In the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected an unknown wide receiver from Central Michigan who would likely be relegated to special teams duties, if that. However, Antonio Brown showed a glimpse of things to come in his NFL debut that year versus Tennessee, as he took a reverse and raced 89 yards to pay dirt on the very first play of the game.
Five years later, Brown has gone on to reinvent the wide receiver position, proving that you don’t have to have the size of a Calvin Johnson or the jets of a Mike Wallace to have success as a wideout in the NFL. Speaking of Wallace, two years ago at this time, he left town for the allure and paycheck of Miami, leaving Pittsburgh without a proven number one receiver, only two smaller ones in Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Fast forward two years, and both made the Pro Bowl, despite neither one cracking the 6-foot barrier.
Sanders left town as well after 2013, heading to Mile High Stadium in Denver to catch passes from Peyton Manning. He reeled in 101 balls for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, but it was Brown again, getting the last laugh, crushing those numbers by posting 129 grabs, 1,698 yards and 13 scores. With 3,197 yards the last two seasons alone, Brown is kicking the door down on the notion that a No. 1 NFL wide receiver needs to be 6-foot-5, 220 pounds.
Listed at only 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, Brown led the league with 85 first down catches last season, and his catch total was second-most in history. It hasn’t gone unnoticed either, as the Pro Bowls and All-Pro honors came rolling in. Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks was even so impressed, he reached out to Brown after the two met at a shoe company event.
“He’s around my stature,” Cooks said. “Throughout the season I would just text him, you know, ask him questions,” he said. “How’d you get your footwork so good? How do you get in and out of your breaks so well? How do you separate from defenders so well? “I want to learn from the best, and those who are doing it at such a high level, pick their brain and see what they do differently from everyone else.”
In 14 of 17 games last year, Brown had 90+ yards receiving, a tell tale sign that teams were unable to effectively shut him down. He caught 70.9 percent of the balls thrown his way, better than Dez Bryant, “Megatron”, Demaryius Thomas or Alshon Jeffery, all of whom are 6-foot-2 or bigger. Turning just 27 years old in July, he is maniacal in his work ethic and it’s silly to think he won’t post even better numbers next year, possibly even snapping Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record of 143.
“This guy is the last guy off the field every day,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He brings a ridiculous work ethic to the table. The guys respect him for what he is capable of on the field, but they probably respect him more for what he is willing to do on and off the field in regards to his preparation and play. I would probably describe Antonio as OCD, clinically.”
He shows the same passion when helping out Cooks as well, regardless of in-person or via a simple text message.
“He doesn’t send back one-word answers or a short message,” Cooks said, noting his excitement. “If I got a question, he goes into depth and answers those questions for me.”
That’s the difference between good and great, and if Brown’s greatness continues next season, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Pittsburgh ranked No. 1 offensively in the NFL, with an aerial attack fueled by Brown.
“The great ones that I’ve been around, it’s what you don’t see,” Tomlin said. “Yes, they have special capabilities, but you know there are a lot of guys in our game at this level that have special capabilities. The great ones that sustain it for any length of time they are smart, they are driven, they are hard working.”