Antonio Brown finished this season with 129 catches for 1698 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns. He led the league in catches and yards, while his catches are the second most all-time and his yards are sixth.
Over the last ten years, only two other receivers under 6-foot tall have had seasons like this: Marvin Harrison with 143 catches and 1722 yards in 2003 and Wes Welker with 122 and 1569 in 2011.
I know receivers like Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. may catch our attention more, but the things that Antonio Brown has done this year is like a Jiu-Jitsu master.
Being only 5-10 and 180 pounds, Brown can’t just go up and get it like some of these other guys (although he does do that sometimes). I’ve still been putting together that All-Confusion team that I spoke of back in October, but decided to wait until the end of the season to release it with the final stats for players and a final picture of their season. That article I wrote also speaks to some of the lessons I’ve learned from mixed-martial arts that cross over to football.
I’ve been debating a few positions and looking at them like I would if I wanted to build a multi-faceted offense. For instance, we need a bigger, bell-cow back, but for our second or third back, I’d also like a smaller guy who’s going to catch balls out of the backfield and give me something different in space. For receivers, I want to have one bigger receiver, a guy who can go up and get it, but who can also run all the routes of the route tree. But throughout the process, with every single line-up I’ve made, Antonio Brown has been on that team.
In my opinion, Antonio Brown has proven that he is the best wide receiver in the NFL this year. Now, I know that you can make an argument for any one of those receivers that I mentioned before, but from the aspect of who’s the best tactician, it’s Antonio Brown because he can do everything.
I’m not a huge fan of mixed-martial arts or the UFC, but in listening to Joe Rogan talk about it constantly on his podcast, I’ve begun to understand some of the intricacies of the sport and how it applies to football and life as well. Once football season is over, I might turn some of my attention to the UFC.
One thing that Rogan always harps on is how technical smaller guys are. When people ask who’s the best fighter in the world, most people would say Jon “Bones” Jones because he’s 6’ 4”, 205 pounds, and the current UFC light heavyweight champion of the world. If you could only choose one fighter if you had to go up against anyone, you would likely choose Jon Jones, but if you’re saying who’s the best fighter in the world in terms of who is the master of their craft, many would choose Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Mighty Mouse is only 5’ 2”, 125 pounds and he’s the current UFC Flyweight Champion. Currently Jones is the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the official UFC rankings, while Johnson is #3.
This isn’t me trying to debate fighters, but follow me here. The way Rogan raves over Might Mouse Johnson got me thinking about how I should have looked at the way I, myself, played receiver and focused in on my strengths and became a technician rather than trying to be something I’d never be (6’5”), something Brown so obviously did.
Rogan continually speaks about how smaller Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners who are masters are so much harder to roll with than bigger guys because the smaller guy never has the size or strength to just overpower a guy, so he HAS to become very technical if he wants to have any success. The founding fathers of BJJ are Carlos and Helio Gracie, two men who weighed around 135 and 154 pounds respectively through their careers, but would routinely compete against and beat larger, stronger fighters.
In his famous 1951 fight with Masahiko Kimura, Helio lasted 13-minutes before losing to the technical Judo fighter, who was 71 pounds heavier and four years younger than the 38 year old Gracie. Kimura was so technical that his reverse arm bar that beat Gracie is known today as the Kimura lock.
While Brown can “Moss” guys, it’s not what he focuses on. Instead he’s focused his energies on becoming the premier route-runner in the league. He’s so good, that even Sports Science did a segment on how he runs perfect and precise routes. When they blindfold him, he runs almost the exact same route, landing within 3 inches of his initial, control, set of routes.
The most electrifying rookie receiver in NFL history, Odell Beckham at 5’ 11”, 198 pounds, takes the same approach. The always candid general manager of the Carolina Panthers, Dave Gettleman, stated back in May after the draft that Beckham was this year’s best pure route runner, the only “run the entire route tree” receiver in the draft and that he is the only rookie receiver who doesn’t need route work entering the NFL.
Boy, was Gettleman right, Beckham is third in the NFL right now with 101.8 receiving yards per game behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown as he’s totaled 79 catches for 1120 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 11 games. Gettleman was so on point that Beckham did all of that with almost no practice as he hurt his hamstring during mini-camps and then re-injured it on the first route on the opening day of training camp.
What makes Brown and Beckham so great is that “run the entire route tree” aspect of their games is it makes them so hard to predict to the defensive backs who are tasked with covering them. Gettleman makes a great point regarding how many college receivers catch 120 balls, but they do this only running three routes or so because they’re such dominant forces in the college game. With the ability to run the whole tree, corners can’t pick up on what Brown/Beckham are going to run, nor can they easily pick it out on film.
Gettleman also makes an astute comparison between Kelvin Benjamin and Plaxico Burress that speaks to the other main kind of receiver there is, as he states, “you can’t coach 6’5”, 240 with a 34-inch arm length and 10-inch hands.” Without that un-coachable size, Brown hasn’t had the margin of error to not excel at his craft, he has to do all of the little things right. Where a Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson can afford to not get the best position on a ball they have to high-point because of their size, Brown has to ensure he does every little thing right to put himself in position to make that play as a smaller player.
