PFF's Top 101 of 2014: No. 7, Antonio Brown
In this day and age, the prototypical wide receiver teams are looking for is someone in the mold of Calvin Johnson, a physical freak who has the speed to burst past opposing cornerbacks, but also the strength to physically dominate them when the ball is in the air and beyond.
For that reason it might come as a surprise to see that the top receiver in our Top 101 wasn’t over six foot, and he wasn’t over 220 pounds, but the simple truth is that Antonio Brown was far and away the best wide receiver in the NFL in 2014.
Drafted in the sixth round back in 2010, Brown had established himself as the Steelers’ top receiver by the end of his second season. It’s in the past two seasons, however, that he has really broken into the elite class as the position. This past year he was a revelation, with his +25.2 receiving grade trailing only Andre Johnson’s (+25.5) 2012 season among the highest single-season grades since we began grading back in 2007.
In terms of raw numbers, it’s easy to see why he graded so well: he lead the league with 1,698 receiving yards and was tied for second with 13 touchdowns. He was also incredibly reliable, dropping just five of the 134 catchable passes thrown his way, giving him a Drop Rate of 3.73, tied for seventh among all wide receivers.
What makes Brown so special is what he can create after the catch. He might not be the prototypical No. 1 receiver, but his footwork allows him to create space for himself, which helped him pick up 615 yards after the catch in 2014. Able to churn out yards on quick screens as well as on throws downfield, he was the most complete receiver in the league last season.
Best Game: Week 8 vs. Indianapolis (+3.3)
It’s tempting to list the Week 9 game against the Baltimore Ravens, where he forced a ridiculous five missed tackles and racked up 144 receiving yards, but it was actually the week before that proved to be his highest-graded game in 2014.
Pulling in 10 receptions for 133 yards from the 12 passes thrown his way, this was one of the four occasions last season where Brown score two touchdowns through the air. He may have forced just one missed tackle, but he didn’t put a foot wrong all game, with both touchdowns a joy to behold.
His first was the most impressive, however, pulling in a one-handed grab on 1st-and-Goal with 8:38 left in the second quarter, showing the control to get both feet down in bounds and secure the reception. That’s what makes him such a special player, showing that while he can beat cornerbacks by catching the ball in front of them, his size doesn’t prevent him from going up and winning when he needs to.
Key Stat: Forced 18 missed tackles including the postseason.
That being said, Brown is definitely at his best when he has the ball in his hands and gets the opportunity to run at opposing defenses. That’s not surprising given his success as a punt returner throughout his career, but through the regular season and playoffs he also forced 18 missed tackles as a receiver, tied for the fifth-best mark at the position.
That’s been a staple of Brown’s career, with him averaging a forced missed tackle once every 7.7 receptions. As the Steelers’ offense has evolved under Todd Haley, we’ve seen Brown’s role grow, with the current offense suiting him perfectly. His skill set as a receiver is perfect for what Haley wants the offense to do. The big-play threat that doesn’t need to already be 20 yards downfield to make a big play. Brown had a reception of 27 yards or longer in 12 of the 17 regular season and playoff games the Steelers played last season.
This was the best season of Brown’s career, but the past two seasons have shown us that he’s still on the rise and, with him turning just 27 before the 2015 season begins, there’s no reason not to think that we may still have yet to see the best he has to offer.
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