We didn’t have him ranked that highly in our Fantasy Football Rankings 2011, expecting NFL free-agent signings to change the landscape of fantasy football. There were more than enough NFL rumors going around that Plaxico Burress could still be signed and that the NFL free agency would bring mean a shift in the receiving corps in Pittsburgh.
When reviewing the Steelers in our 2011 NFL predictions, we looked at the situation and determined there was a true sleeper candidate in Pittsburgh. A big part of anyone’s fantasy football draft strategy is to find that sleeper that will take them over the top, and we at The Sports Cannon think we may have just found the 2011 version of Steve Johnson.
By the end of the 2011 season the Steelers looked like they could have one of the better young groups of receivers in football. Mike Wallace held the distinction of a fantasy football sleeper to begin the season, and exceeded his hype. The Steelers also brought in two speedy receivers via the draft, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
Sanders jumped out to a quicker start than Brown, being given a bit more opportunity after being drafted in the third round. Though both receivers were held back in the beginning of the season, Sanders made some big catches around the middle of the year.
Sanders looked to be a sleeper candidate for the Steelers this season much like how Mike Wallace was last year. Although many still feel that is the case, we are starting to think Antonio Brown is in a better position to surprise.
Sanders has been limited so far this offseason after undergoing surgeries on each foot. Although he is rehabbing faster than expected, we are worrisome that you may invest a pick on a guy that could miss even more time during the regular season.
Instead, we suggest you use that pick on a proven veteran, and pick up Antonio Brown on waivers when the season starts. Brown has been taking all of the first team reps so far this preseason because of Sanders’ injury and because Hines Ward has been held out since his offseason thumb surgery. Mike Wallace even missed some practice with a groin issue.
Brown hasn’t missed a step since pulling in key catches in the playoffs last season, and has continued to show incredible progression through training camp. He will likely play the majority of the Steelers’ first preseason game because of the injuries around him, so look for the second-year receiver from Central Michigan to try and prove something to his coaching staff.
Brown is a lock to make the team because of his added special teams’ prowess and the lack of stability around him. He could see the field quite often this season, however, as the Steelers are moving toward a more pass-focused offense.
Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t have any concerns throwing to Brown this year since he came up so big at the tail end of last season. Brown has the speed to stretch the field, but also has shown that he can go across the middle and play possession receiver.
Emmanuel Sanders is great at finding open space, but Brown is a closer fit to being Hines Ward’s replacement. These are important time for the young receivers to progress and learn, and so far only Brown has taken advantage of the opportunities in front of him. We think you could see much more of Antonio Brown this season than you may expect.
UPDATE: In the Steelers' first preseason game, Brown was on the field for the majority of the offensive snaps. Brown recorded four catches on five targets for 64 yards. His routes looked crisp, and he came up big on third downs once again.
See all of our fantasy football sleepers 2011 here.