After weeks of unhappiness, Antonio Brown finally has a new home. The Oakland Raiders traded a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Brown and then promptly signed the four-time all-pro receiver to a new contract worth up to $54.125 million over the next three years, $19.8 million of that in new money.
If any receiver deserves to get paid it is Brown. Since he entered the league in 2010, Brown leads the league in receptions (837), receiving yards (11,207) and touchdown catches (74). In 2018, he caught 104 of 168 targets for 1,297 receiving yards and a league-high 15 touchdowns; the latter was also a career high at age 30.
“He’s the hardest-working man, I think, in football,” Raiders Coach Jon Gruden said of Brown during a December news conference. “Hardest-working player I’ve ever seen practice. I’ve seen Jerry Rice, I’ve seen a lot of good ones, but I put Antonio Brown at the top. If there are any young wideouts out there, I’d go watch him practice. You figure out yourself why he’s such a good player.”
Brown’s exploits on the field are not up for debate, but his ability to elevate the Raiders to a title contender by himself is.
For starters, Brown will be working with an inferior quarterback and offensive line. The Steelers’ pass-blocking was ranked No. 1 by the game charters at Pro Football Focus; the Raiders ranked 30th. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was also the least pressured quarterback of 2018 (24 percent of drop backs). That could limit Brown’s ability to work downfield.
Roethlisberger also ranked as the fourth-best passer of 2018 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating whereas Oakland’s Derek Carr ranked 27th. That’s a three-win difference in performance over 16 regular-season games.
According to data compiled by TruMedia, passes from Roethlisberger to Brown in 2018 were worth 1.4 points per game more than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each throw. Roethlisberger’s passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, by comparison, were worth 3.1 points more per game than expected. And Carr’s throws to Amari Cooper, who was traded by Oakland to the Dallas Cowboys in October for a first-round pick in 2019, was worth one point per game more than expected.
In other words, Oakland’s upgrade to Brown won’t have as much impact as you might think given Brown’s talent level. Instead, the Raiders need to make this the first of many moves to get them back into contention. And that starts with the 2019 NFL draft.
The biggest need is an edge rusher, especially after Khalil Mack was jettisoned to the Chicago Bears in the offseason. Cornerback, running back and more depth at wide receiver are also necessary. Luckily Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock own 10 draft picks in 2019, four in the top 35 overall (Nos. 4, 24, 27 and 35), which allows them to fill most of their needs in this year’s draft. If history is any guide, the Raiders could come out of this year’s draft with a bevy of talent. Based on their draft slots, Oakland should accumulate the highest average weighted career approximate value — a metric created by Doug Drinen that puts a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year — in 2019.
Until we know who is added to Oakland’s roster in the coming weeks we have to consider them pretenders and not contenders. Don’t take my word for it though. The oddsmakers at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas adjusted Oakland’s Super Bowl futures from 100-to-1 odds to 80-to-1, which implies a probability change from 1 to 1.2 percent. Caesars Palace moved its line on the Raiders from 75-to-1 to 50-to-1 and the Mirage moved theirs from 80-to-1 to 60-to-1.
Adding Brown makes Oakland better for sure, but he’s not the missing piece to a playoff or Super Bowl picture.
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