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Antonio Brown Is Approaching the NFL’s Receiver Pantheon

How high can the Steelers star climb in the league’s all-time receiving hierarchy? We talked to some of the greatest pass catchers ever to to find out—and to discover what sets Brown apart from his peers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For Antonio Brown, spectacular has become the expectation. Performances like his six-catch, 101-yard, two-touchdown outing in a 41-17 win over the Falcons in Week 5 are the standard. Games that would stand out as the best of other wide receivers’ careers are simply another day at the office for the 5-foot-10 dynamo. He’s supposed to run circles around secondaries.

Brown’s relentless consistency has made him the most productive wide receiver of his era. The Steelers star has five straight seasons with at least 100 receptions and 1,284 yards. His worst season over that stretch is arguably 2013, when he corralled 110 passes for 1,499 yards with eight touchdowns. Through five games in 2018, he has 373 receiving yards and five scores—putting him on pace for nearly 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. Again, an off year for Brown would qualify as a career year for most.

Considering Brown’s prolific statistical production, it might be time to change the way we discuss his legacy. At age 30, he is no longer just the best wideout in a golden era for the position. He deserves to be mentioned alongside some of the greatest receivers ever. “I think where he has the advantage [over his peers] is him being a full and a complete wide receiver,” Randy Moss says of Brown. “Where you can move him at in the offense. There’s not a route in the route tree that he cannot run. There isn’t a combination that you can put over there that he cannot do. So, what makes him and separates him from the other wide receivers is what he is able to do for an offense.”

Many analysts have attempted to explore what makes Brown so effective. The hope here was to go further. Rather than judge his game against that of Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and A.J. Green, the goal was to gain a better understanding of Brown’s historical significance and where his path might take him. And who better to assess Brown’s place in the receiver pantheon than some of the legends already immortalized there? The Ringer spoke to five Hall of Fame receivers—nearly one-quarter of the wideouts enshrined in Canton—about their feelings on Brown as a player, whether he’s already worthy of a gold jacket, and where he belongs in the position’s all-time pecking order.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Every Hall of Fame receiver interviewed for this story brought up the same word when asked about Brown: consistency. Brown’s ability to put up massive numbers with almost no vacillation from season to season is notable to even some of the best to ever do it. “How many seasons in a row, five, that he’s had over 100 catches?” Steelers great Lynn Swann asks of Brown. “When you talk about how receivers differentiate themselves from the other receivers in the league in the time period in which they play, it’s that high level of consistency.”

In Cris Carter’s mind, Brown’s consistency isn’t the byproduct of one singular skill. Over the years, Brown has shown that he can fill any type of receiver role depending on the situation. He’s proved devastating when lining up in the slot, and he’s equally adept at playing outside. In either scenario, he’s the most advanced route runner in football; no other active receiver has more refined footwork or a better feel for how to change speeds to execute concepts. “His overall releases are phenomenal,” Carter says. “Typically, [with] a small guy, you want to bump him to really throw off his timing. But he’s gotten so good as far as his releases [go] that you can’t.”

Brown’s technical proficiency doesn’t come about on its own, and Carter has unique insight into the work habits that have propelled Brown to such lofty heights. Carter has known Brown’s trainer, Ron DeAngelo, since his own playing days. At the beginning of Brown’s career, the wideout wasn’t focused on properly maintaining his body. He’d eat anything and didn’t prioritize getting the right amount of sleep. “He always worked hard, but he didn’t have a plan,” Carter says. “Now, he’s like a CEO of a corporation.”

For Carter, that plan—and Brown’s relentless pursuit of greatness—is the driving force behind his ongoing march toward history. Brown’s streak over the past five years already gives him the most seasons with at least 1,200 receiving yards, 100 receptions, and eight touchdowns. Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice are tied for second with four apiece. Harrison went on a comparable run with Peyton Manning: From the quarterback’s second season in 1999 through 2003, Harrison hit each benchmark except for the reception total in 2003 (he fell six short, with 94). Rice never had a streak of consecutive seasons that parallels Brown’s, but that’s a result of there being fewer passes attempted during his era. In 1987, Rice caught 22 touchdown passes on 65 receptions. If Brown scored at that rate last season, he would have had 34 touchdowns.

It’s tough to pick out the best five-year run of Rice’s career because the body of work is so daunting. From 1989 to 1993, though, he averaged 88.8 receptions, 1,379 yards, and 13.8 touchdowns per season—all while his quarterback surpassed 4,000 passing yards in a season just once. There can be only one GOAT, but Brown’s five-year run stacks up with any stretch a wide receiver has ever produced. “It has a lot to do with practice,” Carter says. “You cannot play at that level unless you practice at an extreme level. I know the people that train him. I know his regimen. He is preparing himself, every year, for what he is doing. And every year, he’s always trying to add one or two things to what he’s already done to make him even better.”

