Is Antonio Brown an Elite WR1?

In a career year, should Antonio Brown be mentioned in the same tier as Megatron and A.J. Green?

In his first year as the Steelers' number one offensive option, Antonio Brown has undoubtedly paid dividends for savvy drafters who recognized the blend of talent and opportunity.

But the journey to fantasy stardom didn't start off promisingly, with the Steelers offense unable to get Brown the ball over the first two games resulting in a spat between him and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. But since than, AB has been force fed the ball and has turned those targets into a career year.

On pace for a 118 catches, 1,523 yards, and eight touchdown season, Brown has unquestionably produced as a WR1 in fantasy. But is it time to talk about him in the tier of elite WR1's like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green and others?

Before we dive into the answer, lets explore what exactly a WR1 is, and what makes one elite. Sure we could just look at a wide receivers fantasy points and make a list of the top guys at the position, but a monkey with a typewriter could do that with enough time. Instead, lets look into the four main factors in determining who qualifies as a WR1, and what makes some better than others outside of basic fantasy points.

The Four Factors

Fantasy Points per Game

Being that we are playing fantasy football, its pretty hard to talk about how good a player is without mentioning his fantasy points. Because, in the end, that is what determines wins and loses. But instead of using just a raw total, using averages is more telling of a players success due to the fact that not all players have played the same amount of games. While some players are injury prone and will tend to miss more games than others over the course of a season, averages are still the way to go as they account for fluke-injuries and byes.

Reception Net Expected Points per Target

While fantasy points are nice to look at, its even more comforting to know that your WR1 is playing at an elite level in real life as well, as real football success generally translates to fantasy dominance. To measure this, we'll use Net Expected Points. Specifically, Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per Target, as wide receivers should be judged on their production in the receiving game. Keep in mind that this number looks at how many points a player is adding for his team on receptions only, divided by volume (targets). The higher a wide receivers Rec. NEP per target, the more efficient he is.

Games Below 6 Points

It's easy to look at a wide receiver's fantasy point total and use that as an argument when discussing their value, but lets dig deeper. For example, Riley Cooper is fantasy's 15th-highest scoring player at the position. When seeing that, you could argue that he is an every week must-start and a high-end WR2. But in reality, how comfortable would you be starting him every week? Cooper has scored more than 54% of his yearly point total across two games, and has scored less than six points a whopping five times. Not as safe as he appears.

With that in mind, it is essential for a WR1 to have a high-floor, and reach it consistently. A score of six points or more is generally viewed as start-worthy, and it also won't ruin your week either. While this may seem arbitrary, let's use it as a fantasy floor baseline. If your WR1 is putting up outings of less than six points with any sort of frequency, it's safe to say they aren't elite WR1's.

Games Above 16 Points

Having a high-floor is nice and all, but how often are you going to win your week with your best receiver putting up between 10-12 points every week? Without elite production at many other positions, not many. So a high ceiling is just as important as a high floor, as you're going to need your WR1 to win you some weeks throughout the season.

In the minds of NFL fans and fantasy owners alike, 100 yards and a touchdown is widely viewed as a very good game for a pass catcher. So our baseline for a high-ceiling game will be 16 fantasy points, because if your WR1 gets plenty of those types of games, they'll win you a lot of weeks and make you happy

These numbers are arbitrary and many players have games that fall on the fringes of each threshold, but this chart should give you a good idea of who exactly is in the conversation for elite WR1 status.

Fantasy Points per GameReception NEP per TargetGames Below 6 PointsGames above 16 Points
Calvin Johnson17.2.9726
Demaryius Thomas14.5.8923
Brandon Marshall13.3.7625
Jordy Nelson13.2.9513
DeSean Jackson12.8.9045
Antonio Brown12.7.7622
Andre Johnson12.7.6421
A.J. Green12.5.7144
Dez Bryant12.1.7134
Wes Welker11.7.7612
Alshon Jeffery11.3.7042
Vincent Jackson11.3.6843
Pierre Garcon10.7.7033
Victor Cruz10.6.6923
Josh Gordon10.2.7923
Average WR112.4.762.53.5

*All fantasy stats are based off of non-PPR, standard scoring*

How does Antonio Brown compare?

Fantasy Points per Game

When looking at the first of four factors, it's hard to argue that AB isn't an elite WR1. Brown is averaging a robust 12.7 points per game, which puts him at sixth at the position. Sixth may seem like more of a mid-tier WR1, but Brown is only .6 points per game, or one added touchdown, away from being the third-best receiver in fantasy, AKA an elite WR1.

Real Life Production

Brown's Rec. NEP per target number of .76 is just below the average of all the WR1 candidates, but that can be slightly misleading when determining how well AB has played. Rec. NEP per target takes volume into account, and it gets harder to sustain a high level of play when volume increases. Brown is the league leader in receptions at 74 and sixth in targets at 106, which shows just how remarkable it is that he has been able to be this efficient on such volume. For a more accurate representation of Brown's real life efficiency, look no further than Reception NEP (doesn't account for volume), in which Brown ranks fifth in the NFL.

These numbers paint a very pretty picture, but the trusty eye test backs Brown's play as well. Standing at 5'10'' and weighing 186 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.50, Brown doesn't fit the mold of your typical elite WR1. But he more than makes up for it with extremely reliable hands and the ability to make defenders miss in open space, making big plays after the catch. Brown's primarily used on short passing routes, as 65% of his receptions are either behind or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and this fits perfectly with his skill set, leading to his success this season.

High Floor

Perhaps Brown's most favorable trait when compared to other WR1's, he is one of the safest options at the position. With only two games below the six-point threshold (5.3 and 5.7), AB proves to have one of the higher floors among WR1's. This stems directly from his target and reception totals, as there is almost a direct correlation between high usage and a consistently high floor. Translation: as long as Brown keeps pulling in balls, he'll continue to be one of the safer options of the WR1s, pushing him towards elite status.

High Upside

If there is one chink in the armor for Brown's candidacy as a stud WR1, it's his upside. The Steeler's top playmaker has only two games above 16 standard fantasy points, which is only one more than last place Andre Johnson. This is predominantly due to the fact that four out of five of Brown's touchdowns have come in two games - games that Brown scored 31.6 and 25.9 fantasy points in. This shows us that he does in fact have week-winning upside, but it would be nicer to see his touchdowns, and resulting high-upside games, spread out across the season. With five WR1's with at least four games of 16 points and above, Brown takes a hit in the ranks.

The Verdict

Brown ranks favorably in three out of four of the factors, which gives me reason to believe that he is indeed in the elite WR1 discussion. Being one of the safest and consistent options at the position, there aren't many other receivers one would be more comfortable starting on a week-to-week basis. Added on to his high-floor and stellar real life play is the hope that with the Steeler's offense and Ben Roethlisberger getting back on track, Brown will be able to obtain a more equal touchdown distribution that results in more high-upside games.

However, while in the elite tier of WR1s, Brown sits in the back of the group. Studs like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Demaryius Thomas offer the same high floor but with higher upside, better fantasy and real life production.

The PPR Factor

If you are so lucky as to own Brown in a half or full PPR league, then this should just further cement his status an elite WR1. His combination of being the league leader in receptions while boasting high-end yardage and solid touchdown totals is rivaled by very few, if any, fantasy receivers.