Who said the NFL offseason wasn’t entertaining? At the end of a saga that included frostbitten feet, a helmet endorsement, threats to punch general manager Mike Mayock and a professionally produced video that aired a private conversation with head coach Jon Gruden, Antonio Brown finally got his wish. He was eventually released by the Oakland Raiders after they dealt a third- and fifth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the star wide receiver, hoping that his talent would outweigh the dysfunction that marred the end of his tenure with the Steelers.
In hindsight, it appeared that Brown never wanted to play a down for the Raiders, and his true destination of choice — the New England Patriots — pounced on his availability mere hours after the drama had reached its crescendo with Brown’s public request for a release. The Patriots swooping in and somehow acquiring AB was commonly joked at, but few could have expected the acquisition to happen so swiftly after he signed a contract that included $30 million guaranteed with the Raiders. It’s the NFL’s reality to deal with now, though, and after watching the Patriots dismantle the Steelers — a team many expected to be playoff contenders — in the opener sans Brown, the league is officially on notice. The Patriots are still the team to beat.
The question now becomes whether Brown is able to assimilate into the Patriots' offensive scheme and perform at the Canton-bound level that he displayed in Pittsburgh, or will his antics lead to a similar end in New England as they did in Pittsburgh and Oakland?
A LOOK INTO THE END OF BROWN’S TENURE WITH THE STEELERS
Antonio Brown had one of the greatest runs of any wide receiver in NFL history with the Pittsburgh Steelers to begin his career. Since 2010, Brown ranks first among all wide receivers in PFF grade and PFF WAR. From a talent and production perspective, there are very few wideouts who are even in the conversation of guys you would rather have on your team. That being said, his production took a hit last season with the Steelers. Yes, Brown still recorded 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns, but the connection with Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t quite the same it had been before. And on a play-by-play basis, Brown wasn’t quite as dominant as he had been in previous seasons.
His overall grade of 79.3 was the lowest of his career. His passer rating when targeted of 90.4 was his lowest since 2011. His yards per route run mark of 1.94 was his first time being below two yards since 2012. Brown and Roethlisberger didn’t have the same effortless connection that had worked so well the five previous seasons, and oftentimes, it seemed like Roethlisberger was forcing the ball to Brown in situations where there wasn’t much chance of success. The numbers back that up, as Roethlisberger threw an interception once every 16 attempts targeting Brown in 2018 compared to once every 39 attempts from 2010 to 2017.
That was especially true when Brown went across the middle of the field on in-breaking routes. On routes breaking toward the middle of the field in 2018, Roethlisberger had a passer rating of just 57.7 when targeting Brown behind a 2-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. How did the pair perform on all other routes? A passer rating of 113.8 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-4. An area that had yielded so much success in previous seasons, as Brown’s route running and timing led to big chunks over the middle of the field, failed to produce success in 2018.
A rekindling of that success over the middle with one of the best teams in the league at passing between the numbers would help Brown return from merely a good 2018 to the elite heights that he has shown he is capable of reaching.
WHAT DOES BROWN BRING TO THIS PATRIOTS OFFENSE?
Whether Brown fits into the Patriots' culture and locker room as a personality isn’t an easy thing to project, but what isn’t difficult to project is the caliber of receiver that the Patriots added to an offense that is already among the best in the league. Brown is the complete package out wide, capable of beating his man deep just as easily as getting separation on a route to the flat and making a play after the catch for a first down. Joining a wide receiver room that already had Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, NFL defenses everywhere look to be in danger.
Help in the quick passing game
Brown is already well-versed in the quick-passing game, as the Steelers have drastically changed their offense over the last five-plus seasons to reduce the defense’s ability to get pressure on Roethlisberger by getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Since 2016, Brown has 229 targets, 176 receptions, 1,538 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on passes coming out in two seconds or less. Those numbers all rank either first or second among wide receivers. It’s not just volume, either, as Brown has the third-highest receiving grade of any player on those quick targets. He’s more than capable of taking a wide screen or a quick slant to the house.
That familiarity and proficiency with getting open and getting open fast for a quick pass will help make the transition to the Patriots all the more easier, since they use the quick-passing game more than nearly anyone else. Last season, Tom Brady went 161-for-208 for 1,450 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions on passes that came out in two seconds or less.
They leaned on the quick-passing game even more heavily on the road to their sixth Lombardi trophy last postseason. Brady averaged just 2.21 seconds from snap to pass in the 2018 playoffs, which was the lowest mark of any quarterback since 2011. As a result, he was only pressured on 17% of his dropbacks, the lowest rate of any quarterback in the PFF era. Brown only provides the Patriots another option to get the ball out quickly to.
Another option out wide to complement Josh Gordon
It’s hard to poke holes in the Patriots' offense given that it's been steamrolling the competition for the last two decades, but the weakness that their offense did have last season was a lack of options on the outside for Brady. The only wide receiver to get more than 50 targets when lined up outside for the Patriots last regular season was Gordon at 58 targets, and he wasn’t even available to Brady and the Patriots to close out the season. The lack of options on the outside showed in Brady’s passing grade when targeting receivers aligned out wide. Brady’s passing grade ranked 16th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks when throwing to players lined up outside compared to third in the league when targeting any other alignment (slot, in-line tight end or backfield). Enter Antonio Brown.
From the 2014 regular season to the 2018 regular season, Brown saw more targets than any other wide receiver from a wide alignment by 53 and more receptions than any other player by 43. His yards per route run mark of 2.54 ranks second in the league to only Julio Jones. Adding a player of that caliber to the outside, plus returning Josh Gordon to the lineup, will give Brady significantly better options than the likes of Phillip Dorsett, and former Patriots Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan.
Brown’s addition should have an impact on their personnel decisions, as well. The Patriots utilized 11 personnel on only 53.9% of their offensive plays last regular season (29th in the NFL), and that fell even further to 49.2% in the postseason (last among all playoff teams). Given that no team adjusts better to take advantage of mismatches, expect that number to rise in 2019 given their top three wide receivers.
A true deep threat
As already touched on, Brown has received plenty of work in recent seasons in the short and intermediate passing game, but he’s just as capable of getting the upper hand over his coverage man on deep routes. In fact, since 2017, 37% of Brown’s routes have been some variation of a go route, his most frequently run route over that span. Going back further to 2014, Brown has a top-10 receiving grade on go routes among all receivers, and his 1,726 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns lead all players.
Brady didn’t struggle with the deep ball last season, but it wasn’t necessarily his strong suit, either. His passing grade on passes 20 or more yards downfield ranked 14th in the NFL, and he averaged just 11.0 yards per attempt on those passes (24th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks). Brown should make his life a little easier on those passes, and in turn, add another element to the offense that defenses have to watch out for.
The Patriots appear to have struck again, adding one of the unquestioned top receivers in the NFL over the past decade without giving up anything in a trade. The entertaining aspect of the acquisition will be to see how Brown fits into the Patriots' locker room and whether his antics over the past year have truly been just an act to get to where he wanted. But when on the field with Brady and company, opposing defenses certainly won’t be entertained. Brown should fit into the Patriots' quick-passing game seamlessly, giving the Patriots another elite wide receiver to pair with Gordon and Edelman who brings an ability to stretch the field and come up with deep balls downfield. From a football perspective, getting a player of Brown’s quality without giving up draft assets or talented players is a no-brainer. Now, the world waits to see if the football player is all that comes with Brown to New England or if the escapades will follow. Another misstep in that locker room and with that team will make it hard for AB to convince teams that the issue isn’t him. Ain’t no more games.