When the Bucs signed Antonio Brown on Friday night, it sent social media into a tailspin. Conversations were had about Brown’s off-the-field issues, past comments from head coach Bruce Arians were replayed and questions about how he would impact a Bucs locker room that is as problem-free as any team in the league were asked.
Before departing from the Steelers, Brown was legitimately one of the greatest and most consistent wide receivers to ever play the game. In nine seasons with Pittsburgh to begin his career, Brown was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a four-time first-team All-Pro, pacing the league in receptions twice, receiving yards twice and receiving touchdowns once. In a six-year span between 2013 and 2018, Brown never had fewer than 100 receptions, never had fewer than 1,200 yards and never had fewer than eight touchdown grabs, even leading the league with 1,533 receiving yards in 2017 despite playing just 14 games.
“I remember first meeting him and, before he even got drafted, telling him that he could have an opportunity to be the best in the world and he laughed at me,” Byron Leftwich said, who previously played with Brown when he was a quarterback in Pittsburgh. “It was just because of who we were working out with. I was throwing to a bunch of different wide receivers that were already Pro Bowlers, that were already established in the league, and here comes this little kid comes in working out three times per day, running as fast, catching everything. The things that he can do from a skill set standpoint are unique.”
But we’ve come a long way since then, as Brown has played in just one game – a four-catch, 56-yard, one-touchdown performance with the New England Patriots in 2019 – in nearly two calendar years. With the offensive talent already in place on Tampa Bay’s roster in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Scotty Miller, if Brown’s level of play is even a fraction of what it was in Pittsburgh, then the Bucs just landed yet another supremely talented receiver at a rock bottom price, even if they didn’t need him. And with Brown unable to practice until Nov. 3 and unable to play until Nov. 8, it isn’t optimal preparation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that Brown has spent time playing under Arians years ago in Pittsburgh, and alongside offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, offensive assistant Antwaan Randle El and quarterback Tom Brady.
From a schematic standpoint, Arians loves to move the star receivers around in his offense. Although Godwin is traditionally the Bucs’ slot receiver while Evans plays primarily out wide, Godwin has played 85 snaps out wide compared to 122 in the slot while Evans has played 163 snaps in the slot compared to 304 out wide this season, per Pro Football Focus.
Miller isn’t an official starter, but he’s a de-facto first-string receiver as the Bucs run 59 percent of their offensive plays out of 11 personnel. And even as the most one-dimensional of the Bucs’ top receivers from an alignment standpoint, Miller has still lined up in the slot on 77 of his 318 offensive snaps.
Brown was primarily out wide throughout his career in Pittsburgh, but worked a good deal in the slot, roughly 16 percent of his offensive snaps in 2018, while performing well all over the field. So if versatility is what Arians wants, Brown can provide that in spades.
“Since 2016, Brown has 229 targets, 176 receptions, 1,538 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on passes coming out in two seconds or less,” PFF’s Ben Linsey said. “Those numbers all rank either first or second among wide receivers. It’s not just volume, either, as Brown has the third-highest receiving grade of any player on those quick targets. He’s more than capable of taking a wide screen or a quick slant to the house.”
Per Next Gen Stats, Brady is getting the ball out of his hand among the quickest in the league, averaging 2.6 seconds in time to throw.
“As already touched on, Brown has received plenty of work in recent seasons in the short and intermediate passing game, but he’s just as capable of getting the upper hand over his coverage man on deep routes,” Linsey added. “In fact, since 2017, 37% of Brown’s routes have been some variation of a go route, his most frequently run route over that span. Going back further to 2014, Brown has a top-10 receiving grade on go routes among all receivers, and his 1,726 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns lead all players.”
Per PFF, Brady is currently fourth in the NFL with 34 deep pass attempts – trailing only Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers – with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and an adjusted completion percentage of 50 percent and an NFL passer rating of 108.1.
Arians also touched on what made Brown such a dominant receiver throughout his career, despite not having the size of receivers like Mike Evans or Julio Jones or sub-4.4 speed like other receivers across the league.
“I think that when you look at him play, his play speed is that fast and his play size is that size,” Arians said. “He just makes big-man catches. He’s got unbelievable hands, great body control and he can separate extremely quickly on anybody that’s trying to cover him. He’s a great run after the catch guy because he can catch really well and he doesn’t have to think about it. He’ll take short ones then take them deep.”
Arians then added that Brown’s work ethic only adds to a skill set that already makes him a dangerous playmaker.
“He’s got great work habits,” Arians said. “But when you watch him, he plays bigger than he is and he plays faster than he is.”
So while Tampa Bay already has an exceptionally talented group of pass catchers, even if Brown isn’t getting the same volume of passes that he became accustomed to in the first decade of his NFL career, there really is no wrong way for Brown to get involved. And should any of the Bucs’ top receivers go down, he’s more than capable of playing every receiver position on the field.
In 2019, Miller dealt with multiple hamstring injuries that limited him to just 10 games while Godwin and Evans both saw their seasons end prematurely to hamstring injuries of their own. In 2020, Evans has dealt with a mix of hamstring and ankle injuries throughout the year, Godwin has missed three of the Bucs’ first six games due to injuries and Miller has been a staple on the Bucs’ injury report as he recovers from a groin injury.
At the worst, the Bucs have added a high-upside player to a wide receiver room that has had to battle through a significant number of injuries. But at best, Brown could potentially make a return to his All-Pro form and be one of the league’s top offensive X-Factors in an already explosive offense.