Pittsburgh Steelers: What the numbers say about Antonio Brown’s placement amongst all-time greats

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs up field after a catch in the second half during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 10, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 10: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs up field after a catch in the second half during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 10, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

Antonio Brown is more than the greatest wide receiver to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His number indicate he could finish as one of, if not the, best of all-time.

Now that he’s 30 years old, how many more seasons can he play?

Hear yea! Hear yea! Antonio Brown turned 30. That’s “old” in NFL-player years (something like dog years). Skills start diminishing. Injuries occur more often. Shoot! The average RB’s career is 4 years. QBs play considerably longer. Some into their 40s.

What about wide receivers?  How long do they routinely play? I don’t know. But it got me thinking about Antonio Brown. He’s a special athlete! So, as a fan, I thought an educated guess was in order. How much longer can we expect him in uniform? Not just playing. But playing at an elite level. Producing numbers similar to his past five seasons. Where he averaged 116 receptions, 1,570 yards and 10 touchdowns per season.

How much longer can we realistically expect AB to continue producing impressive numbers? According to Fantasy Pros, WRs begin declining around 27 years of age. Pro Football Focus, believes WR production drastically declines after age 34.

Bleacher Report notes that WRs “have the latest and longest peak of any skill position.” The first step is evaluating their “breakout season.” Because it’s a good indicator of that player’s talent level.

In other words, if a wide receiver produces huge numbers in his “breakout season” he has huge talent. Meaning the longer he plays before his skills begin eroding. AB’s “breakout season” was 2013. Where he produced 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. Those are big numbers. Implying AB should have many productive seasons ahead.

As the wrestler Rick Flair says, “to be the man you have to beat the man.” Meaning AB must be measured against the greatest WRs of the NFL – past and present.

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I devised a four-part study. First, comparing the career stats (receptions, yards and TDs) of (arguably) the best eleven wide receivers of all-time. Second, comparing the first eight seasons of these wide receivers against Antonio Brown’s career. Third, comparing the remainder of each receiver’s career, focusing on his age and productivity. Fourth, comparing each wide receiver’s stats, based upon his quarterbacks’ talent level.

These guys are studs! Some are Hall of Famers (Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Chris Carter). Some are Hall of Famers in waiting (Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Anquan Bolden and Reggie Wayne). Some aren’t finished stating their cases (Larry Fitzgerald and Dez Bryant).

Analyzing parts one and two, clearly demonstrates that AB belongs in any conversation about all time WRs. He’s second in receptions (733), fifth in yardage (9,910) and seventh in touchdowns (59).

Part three indicates that most of these receivers had their best seasons between ages 32 and 34. However, Carter, Owens, Wayne and Fitzgerald had very good seasons at 36 and 37-years-old.

And, layering part four over part three, you see how important a talented QB is. For example, at 37, Terrell Owens had this season with Carson Palmer at QB: 72 receptions, 983 yards and 9 touchdowns.

Chris Carter illustrates this point best. Playing with a slew of “nobody” quarterbacks (first eight seasons), he averaged 56 receptions, 729 yards and six touchdowns. Once he played with Rich Gannon, Jim McMahon and Daunte Culpepper (final six seasons), he averaged 82 receptions, 1,008 yards and 10 touchdowns. Including, seasons at ages 34 and 35. Where he averaged north of 90 receptions, 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns.

Generally speaking, this study suggests the better the QB, the better a wide receiver’s stats. It’s not surprising Fitzgerald, Rice, Moss, Owens, Wayne and Bolden are in this conversation. They play(ed) with Hall of Fame quarterbacks. For goodness sake, Rice and Wayne played with two great QBs.

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I wonder what Andre Johnson and Chris Carter would have done if they played with great QBs? Instead of David Carr, Matt Schaub or Tony Kramer.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. Specifically, a 41-year-old Jerry Rice produced a 63 receptions, 869 yards, two touchdown season with three average QBs. Even last year, 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald racked up spectacular numbers playing with three QBs (109 receptions, 1,156 yards, six TDs).

This seems to indicate that great receivers can produce excellent single seasons with average QBs. But sustaining numbers required for “greatness,” means a WR must play a considerable number of years with (at least) a “good” QB (i.e., Calvin Johnson spent seven of his nine years with Matthew Stafford).

Well, circling back to the original premise. What does all this information say about Antonio Brown?

Considering  Antonio Brown: has played every season with future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger; is featured in the Steelers offense; is a workout beast, who doesn’t have a significant history of injuries (excluding rookie season, missed only six games); and is showing no signs of slowing down.

It says. Antonio Brown is an elite wide receiver, destined for greatness. He should play at least 7 more seasons [study WRs (playing at least nine seasons) averaged 15-season careers]. Resulting, in a top three finish! Behind Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald.

In order for AB to max out. Certain “ifs” must occur: Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy for another four or five seasons; AB continues his fitness program and stays healthy for (at least) another seven or eight seasons; and the offense continues to feature him.

Where Brown stands amongst receivers:

Statistics for First 8 Seasons
NameNFL Years ReceptionsTouchdownsYardage
Larry Fitzgerald147641st774th10,4131st
Calvin Johnson96435th745th10,4052nd
Jerry Rice216107th1031st10,2733rd
Randy Moss146346th982nd10,1474th
Antonio Brown87332nd597th9,9105th
Andre Johnson146733rd5010th9,1646th
Terrell Owens165928th813rd8,5727th
Anquan Bolden146504th519th8,3578th
Reggie Wayne145769th538th8,1299th
Dez Bryant853110th736th7,45910th
Chris Carter1644911th4911th5,83311th
Joining Club Next Season
Julio Jones7585439,054
AJ Green7556578,213
If Julio Jones hits his averages this season, his 8-year totals: 669 receptions, 10,347 yards, 49 TDs
If AJ Green hits his averages this season, his 8-year totals: 635 receptions, 9,386 yards, 65 TDs

If the stars align for the remainder of his career. Antonio Brown will be one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history. Who knows? Maybe better than top three!

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No offense to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. But Antonio Brown is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ greatest receiver. Don’t take him for granted. Because he’ll eventually run out of gas. At which time, Steelers Nation can look back and marvel at his accomplishments. Not bad for a 6th round draft pick from Western Michigan University!