What would happen if Antonio Brown were lost for the season? You tell me.
Because we really don’t have any data on this. Brown is a true iron man; he’s lost just one game to injury over the past four seasons – a playoff game in 2015 after a wicked concussion – and routinely plays well over 90% of Steelers snaps. There’s so little history to go by in piecing together a post-Brown Steelers offense.
We can look into that missed playoff game from 2015 for clues, but that only takes us so far – the personnel has shifted mightily since then. We can consider Week 7 of last year, when Brown dinged his quad mid-game and played “only” about 80% of snaps, but that tells us little. How do we prepare a contingency plan for something as bizarre as not seeing Brown on the field for a set of Steelers games?
Well, we can use common sense and fantasy detective stuff and try to project fairly what the Steelers offense would become in his stead. Here’s a rundown of their Brown-less prospects, as I see things:
Le'Veon Bell, RB – Okay, you probably won’t be able to just “buy” Bell without piecing together a blockbuster of the highest order. But it would be worth looking into as a great way to cross-sub (somewhat) under the radar. While the rest of your league flocks to buy receivers Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers, they might not pay as much attention to Bell as the chief beneficiary. Again, we have virtually no sample size to work with here, but we know with the utmost certainty we can possess that Bell would dominate the offense to a backbreaking degree. Already the NFL’s usage king, Bell’s volume would shoot through the stratosphere, likely into the range of 25-27 touches a game. In last year’s New England game, he set career highs in targets (13) and receptions (10), in addition to toting the ball 21 times. That’s notable because Bell is used far less as a rusher in unfavorable Steelers scripts, averaging just 15.4 carries in games they lose by 2 scores or more (compared to 20.2 otherwise). Granted, that game was started at quarterback by (gulp) Landry Jones, and it wasn’t a huge shift in strategy to keep the ball out of his hands and in Bell’s. Still, it showed an overall elevated level of reliance upon Bell – had Brown missed that whole game, I would’ve wagered on 32+ touches. Should Brown go down in 2017, we can expect something of a sea change in the Steelers offense, and Bell would likely become fantasy’s most dominant game piece.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB – We can’t really know how Roethlisberger would produce on a macro level without Brown. We do know that this is an offense packed with playmakers, and that he probably wouldn’t tumble off the face of the earth. Bell is a certified stud, Martavis Bryant is a touchdown extraordinaire, and the Steelers’ upper-crust line would likely keep Roethlisberger upright enough to succeed to some degree. However, we can also surmise that losing Brown would (at least theoretically) keep the Steelers in neutral or negative game script more often than usual. And we’ve learned over the years that, even with some boosted volume in those situations, the losing quarterback is usually outdone numbers-wise by the winning one. All told, I’d call a Brown injury a slight yet noticeable ding in Roethlisberger’s outlook. His efficiency would likely droop, and we wouldn't see nearly the consistency we'd want from a QB1. Still, his fantasy value would crater along with Brown's, so actively selling (unless you've got a similar QB2) wouldn't really net anything.
Martavis Bryant, WR – This is controversial, but I’d be behind accepting a favorable offer for Bryant. And I’m sure offers would come pouring in. Of course the No. 2 man would move up in opportunity and therefore in fantasy value, but Bryant isn’t your typical No. 2. He plays fewer snaps than many of them – just 51% as a rookie, then 71% in 2015 – and he’s far more of a downfield/in-space threat than an across-the-field type that would consistently soak up volume numbers. His lack of fit in the slot and career 54.3% catch rate show he wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples replacement by any stretch. He wouldn’t necessarily Hoover up a massive chunk of Brown’s workload – much of that will fall to Bell and the slot men. He also, of course, carries far more risk than virtually any wideout in football. Living in minute-to-minute risk of a lifetime ban, Bryant has also been relatively injury-prone as a pro, losing the first five games of his rookie year to an AC sprain and another in his second season to a knee sprain. Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that, in Brown’s missed playoff game from 2015 netted Bryant 15 targets en route to a 9-catch, 154-yard performance. Please note that I’m not advising a hard-sell approach if Brown goes down. This is a dynamic offense, and Bryant is an ultra-dynamic player. But if Brown misses time, his trade value will probably exceed his hold value, if only by a little.
Eli Rogers, WR and JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR – The Steelers have no shortage of outside receivers to work down the field; I don’t expect they’d have much trouble filling Brown’s deep-ball shoes. But in the slot, where Brown is so savvy and electrifying, they’d be lacking a major, voluminous weapon. That’s where Rogers – last year’s slot specialist – and perhaps even rookie Smith-Schuster would step in. Rogers was moderately effective in 2016, converting half his overall third-down targets into first downs, but Smith-Schuster brings a lot more upside to the table. Smith-Schuster was ultra-productive all over the field at USC in 2015, and he’s been drawing offseason work both in the slot and in red zone packages. He’s young (just 21) and raw, sure, but this is an offense that’s unafraid to utilize inexperience. Mid-round rookies Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Martavis Bryant have all worked their way into Ben Roethlisberger’s eyeline with athleticism and playmaking ability. All told, should Brown miss extended time, Rogers would become a fairly hot fantasy commodity, and Smith-Schuster would have a real opening to stick his nose through.
Xavier Grimble, TE – With Brown out of the lineup, the Steelers would almost certainly up their usage of two-tight sets. Grimble isn’t much to look at, but he’d be a streaming consideration without Brown. He only saw 197 snaps in 2016, but 42 of them (21.3%) came in that Brown-less Patriots game. The boost produced five targets in that game – a career high – which is decent enough volume to allow us to chase touchdowns with Grimble from time to time. He wouldn’t be more than a touchdown-dependent TE2, but he’d be a solid one with all of the new red zone targets up for grabs.