When the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed Mike Wallace to leave via free agency prior to the 2013 season, it appeared as though they were losing one of the best young receivers in the game. That was not the case at all. Not only did Antonio Brown step into the No. 1 role, but he also establish himself into an elite NFL receiver.
The 2013 season represented not only the most prolific season of Brown’s career, but also one of the best in the entire league. According to an ESPN.com report, one of his teammates saw this coming all the way back in May.
“Antonio Brown, I think, is going to be one of the most feared receivers in the league this year,” Plaxico Burress said in May. “And I'm going to do everything in my power to help him get to the level where he can be an elite receiver.”
There is no telling how much Burress had to do with the development of Brown during the 2013 offseason, but he did nail his prediction.
Brown had the best season of his career, one where he surpassed the franchise record for receiving yards and finished one reception behind Hines Ward for the team receptions record. By having one of the best statistical seasons in the entire league, Brown earned his second Pro Bowl.
Only Pierre Garcon had more than Brown's 110 receptions, and Josh Gordon was the only player to top his 1,499 receiving yards. This put Brown ahead of All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson as well as Pro Bowlers A.J. Green, Andrew Johnson and Brandon Marshall.
These accomplishments were particularly impressive considering that the Steelers finished 12th in passing and lacked a diverse collection of receiving options. Brown was the only receiver on the team with at least 70 receptions and 1,000 yards.
Besides his overall statistics, Brown was incredibly consistent in 2013. He became the first receiver in NFL history to record at least five receptions and 50 yards in all 16 games. In addition to this, Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com reported that Brown led the NFL in a metric called True Receiving Yards.
Not bad for a player selected with the 195th selection of the 2010 NFL draft.
It would be safe to say that he has surpassed the expectations of a typical sixth-round pick. But his success has not surprised head coach Mike Tomlin. “In his mind, he's always been a No. 1 receiver, even when he was a No. 4,” Tomlin said, according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Brown has shown improvement each year as he has climbed to the top of the depth chart. His hard work and production has not gone unnoticed as he has earned two team MVP awards. It is no wonder that the Steelers gave him a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension prior to the start of the 2012 season.
Beyond recognition from his team, Brown was on the Pro Football Writers of America All-AFC team, named to the Associated Press second-team All-Pro and was on the Pro Football Focus All-Pro team. Pro Football Focus said that Brown was the “top-ranked pure receiving wide-out.”
According to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Brown was Pro Football Focus' highest-rated player on the team with a 23.2 rating. By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger had the second-highest grade on the team with a 12.1 rating.
Brown has been able to achieve such greatest without top physical attributes. He does not have the size or strength of Calvin Johnson or Brandon Marshall, nor does he have the rare speed of Mike Wallace. Listed on Steelers.com at just 5’10” and 186 pounds, he was one of just two receivers in the top 15 in NFL receiving yards.
According to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes that Brown is “breaking the trend” when it comes to his production despite the lack of size.
What Brown lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, quickness and the ability to avoid tackles. Virtually every week, Brown made a play that made people say "wow!"
Wow, incredible one-handed TD catch by Antonio Brown. Steelers closing the gap. 27-20 Chicago.— Andrea Hangst (@FBALL_Andrea) September 23, 2013
Steelers throw a quick screen on 3rd and 15 to Antonio Brown, who gets through 5 Jets defenders and picks up the first down. Wow.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) October 13, 2013
So Antonio Brown is apparently hotter than Joe Haden. Wow.— Michael Fabiano (@Michael_Fabiano) November 24, 2013
His skills were evident in one his best games of the season against Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions when he caught seven passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns in this game.
On the first score, Brown caught a short pass and made two defenders miss en route to a 34-yard touchdown.
Brown’s second touchdown came on a reception over that he caught near his knees. Without breaking stride, he showed his burst after the catch as he pulled away two defenders before getting by two more on his way to the end zone.
Against one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Brown showed his deep speed against Joe Haden. He easily beat him by at least four yards before having to come back for an underthrown pass by Ben Roethlisberger.
But no play describes Brown’s electric playmaking ability more than the one that wasn't. In a bizarre play, a series of laterals finally ended up in Brown’s hands in a key AFC game against the Miami Dolphins.
Once he got the ball, Brown promptly ran down the sidelines, avoided defenders and made it to the end zone for the score. However, the score would not count as he was just inches out of bounds.
Where does Antonio Brown rank among NFL wide receivers?
Despite not scoring, this play showed what he can do with the ball in his hands. There are few players in the NFL who could have come that close to scoring on that particular play.
Brown has shown that he is a threat for a big play each time he touches the ball, and that is exactly what teams want from an elite receiver. He can carve up a defense even against top quality completion and showed incredible consistency throughout the entire season.
So how has he been so successful? Tomlin told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review that Brown’s effort that he puts forth is what separates him from the others:
He's got a ridiculous work ethic. I think everyone respects that, and it is very evident. He's in great shape over the course of a 12-month calendar. He's always working his body and working his craft. He's very comparable to James Harrison in that mentality. I think that's why he's endeared himself with his teammates. I think that's why he is as productive as he is.
It is not much of a surprise that Tomlin would compare one of the best receivers in the game to Harrison, who was one of the most feared defenders during his prime.
Brown can only hope that he follows in the same path of Harrison. If he does, not only will he be recognized as one of the elite receivers in the game, but one of the best players overall.