The falling out between Antonio Brown and the Steelers came to its conclusion Sunday morning, when the team put the finishing touches on a deal that sent the disgruntled wide receiver to the Oakland Raiders.
The Brown trade rumors were so much fun from a fantasy standpoint when they ended with him in San Francisco, Indianapolis, or Green Bay, three of the reported possible destinations. Brown with Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Breida, George Kittle, and a blossoming young corps of receivers? Or Andrew Luck, Marlon Mack, T.Y. Hilton, and the Colts’ tight ends? Or Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones and Davante Adams? Any of those teams would’ve made excellent use of Brown. The Raiders will try to do the same, but any of those three would’ve been a better landing spot.
Make no mistake, this is a better outcome for Brown and the fantasy community than the first reported done deal that never game to fruition, which had the star receiver heading to Buffalo. That would have been a disaster for his fantasy value. He is, of course, still an elite receiver, and likely would’ve had more success there than, say, Zay Jones, but that would’ve been absolutely dreadful from a fantasy standpoint. Oakland is certainly a better situation than Buffalo.
Still, that’s a low bar to clear. Oakland may be better than Buffalo, but it’s no paradise for a receiver. First, Brown is going to suffer a significant quarterback downgrade. As unhappy as he was by the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh, he spent his entire career playing with a quarterback sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Derek Carr is…not that. He’s been in the league for five years, totaling a 62.8% completion rate, 18,739 yards, 6.69 yards per attempt, 122 touchdowns and 54 interceptions. He has never finished above league-average in YPA, coming close last year at 7.32, but falling short of the league-wide average of 7.37. Carr hinted at being a franchise quarterback during a two-year run from 2015 through 2016, but he has regressed since then, totaling a bit better than 3,700 yards per season with 7.06 YPA and a 1.78 TD/INT ratio over the last two years.
Brown has never played with anything but a top-10 quarterback in his NFL career, and there were certainly seasons mixed in where Roethlisberger was one of the five best quarterbacks in the league. At this point, with Carr entering his sixth season, we have to assume he’ll be right around league-average or will be a bottom-10 quarterback in 2019. He could prove us wrong, but that will be Brown’s reality at the start of training camp.
Brown also enjoyed the benefit of superstar teammates at the other skill positions. Over the last six years in Pittsburgh, Brown has shared the field with Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Emmanuel Sanders and James Conner, among others. The infrastructure in Pittsburgh, created in large part by the buoying influences of Roethlisberger and Brown, allowed many players to succeed beyond what their natural talent would allow, but there’s no question that Bell and Smith-Schuster were, and remain, special talents. Oakland’s offense could look a lot different after free agency, but no matter what happens, it won’t come anywhere near matching the skill-position talent Brown played with in Pittsburgh. Going from Roethlisberger to Carr was significant enough, but the rest of the offensive context is a similarly dramatic downgrade. Brown is going to be a target hog for the Raiders, but the value of those targets won’t be nearly as high as they were with the Steelers.
Add it all up, and Brown’s fantasy value will be the lowest it has been since the start of the 2013 season. That was the year that a former sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan with a modicum of success over the first three seasons of his career began blossoming into the best receiver of his career. Brown’s average draft position in 2013 was 56.8, landing him at the end of the fifth round in a typical 12-team draft. He’d go on to haul in 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns that year, and is now working on a six-year run during which he has put up at least 101 receptions, 1,284 yards and eight scores every season. In 2014, Brown had a second-round ADP. He hasn’t looked back since, rating as a first-round fantasy pick in each of the last four seasons. That won’t be the case in 2019.
It’s already safe to say that Brown will not be one of the first five receivers drafted for the first time since 2014. DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Davante Adams, Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham will all surely go ahead of him in typical drafts. So should his old teammate Smith-Schuster, who has a top-three ceiling at the position with Brown out of the way. It’s also possible that Brown is available in the third round of drafts for the first time since 2013. That’s a bit more of a stretch, but, at this very early stage on the fantasy football calendar, is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Is it too late to go back on that trade demand? Another year in Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger sounds awfully good right about now.