Antonio Brown Belongs in the Upper Echelon of All-Time Wide Receivers

Matt Kryger / The Star

Tony Toe Tap

It very well may be the most fitting nickname in sports.

 

In the final drive of a crucial game against the Saints, Antonio Brown made this ridiculous sideline catch on 4th and 15. This was Brown’s 14th reception of a game in which he also put up 185 yards and scored twice. No matter what coverage the Saints threw at the Steelers, Brown could not be stopped.

This has been the story of his entire career.

Unchecked Dominance

In his first full season (2011), Brown put up his first 1000 receiving yard season at the age of 23. He wasn’t a full-time starter until 2012 and he wasn’t healthy until 2013. Then, as a 25-year-old, Brown put up 1499 yards on 110 catches and added in 8 touchdowns. It was an elite year from a late-round draft pick, more than the Steelers anticipated when they picked him in the 2010 NFL Draft.

That was just the start. In 2014, Brown logged 1698 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 129 receptions. Since this break-out season, the Pittsburgh Steeler star has performed at an incredible level. (* represents Pro Bowl, + represents First-Team All-Pro)

SeasonGames PlayedReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TouchdownsCatch Percentage
2013*161101499865.9%
2014*+1612916981371.3%
2015*+1613618341070.5%
2016*+1510612841268.8%
2017*+141011533962.0%
2018*1510412971561.9%

Year after year, Brown continued to separate himself from the other elite pass-catchers of his era. He could notch his fifth consecutive season as a First-Team All-Pro this year, tying Jerry Rice’s longest streak.

Unguardable

Brown has proven that he will tear apart defenses no matter how they try to stop him. In a 2017 Divisional Round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, people were unsure whether Brown and the Steelers offense would be able to maintain their proficiency.

The stout Jacksonville defense allowed an average passer rating of just 68.5. Since 2010, only the 2013 Seahawks defense conceded a lower rating. The same Seahawks that held the greatest offense in NFL history to 8 points in the Super Bowl. The Jaguars’ secondary was statistically superior to the 2015 Broncos defense in every major statistical category — completion percentage allowed, average yards per attempt allowed, passer rating allowed, yards per game allowed. The same 2015 Broncos defense that held the league’s highest scoring team to 10 points in the Super Bowl. Needless to say, the Jaguars were a very scary team defensively. Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye were both Pro Bowlers and Ramsey was a First-Team All-Pro. It was going to be a tough outing for the Steelers’ offense.

Antonio Brown proceeded to catch 7 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

 Catch PercentageReceiving YardsReceiving TouchdownsPasser Rating
Antonio Brown's Stats Versus Jaguars63.6%132.02.00144.7 (Roethlisberger's rating when passing to Brown)
Jaguars' Defense Average Stats Allowed56.8%169.91.0668.5

One wide receiver single-handedly performed as well as entire offenses did against this defense. Considering the passing era that they’re playing in, one could argue that the Jaguars secondary was the greatest of all-time. Antonio Brown toasted them.

 

On both touchdowns, there was great coverage by one of the better defensive backs in the NFL. Of course, you need more than great coverage against Antonio Brown. Ben Roethlisberger has the utmost confidence in Brown on any given play — why wouldn’t he? He’s the best receiver in the game and he continues to prove it on a nightly basis. How many players could make that catch on a crucial fourth down against one of the best secondaries in the history of the NFL? The list is short.

Comparison

Recency bias is a very real thing among sports fans. We tend to overlook the achievements of the past because we’re too caught up with the present. However, nostalgia bias is lesser well-known but just as common. It is the idea of judging the past disproportionately more positively than the present. For instance, there is no argument on who the greatest wide receiver of all-time is — Jerry Rice. But as a result, we overlook the achievements of the great receivers today. The same idea is taking place in the NBA. Many fans refuse to accept that any players will surpass Michael Jordan in the all-time standings. It’s not just that they believe that Jordan is superior to LeBron — that’s a perfectly valid opinion. But many old-timers don’t want to admit that anybody could eventually surpass Jordan. Just like fans ignore that a wide receiver today is playing at the same level of past legends.

Not enough people are paying heed to the remarkable level of play that Antonio Brown has maintained over the past 92 games. In fact, Brown’s six-season peak has arguably been the best of any wide receiver in NFL history.

 SeasonsGames PlayedReceptions Per GameReceiving Yards Per GameReceiving Touchdowns Per GameCatch Percentage (Percentage of Targets Caught)
Antonio Brown2013-2018927.599.40.7366.8%
Jerry Rice1990-1995966.291.20.8367.2%
Randy Moss1998-2003965.587.20.8558.2%
Terrell Owens2000-2006966.087.60.8859.3%
Julio Jones2012-2018976.599.30.4364.3%
Calvin Johnson Jr.2010-2015906.095.00.6957.7%
Larry Fitzgerald2005-2010926.080.70.6260.1%

Brown leads the pack in 2 of the 4 major receiving metrics. His lower receiving touchdown numbers aren’t a concern considering the fact that the Steelers offense is consistently among the highest scoring in the league. Brown also ranks second in the list in catch percentage, behind only the great Jerry Rice.

There is no doubt that Jerry Rice has to be at the top of the all-time rankings because of his longevity. That is not under any contention. The point is that Antonio Brown’s peak over the last 6 seasons has been as good as that of any player in NFL history.

It’s too soon to speak on his longevity.