The last point regarding Brown is how well he’s done against Fantasy Football killer Joe Haden. It’s always good to judge the best by seeing how they perform against the best and some of the best have struggled mightily against Joe Haden. In 2013, Calvin Johnson had only 3 catches for 25 yards against Haden, Mike Wallace had 1 catch for 15 yards, Steve Johnson had 2 catches for 19, Jordy Nelson had 5 catches for 43 yards, Greg Jennings had 3 catches for 43 yards and Dwayne Bowe had 1 catch for 7 yards.
Players who have done well against Haden are Torrey Smith, who has had three decent games against Haden and one 2 catches for 25 yards dud earlier this year. Smith toasted Haden for a long gainer and a TD on another catch in Week 17 against the flu-stricken cornerback. In late 2013, Cecil Shorts had a decent day with a game-winning touchdown against Haden and Brandon Marshall had 6 catches for 95 yards and a TD.
Over the last two seasons, Joe Haden has shut down the 6’4”, 207 pound AJ Green as he’s had only 17 catches for 130 yards on 41 targets in four games or an average of 4.25 catches for 32.5 yards. Excluding the two games against the Falcons and Broncos this year where AJ Green played hurt and was nothing more than a decoy at best, over the last two seasons in 27 games, Green averaged 6.2 catches for 91.4 yards and 0.63 TDs per game.
Over those same two years, Antonio Brown has also played in four games against the Browns and Haden. Against the Browns, Brown has caught 27 passes on 40 targets for 413 yards and 2 touchdowns for an average of 6.75 catches for 103.3 yards and 0.5 TDs. His yardage average is actually higher against Haden than his 99.9 yards per game average for 2013 through 2014.
Green’s best receiving game against Haden was a 7 catch, 51-yard game in early 2013, but that was on 15 targets. Brown’s worst game was his 9 catch, 87-yard outing in 2013; he’s passed 100-yards in both his games against Haden this year.
The thing that separates Antonio Brown the most in my eyes is his consistency because week-in and week-out, no matter who he’s going up against, no one can stop him. For the entirety of 2013 and 2014, Brown has had at least 5 catches and 50 yards in every single game, a streak of 32 games since he took over the role of the number one option for Big Ben when Mike Wallace left for Miami. His worst yardage output this season was his 7 catch, 72-yard and one touchdown game in Week 16 against the Chiefs.
With Brown averaging 106.1 yards per game this year, only Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones outpace him with an average of 108.8 and 106.2 yards per game respectively. Demaryius Thomas comes in fourth with 101.2 and Jordy Nelson at number five with 94.9 yards per game.
To give you an idea of Brown’s consistency, even the best have off days. In Beckham Jr.’s first three games before the bye week he combined for 10 catches for 106 yards. Jones had four games with yardage totals in the 50s and two in the 60s. Thomas had a four for 31 game, another four catch game for 48 yards, along with a two for 11 game. And lastly, Nelson had three games in the 50s and a three for 25 day. To be as consistent as Brown has been this day is almost unheard of.
On top of all of that, Brown is one of the best punt returners in the NFL with two returns for touchdowns in the last two years, the only other receiver in the group above that also returns punts is Beckham.
You might disagree with me on who the best receiver in the NFL is, but when it comes to who is THE master of his craft as an NFL wide receiver, the winner is: Antonio Brown.
Heading into the NFL Draft, there is one receiver that I think is comparable to Antonio Brown and it looks like he’ll also be drafted in the late rounds. That receiver is Duke’s Jamison Crowder, who is also a dynamite punt returner.
Crowder is 5’9”, 175 pounds and is currently ranked by NFL Draft Scout as the 17th best receiver in this 2015 class. They have him projected as a 5th or 6th round draft pick. Over the last three seasons, Crowder has had over 1000 yards each year with a total of 283 catches for 3641 yards and 23 touchdowns in his four year career at Duke. He’s averaged 12.9 yards per catch over his career.
He’s also a prolific punt returner, like Brown, with 869 return yards for a 13.4 average in his career with four touchdowns all coming over the last two seasons. He and Brown both returned punts for touchdowns this weekend.
Like Brown, he has an ability to play in the slot and outside, even as a shorter receiver because of his precise route running. His 4.53 forty isn’t going to wow scouts, but Brown ran a 4.47 and Crowder could get there with some good pre-combine coaching on his forty technique. When you’re a master route runner like Brown, Beckham Jr., and Crowder, it isn’t only about speed. Jerry Rice taught us that with his 4.71 40-time.
If these teams are smart, Crowder won’t make it past the fourth round.
P.S. I want to note that I’ve kind of omitted Odell Beckham Jr. from the best wide receiver in the league conversation for now because he’s only a rookie and I want to see if he sustains this into next year. Plus I want to celebrate Brown for what he is.