By Tony DelSignore Jr.
The free agent departure of star wide receiver Mike Wallace before the 2013 season left many wondering who was going to step up as the top receiver in Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown was coming off a 66 reception season in 2012, and seemed to only fit as a complimentary player. Not only did Brown reward the Steelers for giving him a contract extension instead of Wallace, he also rewarded fantasy owners who took a chance on him in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts before last season.
Brown’s season took nearly everyone by surprise, except for Brown of course. The soft spoken, smallish receiver is anything but quiet on the football field. Brown became the first wide receiver in NFL history to catch five passes and record at least 50 yards in all 16 games on the schedule.
To put Brown’s 2013 season is historical perspective (*according to pro-football-reference.com), over the past 10 NFL seasons, an elite group of 12 wide receivers have combined to register a total of 21 seasons that tallied over 100 receptions and more than 1,300 yards. Brown’s 110 receptions during the 2013 season ranked 11th among that group that include some of the game’s all-time greats like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
The Steelers report for training camp on Friday, entering the third year under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. As Haley opened up the offense at the midway point of the 2013 season, the passing game thrived, as Ben Roethlisberger threw 20 touchdowns over the final nine games of the year. Brown also saw a bump in production during that nine game stretch, as six of his eight touchdowns on the year came during that span of games.
The question now is; can Brown repeat that type of success in 2014? Much of Brown’s projected success is tied to the success of the new receivers on the Steelers roster. As mentioned in the Ben Roethlisberger fantasy preview, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery vacated a combined 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Steelers offense. Those two receivers allowed Brown to take advantage of favorable coverage situations last season. It is yet to be seen if Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant can do the same for Brown this year.
Last season, only three receivers in the NFL had more targets than Brown’s 166. Expect that trend to continue, as Big Ben will likely target Brown heavily as the top receiving option. In PPR (point per reception) leagues, Brown is a no-brainer top 10 receiver. In standard leagues, Brown is an excellent option as well but his touchdown numbers are just below the tier of the league’s elite. Brown had 10 games in 2013 in which he did not register a touchdown. More consistent touchdown production could vault Brown into the conversation with elite fantasy wide receivers Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator (which tracks average draft position of every player in real and mock fantasy drafts throughout the offseason), Brown is being taken with the first pick of the third round as the eighth wide receiver selected. The secret is out and Brown is now a household name, but his draft stock is still favorable for his expected production. Most of the top fantasy websites around the industry project Brown to finish between fifth and eighth in wide receiver scoring.
In standard leagues last season, Brown finished sixth in fantasy scoring at the wide receiver position. If the volume of targets is there for him again this year, he can surely repeat that success again. Brown is a perfect target for fantasy teams that want to load up on running backs early. You will likely get similar elite production from Brown as wide receivers that are going a full round earlier.
All reports leading to up to training camp have indicated that Brown is working harder than ever to prove that his production in 2013 was no fluke. Make room on your roster for a motivated Brown and ride him into your fantasy playoffs this season.
My season projections for Antonio Brown are: 105 receptions, 1,425 yards, 9 touchdowns
Follow me on Twitter at @TonyD_12 and @SteelersDepot for more Steelers fantasy analysis and projections throughout the 2014 season.