It's difficult to overstate what an amazing season Antonio Brown has had. Yes, statistically he's been immense: He leads all wideouts in targets (102), receptions (71), receiving yards (996) and is tied for second in TDs (8). He's on pace for a 126/1,771/14 season; that would be the second-most catches and fourth-most yards ever in a single season. But what makes Brown even more amazing is that he's doing this primarily as an outside receiver, at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds.
That's just incredible. In an era when NFL teams routinely reach for unproven freakish size/speed/strength athletes in the first round, a pipsqueak shall lead them.
How does Brown do it? I mean, he's fast, but he's not really a blinding speed guy. He's not a weakling, but he's certainly not an Adonis. He didn't even test all that well in the "quickness" metrics at his draft combine, though watching his NFL tape that's difficult to fathom. To my eyes, that's where Brown's improbable superiority comes from: He looks like a quickness all-timer.
Now, from a fantasy perspective it's a bit late -- or at least expensive -- to jump on the Brown bandwagon. So might it be interesting to try to find the next mighty mite before he fully breaks out? What characteristics should we look for? Speed is desirable, quickness is a must-have, but first and foremost Brown gets open, even from the outside where physical corners usually push around players his size. He accomplishes this with an elite bag of tricks:
1. He's well-nigh "unbumpable" at the line, to the point that even corners who are asked to play "press" against Brown routinely give him multiple steps. Almost nobody tries to make contact with him off the line anymore, because he's so good at making defenders whiff, and if you whiff, he's by you. Here's an example from a meeting with the Baltimore Ravens:
Cornerback Chykie Brown gets up in Antonio Brown's business before the snap, and you can practically see Antonio rubbing his palms together. He gives a hard jab with his left foot, Chykie bites and then flails with his left hand trying to impede Antonio, but it's too late and he nearly falls down. Chykie plays catch-up through the rest of the route.
2. He can change direction with either foot and never lose momentum. Nobody decelerates on a "stop" like Brown does, and nobody conceals a crossing route better. I can't tell you how many times I see good corners caught flat-footed by a Brown change of direction.
3. He's an unrepentant push-off artist of the highest magnitude when a defensive back gets his mitts on him. Officials rarely call it on him, but Brown is a dervish of flailing hands and arms when he gets near defensive backs.
4. He's just flat-out smart. He sets up his routes beautifully, presents himself as a target with wonderful timing, and adjusts his body position based on how a corner reacts to him.
To proclaim that I can just snap my fingers and locate the next smaller player who fits this description is, shall we say, ambitious. After all, Brown's level of success -- as an outside WR -- hasn't been a common occurrence throughout NFL history; Steve Smith comes to mind as someone who's helped refashion what an "outside WR" can be, but there aren't many of them. Clearly, nobody I'm about to mention has proved anything close to what Smith or Brown has, but here are a few candidates:
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints: Cooks' rookie season has been exceedingly up and down. From Weeks 3 through 5, he saw 27 targets and I got jazzed, but in three games since the Saints' bye he's had only 13 targets. What's heartening to me is that his team has liked Cooks enough to run him on the outside: 70 percent of his routes have been run from an outside alignment. Surely, part of this occurs because latter-day Marques Colston is basically glued to the slot, but part is that the Saints trust Cooks to get off the line out wide.
Here's a play from Week 8 against the Green Bay Packers, Cooks' best in his young NFL career. The Saints have him opposing corner Davon House, who aligns head-up with Cooks in press coverage, and is surprised by the rookie's quickness getting to his inside:
You can see House is off balance stepping back, having made contact with Cooks but having underestimated the WR's side-step. Here's a close-up:
House is reduced to grabbing Cooks as he goes by; this was play-action and Drew Brees took a shot to the deep middle, which should've been caught by an open Cooks for a long gain.
Later in this same game, Cooks used a huge cushion from House to catch an easy 18-yard comebacker, and still later he burned past Tramon Williams on a post for a 50-yard TD. It would be an overstatement to say Cooks has anything close to Brown's savvy, but on occasion Brees has trusted him to simply beat tight man coverage with good footwork. It hasn't happened often enough yet for Cooks to become a fantasy must-start, but it's encouraging.
Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants: Beckham might be a little bit of a cheat, as he's not quite as small as Brown or Smith. But at 5-11 and 198 pounds, Beckham doesn't have the size of a "typical" first-round WR, yet the Giants selected him 12th overall this spring. You've seen all the crazy one-handed catches Beckham practices, and you watched him haul in eight grabs for 156 yards Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts (though be advised that before the score was 40-10, Beckham had two catches). What you haven't seen is Beckham make a ton of plays in the open field.
But I believe he can do it. On tape, the kid looks spry coming out of breaks. A good measuring stick is how much a break distances a WR from the defensive back covering him, and in Beckham's case -- as, for instance, on a Monday night deep cross when Beckham put Greg Toler in the torture chamber, hopping past him once on the downfield portion of his route and losing him entirely breaking to the middle -- evidence of quickness is present.
Given how poorly Rueben Randle has shown on game film since Victor Cruz's injury, I expect Beckham to assert himself as Eli Manning's top receiving weapon in the second half of this season. In his enhanced role Monday, Beckham got his first extended taste of work from the slot and it suited him (though again, be careful not to draw many conclusions about blowout strategies), which could be a sign he's in for Cruz-like production, but with more varied alignments.
Jarius Wright, Minnesota Vikings: Yes, it would be easier to say names like Emmanuel Sanders or T.Y. Hilton, but those guys are already established in their own rights. Sanders has been terrific, running as an outside WR about 60 percent of the time and doing a pretty fair Brown impersonation; I view Hilton as more of a north/south speed demon and less as an ultra-quick guy, but he certainly has the fantasy world's attention. Anyway instead of these "obvious" answers, let me cast a vote for an unlikely candidate: Wright.
You might be surprised to know that Wright has lined up as an outside receiver on about 84 percent of his routes this year. Now, many of his targets have been of the 2-yard, "gadget" variety, in which Teddy Bridgewater allows other WRs to get off the line and then zings Wright a dump-off. But the mere fact that the Vikings scheme to get the ball in Wright's hands with blockers in front of him speaks to his development as an open-field runner.
Wright's performance in Week 4 against an admittedly poor Atlanta Falcons defense was positively Brown-esque. He manufactured a couple of big plays out of safe, short passes; he ran effective shallow crosses; and by game's end he had a good corner like Desmond Trufant leaning backward at the line to make sure Wright didn't get too far away.
Yes, since then (a day when he produced 132 yards on eight grabs), Wright has resumed an ancillary role in the Vikes' attack. I bring up his name here as a prospect for the future, not so much for 2014. Getting Cordarrelle Patterson going, getting Kyle Rudolph healthy and relying on Greg Jennings' savvy continues to be more important this year. But I've liked what I've seen of Wright, who appears to have the ability to scare defenders a bit. I'll be watching his development.