Steelers spotlight: Led by Brown, receivers strive to be even better than excellent
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers superstar Antonio Brown: 265 receptions the past two seasons, good for 3,532 yards.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(Second in a series of stories this winter and spring that will examine the Steelers position by position heading into the 2016 season)
It is highly unlikely, if not unfathomable, that Antonio Brown could possibly improve in 2016. Not after back-to-back seasons in which he caught more passes and had the second-most receiving yards in NFL history.
Or is it?
After he and Atlanta’s Julio Jones each caught a league-high 136 passes last season, second most in league history, Brown could conceivably eclipse that number and the all-time single-season mark of 143 held by Hall of Fame selectee Marvin Harrison if Ben Roethlisberger can stay healthy for an entire season in 2016.
Roethlisberger missed four games with injuries in 2015 and Brown had only 17 catches for 235 yards in those four games. That’s an average of 4.2 catches and 58.8 yards in games without Roethlisberger.
In the 12 games Brown played with his Pro Bowl quarterback, he averaged 9.9 catches and 133.8 yards per game. Total those averages over four games — the number he played without Roethlisberger — and that’s 40 catches and 533 receiving yards.
That means if Brown played all 16 games with Roethlisberger as his quarterback — as Jones did with Matt Ryan in Atlanta — he would have finished with 159 receptions and 2,132 receiving yards, both NFL records by a wide margin. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has all the all-time single-season receiving yards mark with 1,964 yards set in 2012.
So yes, Brown — the team’s three-time MVP and a four-time Pro Bowl selection — could be even better in 2016.
And so should the rest of the Steelers receiving corps, most of whom return next season.
“I just want to continue to grow every year and improve, improve, improve,” Brown said. “Every year starts a new year. Everything that you’ve done prior to last year is erased. Every year is a fresh start. I got a new identity. I’m like an artist trying to paint my life and create the poses and pictures I want to see.”
There is no reason to doubt Brown.
After shattering club records with 129 catches and 1,698 receiving yards in the 2014 season, he came back and eclipsed those numbers with one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history. In the past two years, his 265 receptions are the most by any player in league history. And his 3,532 receiving yards are second only to Johnson, who had 3,645 receiving yards in 2011-2012.
Brown has two more years on a contract with an average yearly value of $8,392,000 that ranks only 17th among wide receivers in the NFL, according to overthecap.com. By comparison, Johnson — the league’s highest-paid receiver — averages $16.2 million a year. Jones is the third highest, averaging $14.25 million.
“Every year you want to be the best, you want to beat everybody,” Brown said. “It’s time to get things restarted, rebooted, and try to improve each day.”
The thought of a more productive Brown, and the young talent at the receiving position, is a scary one for any of the league’s defensive coordinators.
Martavis Bryant’s season started slow when he missed the first five games — four because of a league-mandated suspension — but he had three of the team’s six longest pass receptions and forced teams to play both safeties 20 to 25 yards off the line of scrimmage. But Bryant also showed he can be more than just a deep threat in the divisional playoff loss in Denver when he had to shoulder most of the load without Brown, who was out with a concussion.
Bryant had nine catches for 154 yards and also ran 40 yards on a reverse against the league’s No. 1 defense. If he can stay away from his off-field issues and dedicate himself to his craft, Bryant and Brown can form the most dangerous receiving duo in the league.
But that’s not all.
The Steelers drafted Sammie Coates in the third round last year as insurance because they knew Bryant faced a possible suspension. Coates was inactive for eight games and did not play in two others, but he showed what he is capable of with two catches that totaled 61 yards against the Broncos in the postseason. At 6 feet 2, 215 pounds, Coates is a physically gifted receiver who is capable of making a big leap into his second season if he learns, like Bryant, to commit to his profession.
Markus Wheaton disappeared too often in the regular season, but when the Steelers turned to him in Week 12 at Seattle, he responded with one of the best receiving games in the NFL. Wheaton caught nine passes for 201 yards — the third-highest single-game total in the league this past season — including a 69-yard touchdown. While performances like that, or even close to it, were rare for Wheaton, he played in all 16 games and finished with 44 catches and 749 yards.
The only free agent among the five receivers who finished the season on the 53-man roster is Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Steelers would like to re-sign him because he is a veteran who does everything they ask him to do, including block. Heyward-Bey played a lot late in the season, sometimes as much as Bryant, because he is their best blocking receiver.
This is a position that should remain untouched in 2016. The only player to keep an eye on is Eli Rogers, an undrafted free agent from Louisville last season who was injured early in training camp, waived and eventually placed on injured reserve. Rogers was very impressive before he injured his foot and actually had a chance to make the 53-man roster.
How they were built: Steelers wide receivers
Year acquired: 2010 draft, sixth round
School: Central Michigan
Signed through: 2017
Year acquired: 2013 draft, third round
School: Oregon State
Signed through: 2016
Year acquired: 2014 draft, fourth round
Signed through: 2017
Year acquired: 2015 draft, third round
Signed through: 2018
Year acquired: 2014 free agent
Signed through: Unrestricted free agent
Year acquired: 2015 , undrafted free agent
Signed through: 2017
Draft prospects (as rated by nfldraftscout.com)
1. Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi Jr.
2. Corey Coleman, Baylor Jr.
3. Michael Thomas, Ohio State Jr.
4. Josh Doctson, TCU Sr.
5. Will Fuller, Notre Dame Jr.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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