Antonio Brown is the Steelers unquestioned number one receiver. By all reports, his work ethic is second-to-none and he was the only one of the Young Money Crew to sign a long-term deal with the Steelers. Brown inked his 5-year, $41.96 million contract before the 2013 season when the Steelers were going through the saga of negotiating with Mike Wallace. As the results have shown the last few years, the Steelers made the right decision in locking up Brown for the long term. In just four NFL seasons (only 2 as a primary starter), Brown has reeled in 261 passes for 3561 yards. As I detailed last week in my post on Steelers records that could be surpassed this year, Brown is already in the Top 10 in receptions and should easily move into the top 10 in receiving yards.
This begs the question - just how good can Antonio Brown be? He is obviously a long way from breaking Hines Ward's team records of 1000 receptions and 12,083 yards. Brown is coming off a season where he was just two catches shy of Hines Ward's single-season mark in receptions (112) and shattered Yancey Thigpen's single-season receiving yards record by 101 yards. He also broke Buddy Dial's record of 92.5 yards per game from 1963. All things told, Brown's 110 catches for 1499 yards (93.7 yards per game) will go down as one of the best single seasons in history by a Steelers receiver. In his four years with the team, Brown has recorded two 1000-yard seasons. Hines Ward did not record his first 1000-yard season until his fourth year. In fact, Brown is ahead of Ward's career pace in both receptions and yards through four seasons.
Antonio Brown is under contract for four more years (through the 2017 season). It was in Hines' fifth through eighth seasons that he cemented his place as one of the Steelers all-time greats.
Obviously, it would be a bit of a stretch to assume that Brown will replicate his franchise record season of 2013 in the four remaining years of his contract. However, given that Brown averages a yard and a half more per reception than Ward (13.6 to 12.1) and ten more yards per game (65.9 to 55.7), it is entirely possible that Brown makes significant progress in chasing down Ward over the next four seasons.
Over the remainder of his current contract, Antonio Brown can make significant progress up the Steelers All-Time lists in both receptions and yards.
For his entire four-year career, Brown has averaged playing 13.5 games per season and 4.8 receptions per game. Based on these numbers, a career average season would mean 65 receptions for Antonio Brown. If Brown records 65 receptions in 2014, he will finish the season with 326 receptions, just shy of Elbe Nickel for 6th on the all-time list. By the end of his current contract (2017), he would have 521 receptions, which would likely land him in fourth on the Steelers all-time list (depending on how many more catches Heath Miller has).
In his career, Brown has averaged 13.6 yards per reception. At a rate of 65 receptions per year this comes to an average of 884 yards per season. With 884 yards in 2014, Brown would vault past Plaxico Burress into 8th on the Steelers all-time list, finishing the season with 4,445 career yards. Over the rest of his contract, based on an average of 884 yards per season, Brown would end the 2017 season with 7097 yards and pass Louis Lipps for third on the Steelers all-time list.
Average of Last 3 Years
As I mentioned previously, Brown did not see significant playing time in his rookie year, which dragged down his career average. Over the last three years he has averaged 15 games per year and 5.4 receptions per game. These numbers yield an average of 82 receptions per year for Antonio Brown. If Brown records 82 receptions in 2014, he would have 343 and vault into the top 5 in Steelers history, passing Lynn Swann. By the end of his current contract, Brown would pass John Stallworth and have 588 receptions by the end of 2017.
If we use Brown's career 13.6 yards per reception, he would average 1111 yards per season with 82 catches. As we saw in the first projection, Brown would pass Plaxico Burress in 2014 and finish the year with 4,672 yards. By the end of 2017, Brown would have 8,004 yards. If we use Brown's average over the last three seasons of 13.9 yards per reception, 82 receptions vaults his average per season to 1,131 yards. His place on the all-time lists would be the same after 2014 (8th, ahead of Burress) and 2017 (3rd, ahead of Lipps) as the other two projections.
Comparing to Ward
Antonio Brown enters the fifth year of his career with 261 catches and 3,561 yards. At the same point in his career, Hines Ward had 218 catches and 2,559 yards. Over the next four seasons (fifth through eighth year of his career), Ward had 356 catches for 4,471 yards bringing his career totals to 574 receptions and 7,030 yards. Based on the low-end Projection 1, Brown would still be ahead of Ward's yardage pace at the end of his current contract. Based on Projection 2, Brown would pass Stallworth in receptions and also stay ahead of Ward's pace by the end of 2017. The high end of the yardage projection in Projection 2 would keep Brown about 1,000 yards ahead of Ward's career pace at the end of 2017.
But what if Brown equals Ward's production? Adding 356 catches and 4,471 yards to his current total, Brown would finish his current contract with 617 receptions and 8,032 yards. Equaling Ward's production in the fifth through eighth year of his career would propel Brown well past Stallworth in receptions and put him about 700 yards shy of Stallworth.
One thing that is important to note - based on every projection so far, Antonio Brown would stay ahead of Hines Ward's career pace in receiving yards. Ward's 356 receptions in four seasons (an average of 89 per year) may be difficult to replicate, but given that the Steelers receiving corps is largely unproven, Brown will certainly see a lot of balls coming his way. It is entirely possible that by the time we are talking about Antonio Brown's next contract we are also talking about him passing Stallworth and chasing Hines Ward's records.
Most of the projections above have Antonio Brown either coming very close to John Stallworth's career marks or surpassing them by the end of his current contract in 2017. Hines Ward did not surpass Stallworth's 537 career receptions until the 8th year of his career and it took him two more seasons to catch Stallworth's record of 8,723 yards. Stallworth had a Hall of Fame career over his 14 seasons and was considered the greatest receiver in Steelers history until Hines Ward came around. Could Antonio Brown realistically catch John Stallworth in both measures by the end of 2017, just eight years into his career?
To accomplish this feat, Brown would need 276 catches and 5,171 yards in four seasons. To pass Stallworth in receptions, Brown would need to average 69 catches per season over the next four years. Based on his career to date, this should be an achievable feat (barring injury). The more difficult mark will be yardage. To pass Stallworth by the end of 2017, Brown would need to average 1,293 yards per season (approximately 81 yards per game). While Brown is coming off a season where he broke the Steelers single-season receiving yards record with 1,499 yards, replicating that performance will be difficult. Only 9 times in Steelers history has a receiver had a 1200-yard season and there have only been 6 1300-yard seasons.
Based on both projections, Brown should pass Swann in receptions this season and in yardage in 2015. Brown should also surpass Lipps in receptions in 2015 but would need 2,458 yards (1,229 per season) over the next two years to catch Lipps' yardage mark. It seems the most likely that Brown would not surpass Lipps in yardage until 2016. Heath Miller does have a chance of passing John Stallworth in receptions (Miller trails by just 71) and could pass Lipps in yards (trails by 745) but it is unlikely that Miller will surpass Stallworth's yardage total. Depending on how many more years Heath Miller plays, Antonio Brown could surpass him in receiving yards by 2017 as well. Obviously, this is mostly speculation based on the small sample size of Antonio Brown's first four seasons. However, with him coming off a record-breaking season and under contract for four more years, it will be exciting to watch Brown chase down some of the Steelers all-time greats that are enshrined in Canton.