The 2019 NFL preseason was dominated by the trade of one man by the name of Antonio Brown. One year later, Brown remains a free agent – an NFL nomad. But why is he still on the market? Is it because of his behavior? Sure. But it’s also because of his play on the field as described by Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which can help explain Brown’s sad decline.
Brown’s trade to the Oakland Raiders in March 2019 was the talk of the NFL as the wide receiver had made it clear he wouldn’t return to the Pittsburgh Steelers from the minute the 2018 NFL season was complete.
Knowing that Brown wanted out, combined with the massive contract that he carried, made finding a trade partner for one of the most productive wide receivers in recent history incredibly difficult for the Steelers. Brown’s sheer stubbornness to accept his destination also placed a stumbling block to finding a successful trade. A deal was agreed to with the Buffalo Bills but Brown reportedly refused to play there.
Brown’s behavior turns bizarre
To great fanfare, the deal to trade Brown to Oakland was announced on March 10. Officially, it couldn’t be completed until the opening of the 2019 NFL league year, but the Raiders had their man. They sent a third and a fifth-round pick to the Steelers in an apparent bargain for a player of Brown’s reputation. A new love affair was set to begin for Brown, and the Raiders were confident they had a weapon for QB Derek Carr that would allow them to challenge in the AFC West.
That’s when things got weird.
After a bizarre incident with frostbitten feet, Brown became a ghost. His presence, or lack of, at training sessions became a constant distraction to the Raiders organization. His behavior became more and more erratic, including a helmet fiasco and verbal and physical altercations with general manager Mike Mayock. Brown’s use of social media to highlight his perceived injustice over fines received added fuel to an already ferocious trash can fire.
The relationship was clearly over before it really began. Although head coach Jon Gruden said he expected Brown to play in Week 1, the wide receiver demanded to be released. The Raiders reportedly looked for a trade partner but finding none, they released him from his contract.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick took a chance on Brown to bolster their wide receiving group. Brown started in Week 2, scoring a touchdown in their win over Miami. But Brown’s behavior followed him even to Foxborough. Reports of sexual misconduct surfaced and Brown’s response of sending intimidating text messages showed a continued breakdown in his frame of mind.
The Patriots released him, and he remains a free agent to this day with his only presence around the league being the continued bizarre string of social media posts and the ongoing NFL investigation into sexual assault and misconduct.
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Antonio Brown’s OSM shows a trend of declining play
Prior to the end of the 2018 season, there were multiple reports at the time about Brown’s deteriorating relationship with the Steelers. Part of this was in part due to an alleged verbal altercation between Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during practice prior to the season-ending game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only would Brown not play in the finale, but he also would never play in Pittsburgh again.
There is something deeper than that, however.
Despite being so productive, including a career-high 1533 receiving yards in 2017, Brown’s play was beginning to decline. His assertion that the offense ran solely through him, a by-product of the egotistical nature that continues to surround him, began to significantly impact the Steelers’ chances of success.
This can be demonstrated using a combination of OSM and NFL Next Gen Stats to break through the clearly impressive numbers that Brown has posted throughout his career.
We use OSM to show how a player has individually contributed to a team’s offensive performance. It takes into account a number of metrics to produce a grade which shows how a player performs with the opportunities they’re given. In this way, a player who has inflated statistics due to a greater amount of opportunities can be found out.
Which is exactly the case for Brown.
We can go back to 2016 with OSM and over the three years that followed, Brown was never the highest-graded receiver for the Steelers.
In 2016, Eli Rodgers was our WR17 with a grade of 35.87 whereas Brown was our WR25 with a grade of 34.68. It obviously isn’t a massive differential but still indicative of the fact that Brown wasn’t leading the Steelers offense on performance alone. Sure enough, he had the fifth-most targets in the NFL in 2016 with 154 and had the fifth-most receiving yards with 1,284.
The problems for Brown really started in 2017 with the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown’s OSM grade dropped to 32.26 (WR36) and he was outperformed by the youngster who received an OSM grade of 37.89, good enough for the seventh overall wide receiver in the NFL. Brown saw an uptick in receiving yards, but he also had an uptick in opportunity with 163 targets.
This trend continued into 2018
There was a marginal decrease in Brown’s OSM grade but he dropped significantly down the rankings, landing as the WR59. Smith-Schuster also saw a decline, but he still ranked comfortably ahead of Brown as our WR30.
Although he snagged a league-leading 15 touchdowns in 2018, a deeper analysis of Brown’s OSM grade shows the drop-off in his performance. It also shows how he – in demanding that the Steelers offense ran through him – essentially contributed to the failure of the Steelers making the 2018 NFL playoffs.
His 168 targets were the most in the NFL. However, his 1,297 receiving yards were only the 11th best amongst receivers that year. Smith-Schuster had less targets but turned them into 1,426 yards.How? Smith-Schuster had a 66.9% catch completion percentage compared to Brown’s 61.9%. He also showed a greater ability to create separation that Brown in 2018.
Look back to Brown’s play on the field from 2016-2018
Brown has shown a decline in both catch percentage and separation between 2016 and 2018. If you use those metrics to help define what makes a good pass catcher in the NFL, then Brown hasn’t been anywhere near the top 10 in his last three seasons.
He has gone from ranking 43/134 to 93/126 in separation from 2016 to 2018. His catch completion percentage has gone from 68.83% to 61.9% over that time, with his ranking going from 31/134 to 78/126.
The comparison between the two players is illustrated in a series of charts below. The OSM grades are represented by the dots and catch percentage by the X’s. In that final 2018 season for the Steelers, 43.7% of Brown’s games were above the league average whereas Smith-Schuster had 73% of his games above. He was simply better.
One can only presume that the Steelers witnessed this decline first-hand as 2018 progressed and knew that their offense would thrive with Smith-Schuster as the lead receiver going forward.
Brown’s ego would not allow him to be overshadowed and he forged a path out of Pittsburgh. This ultimately led to his decline as both a player and a man.
The following season, without Brown and without Roethlisberger for several games due to injury, Smith-Schuster had five of his seven games above the OSM average for the wide receiver position as demonstrated by the chart below. The decision to move on from Brown was validated, even if a number of factors meant that 2019 wasn’t a standout year for the Steelers or Smith-Schuster in terms of results.
Will Antonio Brown play another down in the NFL?
Will Brown have a chance to redeem himself in the league? Can he still be a game-changer for a team?
Antonio Brown’s OSM suggests that his abilities to lead an offense have declined to the point that his days as a WR1 in the league may be over. As to whether he will get another chance, former teammate Emmanuel Sanders certainly thinks that he should, stating such on a recent episode of Speak to Yourself.
“He should have an opportunity to be back in the league with the right team. I don’t want him to go out how he’s going out right now. I want him to have an opportunity to revamp himself. Because we all need second chances.”