One of Brown’s distinct advantages over most receivers his size is that he’s able to impact the game the way a taller receiver would. Brown plays like a 6-foot-4 wideout trapped inside a 5-foot-10 player’s body. Carter calls 6-foot-3, 220-pound Julio Jones “the receiver you’d build from scratch,” and mentions him alongside Brown as the contemporary talents he most enjoys watching. But Carter, who ranks fourth in NFL history with 130 career receiving touchdowns, admits that Jones “doesn’t score a lot.” Finding the end zone matters deeply to a man who once inspired former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan to say, “All he does is catch touchdowns,” and Brown’s nose for pay dirt is among Carter’s favorite facets of his game. Brown, who entered the league in 2010, has 64 career touchdown receptions—21 more than Jones (a rookie in 2011). “He’s a volume receiver who’s also a volume scorer,” Carter says. “For me, I always give the advantage to the guys who have that art form of scoring because not all wide receivers have that.”

Carter notes that Brown has been able to get into the end zone routinely despite lacking the “physical dimensions of Randy Moss or Terrell Owens.” That hasn’t been lost on Moss, either. The diminutive Brown is one of the top receivers in football in contested catches every season: In 2017, he led the league with 22 contested catches and finished eighth in contested catch percentage (51.2 percent). He has a knack for tracking the ball in the air and timing his jump just right, and that allows him to pull down throws even when he’s going against defensive backs who have a significant size advantage. “It’s very impressive because you see defenses trying to put double, sometimes buzz a third [defender] up under there sometimes,” Moss says. “You’ve seen the ball thrown, you’ve seen the ball in the air, and then somehow between two guys he’s coming up with it. That’s something that I was able to do.”

Moss doesn’t think Brown’s deep-ball talents necessarily resemble his, but as he’s transitioned into a studio analyst role, he’s begun to appreciate the nuances of other types of receiver play. In that regard, Moss places Brown in a special class. “You have some wide receivers that only can play the slot, or they only can play the outside receiver, or they can only be on a certain side when there’s multiple wide receivers,” Moss says. “Antonio Brown, you can put him in a bunch, multiple receivers, you can put him backside by himself. He can still make plays. There’s nothing he can’t do in an offense.”

Brown’s comfort in just about every alignment makes his place in the Steelers offense unpredictable. In Seahawks legend Steve Largent’s mind, it’s also made the Pittsburgh star virtually unstoppable. What impresses Largent most about Brown isn’t his versatility or flair for the theatric. It’s that he’s dependable, week in and week out. “One of the things that I always tried to make a hallmark of my playing career is dependability,” says Largent, who finished his career with 13,089 receiving yards and 100 touchdowns. “He’s a guy that’s dependable for the Steelers offense.”

Even as a casual observer of the modern game, Largent has locked onto how few passes thrown to Brown ever hit the ground. Despite his absurd target volume over the past five seasons (at least 154 targets per year), Brown has never finished with a catch rate of lower than 62 percent. Brown’s career catch percentage of 65.5 ranks sixth all time among pass catchers with at least 500 receptions. Brown has finished in the top 15 in drop rate in each of the past five seasons; three times, he’s finished within the top 10. That infallibility is a big part of why Largent thinks Brown is a shoo-in to one day join him in the Hall of Fame.

“The only thing that separates [Brown] from a Hall of Famer, and I’m thinking about Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, is longevity,” Largent says. “I would say that if he continues to catch passes the way that he’s been catching them for the past five, he does that for another five, six, seven years, he’s a slam dunk.”

Brown may already be destined for Canton. The question is how high he can rise in the all-time receiver rankings in the time he has left in the league.

Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Swann wants to make clear that he isn’t jealous of Brown’s situation. “Why would I need to be jealous?” Swann says. “I have four Super Bowl rings, was the MVP of a Super Bowl, and I’m in the Hall of Fame.” He will admit, though, that he is envious of the pass-happy approach that has come to define the NFL. “I’d love to had been in a situation where they’d thrown more passes and have more opportunities to make catches and make plays. But from my standpoint, I think myself and John Stallworth, we took advantage of our opportunities as well as anybody could take advantage of them in those days.”

Stallworth says that he recently joked about the modern-day NFL with Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. In today’s game, their roles would have been reversed. Rather than committing to the run-first philosophy that the dominant 1970s Steelers favored, the 2010s Pittsburgh offenses are happy to open things up and toss the ball to Brown a dozen times per game. “In our era, you were fortunate to be targeted four or five [times a game], and you needed to make the most of those four or five,” Stallworth says. “It’s different. It’s fun. Would I have loved to play at this time? I’d love to have played right now.”

For several of these legendary receivers, the biggest hesitation in anointing Brown as one the greatest to ever live is rooted in the difficulty of sizing up receivers across eras. The way that football styles and rules have evolved since even the early days of Moss’s career make comparing Brown with, say, Chargers legend Lance Alworth (who tallied more than 10,000 receiving yards and scored 85 touchdowns during his 11-year career), nearly impossible. “They throw more now, they do less running, the game has changed,” Moss says. “Now, I think he’s the best in today’s generation, but to rank him with Terrell Owens, myself, Jerry Rice, all those guys that really put the work in, I really can’t put him in that class—yet.”

