The concerns about Brown’s impact on a franchise’s cohesion are legitimate, but there is an overlooked and more important reason to doubt whether the Oakland Raiders made a savvy acquisition in the wee hours of Sunday morning when they agreed to deal a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder to the Pittsburgh Steelers and promptly restructured Brown’s contract to make him the third-highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL. Brown is about to become a relative old man at a young man’s position.
Given the money they paid and the draft capital sacrificed, the Raiders acquired Brown to be a 31-year-old No. 1 wide receiver. In today’s NFL, 31-year-old No. 1 wide receivers do not exist.
While Brown, who turns 31 in July, created headaches for the Steelers, his performance and work habits were never in question. He wanted to be great, he worked to be great, and he was great. Brown was inarguably the best wide receiver of the past half-decade, with apologies to Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. But for him to remain great, he will have to defy a rigid aging curve.
It may be telling that Jon Gruden, the coach who came out of a decade-long hiatus last year, would be the one willing to bet on Brown. From 2003 through 2010, back when Gruden was in his prime, there were 43 1,000-yard receiving seasons by wide receivers 31 or older. Since 2011, there have been 16.
That trend is only growing stronger. Larry Fitzgerald and Jordy Nelson are the only active wide receivers with a 1,000-yard season at age 31 or beyond. Nelson fell off a cliff at 32, catching 53 balls for 482 yards in his final season in Green Bay, then gaining 739 yards on 63 catches last year, his first as a Raider. Fitzgerald is a statistical outlier and a football marvel, but he also moved to the slot late in his career, remaining Arizona’s No. 1 option in a nontraditional fashion.
Among the top 30 wide receivers by receiving yardage last season, only Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Julian Edelman and Golden Tate had turned 30. Only Edelman — a 32-year-old who missed the first four games on a performance-enhancing drug suspension — and Sanders, 31, were older than 30. Brown’s contract, which guarantees him over $30 million, runs three years. Last season, only five wideouts older than 32 caught a single pass.
So, then, the Raiders are clearly betting on Brown to snap the trend. If you had to choose one player to do it, Brown might be where you start. Brown has been an outlier his entire career, in both his athletic qualities and his production, and so it stands to reason he’s a strong candidate to defy the aging curve.
It’s also possible he moves to the slot in a year or two and produces late-career excellence like Fitzgerald. Brown’s best route with Roethlisberger was the go, on which he would simply run straight down the field and adjust to long passes while in the air, snagging every pass as if he and the ball were magnetized. But Brown’s quickness and burst could also be put to use in the slot, where older receivers have been productive.
Without question, Brown could work out in Oakland (and then Las Vegas). But he may also become a stark lesson in why teams have to pay attention to age. The Raiders dealt Amari Cooper for a first-round pick last season, then watched Cooper transform Dallas’s offense and lead it to a division title. He turns 25 in June; his best football is ahead of him. Brown’s is assuredly behind him. The success of the Raiders’ gamble depends on how much he has left.