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Antonio Brown Is a Must-Sell? Not So Fast.

antoniobrown

I was planning on writing this article before I saw Justin Winn’s excellent and thorough, “Antonio Brown: Death, Taxes, and Regression” but I’d like to thank Justin for crystallizing the position against Brown. Despite Brown’s high ADP in all formats, I’ve noticed an undercurrent of fantasy players who consider him an inefficient and not particularly skilled player that just happens to be in a good situation.1 My brother Pat, always one to disparage players I like, put it rather succinctly recently, telling me with an eye roll, “he’s all volume.”

I’ll get to some of the points in Justin’s article momentarily. But first, let’s start with that claim.

All Volume?

The two signs of a major volume WR: 1) a shit ton of targets 2) inefficient output implying a lack of ability. Brown was 4th in the NFL in targets last year at 166, so we know he’s got #1 covered. But was he inefficient? Here’s one way to answer that: he had more yards than A.J. Green on fewer targets.

Brown may have finished in the top five in total targets, but he finished even higher in yards, as his 1,499 were good for second in the league. What abilities allowed him to do this? Well for one, it turns out that he’s just pretty damn good at catching a football. His catch rate of 0.66 is what we’d expect of slot/possession players (Wes Welker’s was also 0.66) and for receivers with over 150 targets a catch rate that high is seriously impressive. Since 2006 a player has exceeded that performance only eight times, and three of those times that player was Welker. Among the ten receivers with over 150 targets in 2013, it was the second highest catch rate after Julian Edelman’s. With a volume player, again, you’d expect to see some sort of accompanying inefficiency, like a low yards-per-catch average (ypc). Edelman, for example, posted 10.1 ypc, good for dead last among those same receivers. Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in targets, was ninth among them at 11.9. But with a ypc of 13.6, Brown finished fifth, ahead of Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall.

Bottom line: this player has some legitimate skills. He wouldn’t have gotten that close to 1,500 yards otherwise.

What About Touchdowns?

Ok so let’s address the Jamarcus Russell in the room. Brown scored eight times in 2013, but most expect that number to regress, and due to his lack of size he will always be dogged by questions about his touchdown potential.

In his article, Justin pointed out Brown’s redzone conversion percentage, which is unquestionably piss poor.  But let’s take a closer look at those numbers, starting with the volume. 23 redzone targets is a lot. Among receivers it was good for 6th in the NFL, ahead of A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, and many others that we think of as redzone threats. And he converted only one of those 23 into a touchdown. Haterade drinkers are probably nodding vigorously, saying “Exactly! He isn’t good at converting in the redzone, that’s what we don’t like about him!” And you know what? They’re mostly right. But I’m sorry: that many targets, to a player who catches an impressively high a percentage of his targets, and only one touchdown? Seems a little fluky to me. If Brown converts only three of his redzone targets this year he could go a long way towards offsetting regression in other areas.

And what might regression look like? Well as Justin pointed out, Brown had seven touchdowns in his previous three seasons combined. It’s a pretty damning revelation, one that should basically end this conversation, right? I’m actually not so sure. The first year that stat includes is Brown’s rookie season of 2010, in which he received 19 targets. If you want to knock Brown for not cracking the starting lineup as a rookie, that’s fine, but given who those starters were and the fact that they appeared in the Super Bowl that year, I’m not inclined to do so. Otherwise, this season doesn’t tell us much.

2011 is the most problematic campaign for Brown defenders, and keep in mind: I’m saying that about his age 23 season, in which he had over 1,000 yards and was voted team MVP. Alas, he had only two touchdowns. And unfortunately, I don’t have some deeper level stat to explain that away, only this:  Brown was a first year starter, he had a different role on the team than he does now, and he was playing under a different offensive coordinator. We can’t and shouldn’t just dismiss 2011, but of his three relevant seasons it seems pretty clearly to be the least instructive.

In 2012, Brown’s first year under Todd Haley, he had five touchdowns, the exact same amount that Andre Johnson had in his 2013 season as WR10. Brown scored his on 105 targets, which on a per target basis is a rate of 0.0476, better than what Alshon Jeffrey (0.0469) and Vincent Jackson (0.0437) posted in 2013. Due to the smaller sample size, you might expect that it would also be a better rate than what Brown himself posted in his breakout season, but you’d be wrong. Despite receiving over 60 more targets in 2013, he improved his per target touchdown rate slightly to 0.0481.

Basically, Brown has had one poor season of touchdown scoring, and two pretty good ones. The two pretty good ones are also his two most recent, and they came under his current offensive coordinator.  He’s now entering his age 26 season, and when you consider the trajectory of his career and the quality of his situation, it’s not crazy to assume he’ll continue to score a moderate amount of touchdowns going forward.

Speaking of Situation…

Antonio Brown is signed for four more seasons in Pittsburgh, and like last year, enters the season as the team’s clear-cut #1 WR. If anything, his stranglehold on that distinction is as strong as ever. The receivers Pittsburgh signed in free agency, Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey, are complementary pieces, and the team neglected to draft one in the first three rounds. Meanwhile, of all the Steelers receivers, Brown posted the highest AYA with Roethlisberger last year. Justin presented Brown’s 8.84 AYA as a negative because it was tied with Jericho Cotchery’s, and I get that. But Cotchery didn’t just have less volume than Brown, he had less than half. How did Brown compare to players with more volume? Emmanuel Sanders was second on the team in targets from Roethlisberger with 112, and produced 5.49 AYA. Of course, both Cotchery and Sanders are gone, so maybe it would be more helpful to look at a receiver that is returning. How about Markus Wheaton, a player many think will overtake Brown in time? His AYA with Roethlisberger was 1.46. One point four fucking six. That was worse than Isaac Redman. Brown’s 8.84 on 166 targets is looking pretty good right about now.

Know What You’re Selling

Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t like previous articles where I’m trying to address some inefficiency in the market. Based on his ADP I wouldn’t consider Brown a buy in any format, and would concede that’s he’s closer to a sell. But I don’t think you have to sell him. And if you do sell him, make sure you get face value.

He’s worth it.

                                   Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

  1. Justin referred to Brown as a “good player” in his disclaimer, so this may not apply to him specifically.  (back)

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