In 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown became the first player in NFL history to catch 130 or more passes for 1,800 or more yards and 10 or more touchdowns. He fell seven catches short of Marvin Harrison's single-season record of 143. Brown was also 130 yards short of Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964.
That has some folks thinking the 27-year-old could be on the verge of a record-breaking season as he reaches his prime in 2016.
“I think it is possible,” receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said regarding Brown's potential to become the first player to hit the 2,000 receiving yards mark next season, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly. “Just think: Calvin Johnson had [1,964], so you know you can get close to it. Everybody knows what he is capable of. I don't want to put that pressure on him, but it is definitely possible.”
Let's examine the factors at play.
If Big Ben stays healthy…
Much will depend on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's health. The fact Roethlisberger missed a quarter of the 2015 season is a big reason why you might expect an even greater 2016 campaign from the Pittsburgh offense, but Big Ben is now 34 years old and has taken some beatings. So it's far from guaranteed he'll start all 16 regular-season games next season.
Roethlisberger was a Pro Bowler in 2015 despite missing all four of Pittsburgh's October games with a knee injury and being severely limited because of a November foot injury. He also suffered a concussion in Week 12. It's safe to say he was far from 100 percent much of the season.
And without him, Brown and the rest of the Steelers offense weren't the same.
|Antonio Brown, 2015|
|Category||With Ben Roethlisberger||Without Roethlisberger|
|Pro Football Reference|
It's not fair to prorate Brown's stats from those 12 games with Roethlisberger to get a feel for what he might have done had the quarterback played the entire season, because three contests sans Big Ben came against top-10 pass defenses in Baltimore, Arizona and Kansas City.
But just for fun, we'll do it anyway.
If Brown had produced the same way he did with Roethlisberger during the stretch in which Big Ben wasn't in the lineup, he would have caught a record 159 passes for a record 2,132 yards and 13 touchdowns.
In other words, it would have been the best season ever for a wide receiver. And by a wide margin.
“I won't put anything past AB,” guard Ramon Foster told Kaboly. “If he shoots for two grand, I am going to bet on him. The way the league is now with the passing attack, it is more friendly. Then you add in hard work, and I think he can attain it this year.”
But there was a caveat from the veteran guard, who added Brown "has some tough secondaries to go against this year."
As mentioned, Brown had trouble with top-tier pass defenses last season:
- He had just 12 catches for 103 yards and zero touchdowns in two meetings with the Ravens, who ranked 10th against the pass.
- He had a season-low three catches for a season-low 24 yards against Arizona's eighth-ranked secondary, albeit with Landry Jones and Michael Vick at quarterback.
- He had just six catches for 51 yards against the second-ranked Seattle defensive backfield.
- He had just 13 catches for 134 yards in two meetings with a Cincinnati defense that ranked in the top five in opponent passer rating, opponent passing yards per attempt and passing touchdowns allowed.
That said, Brown destroyed the top-ranked Broncos defense with a 16-catch, 189-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 15, so it's not as though he can't still kill it against great opponents. But he'll inevitably have some tough outings against division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati in 2016, as well as strong nondivisional opponents Kansas City, the Jets, New England and even a Giants team that has rebuilt its D.
Still, on paper and based on 2015 pass-defense rankings from Pro Football Focus, there's evidence Brown and the Steelers could be in for an easier time in 2016.
|Steelers opponents: 2015 vs. 2016|
|Average PFF ranking vs. pass||13.4||16.6|
|Pro Football Focus|
No Martavis or Heath
It also has to be considered that Martavis Bryant, who emerged as Pittsburgh's clear-cut No. 2 receiver last year, will miss the entire 2016 season because of a drug suspension. That, along with steady tight end Heath Miller's retirement, could put a lot of extra pressure—literally and figuratively—on Brown.
“We still have a long way to go until the fall to see how defenses play us without Martavis out there,” Brown said, per Kaboly. “I just have to get my body prepared and mind prepared being able to beat two guys, whatever the challenge may be.”
|Pittsburgh's leading receivers from 2015|
|Pro Football Reference|
Bryant averaged 69.5 yards per game last season, which ranked 23rd in the NFL, while Miller caught 74 percent of the passes thrown his way. And Pittsburgh overwhelmed many defenses with the four-headed monster of Brown, Bryant, Miller and third receiver Markus Wheaton—a deep threat who had five 40-yard catches in 2015.
Two of those heads won't be present in the fall, leaving Wheaton, Heyward-Bey and the less proven
Ladarius Green (who caught only 59 percent of the passes San Diego targeted him on last year) to take attention away from Brown.
That's not an easy task, even if Roethlisberger can stay healthy.
If the stars align…
Of course, there are several additional mitigating factors we can microanalyze, but it'll be difficult to get a read on those until the season starts.
Bryant's absence could mean more targets for Brown, but it may mean more bracket coverage.
A healthy season from running back Le'Veon Bell might make the Pittsburgh offense more balanced, which on one hand could give Brown more space but on the other might result in his being targeted fewer times.
A healthy season from stud center Maurkice Pouncey wouldn't hurt, and obviously Roethlisberger has to stay in good physical shape. And we've yet to even consider the possibility that Brown himself might not play 16 games. He hasn't missed a contest since 2012, but the law of averages can be a real jerk.
The point is: Nobody knows. But with a healthy Roethlisberger airing out the football and a healthy Brown lining up outside, anything's possible.
Even 144 catches or 2,000 yards. Or both.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.