yards might as well be 2.92 miles in the NFL) has translated to Hall of Fame-worthy production. Brown finished an impossibly-good 2014 season in which he caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns with an even better 2015 campaign, catching 136 passes (the second-most ever in a single season) for 1,834 yards (the fourth-most ever in a single season) and 10 touchdowns. To further contextualize his ridiculous production, Brown’s 106-catch, 1,284-yard season represented a considerable statistical drop-off, and he still finished 2nd and 5th in the league in receptions and yards, respectively.
Despite the fact that Brown turns 29 in July, it is not unreasonable to assume that Brown can provide the Steelers with several additional years of off-the-chart production, which should the make the record-setting four-year, $68 million ($17 million AAV) look like a bargain. This is a bold claim, but Brown has the following factors working in his favor: a) Brown adheres to a meticulous training routine and has done well to avoid any major injuries and b) playing at a high level into his 30s would not be unprecedented. Jerry Rice, the gold standard at wide receiver, had eight 1,000-yard seasons after turning 30, including a then-record 1,848 yards when he was 33. Larry Fitzgerald, 33, the lone receiver to best Brown’s reception total in 2016, has posted 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in each of his past two campaigns. Terrell Owens had at least 800 receiving yards in every season but one after turning 30. In the lone season in which T.O. missed that mark, he posted 763 yards in seven games before suffering an injury. He was 32 that year. Former Baltimore Raven Steve Smith, whose physical stature is similar to Brown’s, has achieved considerable post-30 success, as well.
Through seven professional seasons, Brown boasts career single-season averages of 90 receptions, 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns (and this includes his 16-catch, 167-yard rookie campaign). If Brown maintains this average for the remainder of his current contract, he will be in the top 17 all-time in receiving yardage and the top 15 in receptions. And this is a conservative appraisal.
Surely, the narrative outlining Brown’s success despite his diminutive status is overplayed, but it is worth mentioning that should Brown permeate the top-20 in career yardage, he would be among the smallest players to do so, joining Smith and Harry Ellard, who was 5-foot-11 during his playing days. In a way, Brown’s success has altered the way in which scouts judge smaller prospects. The Julio Joneses and A.J. Greens of the world still occupy positions in the upper echelon of NFL receivers, but now, perhaps more than ever, crafty route runners like Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and T.Y. Hilton are just as dangerous and valuable as their physically-imposing counterparts.
With training camp still about a month or so away, use this dead period of the NFL offseason to appreciate the fact that the Steelers employ one of the league’s best receivers.