Best Year 3 Through Year 6 Receiving Totals in NFL History

Player Years Yards Receptions TDs
Player Years Yards Receptions TDs
Antonio Brown 2012-2015 5,818 441 36
Demaryius Thomas 2012-2015 5,787 402 41
Calvin Johnson 2009-2012 5,749 362 38
Torry Holt 2001-2004 5,733 383 33
Randy Moss 2000-2003 5,649 376 49
Chad Johnson 2003-2006 5,430 369 35
Marvin Harrison 1998-2001 5,376 385 48
Jerry Rice 1987-1990 5,369 311 61
Lance Alworth 1964-1967 5,230 255 49
Roddy White 2007-2010 5,126 371 34

(Brown didn’t become a full-time starter until his third NFL season, in 2012.)

Largent agrees that many fundamental elements of being an NFL receiver have changed, something that extends all the way to the equipment. “The gloves they wear—those gloves make a difference,” Largent says. “I’ve worn them. I’ve tried them on. They make a huge difference in a receiver’s ability to catch a football.” Still, the former Seahawks great doesn’t dock Brown’s standing because of his gear, much less his astonishing target share. After all, while increases in usage typically come with decreases in efficiency, that isn’t the case with Brown. His 8.77 yards per target ranks fifth since targets became an official NFL statistic in 1992. That’s just 0.01 yards and one spot behind Moss in the career rankings. “The issue [with punishing him for his high target total] is they’re still throwing the ball to him a lot, but they’re only doing it because it’s successful,” Largent says. “If he wasn’t catching as many balls as he is, they wouldn’t be throwing as many balls his way.”

As Swann determines where a player falls in the all-time receiver hierarchy, he considers a few factors. First, as previously mentioned, is consistency. Second is a knack for making the big play in the big moment. “[And making it] when everybody knows that you’re the primary target,” Swann says. “Third-and-long situations. Critical situations. He’ll come up with the catch, the yardage, the touchdown.”

Stallworth points to Brown’s crucial touchdown from the final seconds of Pittsburgh’s 31-27 win over the Ravens in Week 16 of the 2016 season, when Brown willed his way across the goal line to clinch a playoff berth. “You’ve got to make that play,” Stallworth says. “If you don’t make that play, you don’t achieve the goal of winning that game, but you [also] don’t achieve the goal of getting to the playoffs. That to me, is no. 1. Above the highlights on the various television programs, or winning postseason honors—Pro Bowls, All-Pro, and all that—is performing within the confines of your team and doing what your team needs done to be successful, and being a factor in getting them there. As a Steeler, that’s no. 1.”

Swann’s third criterion is how a receiver performs in the playoffs. And that, he says, is where Brown still has work to do. Brown’s career postseason numbers are excellent. He’s averaged 113 yards per game during Pittsburgh’s past four playoff appearances, and has caught four touchdowns in six total games. The problem is that three of those postseason trips have ended after one game. Brown has never won a Super Bowl. While the Hall of Famers interviewed acknowledge that a receiver can’t go it alone, Brown’s lack of a title remains a black mark on his résumé.

Brown doesn’t have a signature playoff run that can compare to the one Larry Fitzgerald put together in 2009, and that’s particularly important considering the debate that will happen should Brown continue his current trajectory. On the list of the best receivers in NFL history, the no. 3 spot appears to be there for the taking. Jerry Rice and Moss are the clear-cut choices at no. 1 and no. 2, but the third spot is the subject of debate. Some find Packers great Don Hutson deserving of that distinction, owing to his statistical dominance compared to the players of his era. Others contend that Alworth, Owens, or Fitzgerald own the no. 3 spot. As of Week 5 this season, Fitzgerald ranks third all time in career receptions (1,251), third in receiving yards (15,721), and eighth in receiving touchdowns (110). And he’s done it all while playing with a rotating cast of subpar quarterbacks (outside of a few scattered seasons with Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer).

NFL All-Time Receiving Leaders

Player Rank Career Receiving Yards
Player Rank Career Receiving Yards
Jerry Rice 1 22,895
Terrell Owens 2 15,934
Larry Fitzgerald 3 15,721
Randy Moss 4 15,292
Isaac Bruce 5 15,208
Tony Gonzalez 6 15,127
Tim Brown 7 14,934
Steve Smith 8 14,731
Marvin Harrison 9 14,580
Reggie Wayne 10 14,345
Antonio Brown 41 10,283

If Brown can continue lighting up scoreboards with the Steelers, he’ll enter the discussion soon enough. Brown ranks 41st in NFL history with 10,283 career receiving yards. If he closes out this season at 11,000 (which is well within range), that’d put him 4,939 yards behind Owens for second place all time. With four more average seasons by Brown’s standards, he’d pass Owens and rank behind only Rice.

That might have been impossible to imagine a few years ago, considering that Brown started his career as an afterthought sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan. But now he’s within range. Some of the best receivers ever need to see more, though, before they’re willing to grant Brown access into the most exclusive club a pass catcher can join. “I mean, he will have on a gold jacket, hands down, he will have a gold jacket on,” Moss says. “But to put him, you know, in the elite category with the all-time greats, I don’t think he’s there yet. Give him about five, six more years—but he has to play at this high level.”

An earlier version of this piece stated that Brown had never reached a Super Bowl. He made one catch for 1 yard in Pittsburgh’s 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

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