As a Player
Brown certainly bucks the trend of massive, hulking wideouts who win by physically dominating smaller defensive backs. Listed at 5’10", 186 lbs. with only average speed (per his 2010 combine), he profiled as a slot receiver in most scouts' eyes. But, that’s a reductive evaluation for all that Brown brings to the field. In fact, he doesn’t play the slot often; Brown lines up almost exclusively on the outside and runs a full route tree.
Brown contributes in all facets of the receiving game. He’s not the tightest route runner and is a bit of a freelancer, but his ability to break off a route and find soft spots in the defense is invaluable to his gun-slinging quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Used most often on screens, hitches, slants, and drag routes across the middle, Brown relies on after-the-catch dynamism and is fairly reception-dependent in compiling his yardage. Of course, when he routinely catches 100+ passes, being reception-dependent is hardly a fantasy risk factor.
Encouragingly, Brown's recent touchdown explosion doesn’t look like an aberration. Brown isn’t the best in-close scorer in the league – his red zone touchdown rate of 17% is a bit below the league average – but that sheer volume makes him a perennial threat for double-digit scores.
Even with a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, it would be hard to crank out any legitimate concerns about Brown’s opportunity set. Brown would carry WR1 appeal even with a reduced workload, but there’s no reason to expect a dropoff in usage. He’s arguably the league’s most relied-upon receiver; no receiver has been targeted more (347 targets) over the last two years, and only Demaryius Thomas has seen more looks in the red zone.
You may be concerned about the 2014 emergence of rookie Martavis Bryant, who caught eight touchdowns in limited time. Measuring at 6’4" with a 4.42 40-time and an elite 39” vertical leap at last year’s combine, we could be looking at the league’s next big-play dynamo. But Bryant doesn’t look ready to step into a full-blown #2 role. He presents fantastic deep- and jump-ball skills, but has struggled mightily with all-around consistency dating back to his college days at Clemson. The Steelers utilized Bryant as a situational threat in limited action. From his Week 7 debut through the playoffs, Bryant saw just 47.2% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps. Most importantly, Brown saw virtually the same usage and production after Bryant’s breakout – and Brown garnered an even stronger red zone share:
|Weeks 1-6||Weeks 7-17|
|26.20%||Red zone target share||39.00%|
Source: Pro Football Focus
It certainly looks as though Bryant’s presence was actually a boon, helping to open up the field for Brown’s extensive route tree. And it seems clear that Brown’s red zone dominance isn’t going anywhere: he’s drawn a studly 26% of Pittsburgh's red zone targets over the last two years. Rather, Bryant has the look of a situational big-play target and little else. He’s more comparable to the likes of Justin Hunter and Travis Benjamin – not necessarily on a talent level, but as deep-ball threats only partially integrated into the offense. Bryant should see his snap and target rates rise, but not regularly and not to the point of a typical WR2. Expect the Steelers to rotate Bryant with 1-2 other wideouts as the semi-regular #2 guy.
The rest of the Steeler depth chart is uninspiring. Markus Wheaton is an undersized third-round pick from 2013 who did little with his extended play last year. He topped 50 yards in just seven games and was all but invisible in the red zone, eventually seeing his snaps slashed by Bryant’s emergence. Wheaton will likely be pushed a bit by this year’s third-rounder, Sammie Coates, a raw but athletic marvel with good size and blocking skills. Coates has an intriguing NFL future, but it’s more likely he shares the 2014 Wheaton role with Wheaton himself. Darrius Heyward-Bey is a special teamer only.
The Steelers’ high-volume passing attack is likely here to stay. In fact, it should actually increase a bit in 2015. Last year, the Steelers dropped back to throw on 61.2% of their snaps, the 11th-highest total in the league. That came against one of the league’s easiest schedules. In 2015, Ben Roethlisberger and his offense are projected to face toughest schedule in football. More deficits should dictate more passing, so the outlook is advantageous. Brown owners should be particularly excited about the opening month of the season. With RB Le’Veon Bell sitting for the first few games, the Steelers will almost certainly lean heavily on the passing game, making Brown the unquestioned offensive focal point.
As much as we love our contrarian outlooks, there just isn’t a logical one for Brown. There aren’t any worrisome red flags, and at just 27 years old, he’s squarely in his prime. He’s working with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback who fully appreciates his game, and the Steelers look focused on stocking their roster with complements to Brown, not stark competition. Some regression to the mean is likely – 129 receptions is an ungodly total, and Brown isn’t quite the red zone threat you’d like to project to score another 13 touchdowns. But neither of those considerations is enough to bump him out of the highest tier of fantasy receivers. You could make a strong case for Odell Beckham Jr. or Dez Bryant, but Brown’s sky-high ceiling and floor make him your safest play as the top wideout off the board.
Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuiness on Brown’s remarkable 2014 season:
“This was the best season of Brown’s career, but the past two seasons have shown us that he’s still on the rise and, with him turning just 27 before the 2015 season begins, there’s no reason not to think that we may still have yet to see the best he has to offer.”
Scott Smith discussed Brown’s monstrous 2015 value over at RotoViz:
“It may be time to acknowledge that the undersized Antonio Brown is arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL at this point in time. With LeVeon Bell set to miss three games, both players could get off to a scorching start in 2015 and give you top tier production at somewhat discounted prices. The opportunity to draft and pair both players on your team could give you a solid 1-2 scoring punch that’ll still allow you the fill your roster with other stars.”
Isaac Leicht of FantasyPros agrees:
“Brown is the #1 overall wide receiver in fantasy and should be drafted right after the stud running backs in Round 1 of most drafts.”