Antonio Brown's Ascension to Elite Status: What Will His 2014 Season Look Like?
Every year there are a few breakout wide receivers that make the jump from one "tier" to the next in fantasy football. The difficulty is in predicting if that was just a standalone breakout year, or if there are enough elements in place for any kind of sustainability. Key pieces that contribute to this factor are volume, production, and overall team play.
Antonio Brown may have all three of those things in his favor. He enters a unique 2014 season where he will have little challenge for targets after former teammate Emmanuel Sanders left for Denver. Brown was already fourth in the NFL last year in targets, falling only behind Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, and A.J. Green, and he very well could be ranked that high next season as well. After all, the Steelers haven't done much for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after letting Mike Wallace and now Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery leave during free agency over the past two years.
Adding aging veteran Lance Moore and Clemson rookie Martavis Bryant may help mitigate these losses, but Brown's biggest competition for targets will probably be from a healthy Heath Miller, who missed two games in 2013 while playing through injury, and Markus Wheaton, a second-year wideout hoping to fill Sanders' role. Really, there's little reason to believe the volume side of things will change a whole lot for Brown in 2014.
What about production? Well, he held top 10 finishes in several important Net Expected Points metrics last year, a sign that he's no fluke. He finished 2013 ranking second in receptions with 110, consequently placing him seventh in Reception NEP - the number of points added on catches only - with a score of 120.20. To put that in perspective, only eight receivers have outperformed that score in the last two years combined.
Brown's rapport with Roethlisberger shouldn't go unnoticed either, as he's often found on many of Pittsburgh's broken plays when Big Ben has to improvise. The duo had a tremendous year connecting with each other, as Brown set an NFL record catching at least five passes and 50 yards in every game last season.
While the sheer volume and targets that Brown received is enticing enough, his production after the catch was even more impressive, as he finished fourth in yards after catch among wide receivers last year. This led to a career year in receiving yards, as he totaled 1,499 yards, shattering the Steelers' team record. Brown even put a nice little bow on his fantasy value by tacking on two punt returns that were over 70 yards, as he displayed his versatility and explosiveness in the open field. After it was all said and done in 2013, Antonio Brown finished ninth in Total NEP - which factors in rushing - out of all wide receivers, justifying his advancement to the next tier of wideouts.
Football is the ultimate team sport however, so his teammates will have a determining factor on just how successfully Brown can replicate 2013's statistical output. Pittsburgh's offensive line ranked 15th overall last year according to Pro Football Focus. Their pass blocking graded out as 12th, which could drastically improve with a healthy Maurkice Pouncey returning after getting injured in last year's season opener.
Giving Big Ben enough time to survey the field and work through his progressions isn't quite a necessity though, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley utilizes a quick, shorter field passing game. After a slow start last year, they enjoyed immense success after allowing Roethlisberger to orchestrate the no-huddle offense as he threw a career high 584 pass attempts. Keeping Big Ben healthy all year will be necessary if the Steelers hope to return to the playoffs after a two year hiatus. He has rarely started all 16 games in his career, so improving Pittsburgh's pass blocking will aide in both the longevity and productiveness of their star quarterback's career.
Entering the third year of Todd Haley's offense, Antonio Brown has shown a penchant for taking short, quick passes and moving the chains. His touchdown production, however, has come in waves. In 2011, when Brown last eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, he had a mere two touchdowns. He rebounded substantially this time around as Pittsburgh's number one receiver, scoring eight times.
But five of those eight touchdowns were from at least 25 yards out, displaying his versatility in working both the short game and plays further down field. While Brown may not work the outsides as often as other premier number one wide receivers, he can still find other ways to score and create mismatches. His longest touchdown score was from 47 yards out, as he took a short pass over the middle and was able to speed his way through Detroit's abysmal secondary all the way to the end zone, capping off a 7-catch, 147-yard, 2-touchdown performance.
Antonio Brown is entering an ideal situation heading into 2014 where he should be able to capitalize on volume, production, and a successful Pittsburgh team eager to return to the playoffs. While he won't often be drafted with the "elite" wide receivers in the first round, he will put up numbers right on par with them by season's end and will be a valuable asset for any fantasy team in 2014.