It might seem preposterous to suggest that The Associated Press should name a wide receiver the NFL’s MVP of the year. After all, the AP introduced its prize in 1957 and has never given it to a wide receiver ― not even in 1987, when several other sports journalism groups bestowed the honor on Jerry Rice. But 28-year-old Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers deserves the recognition as much as anyone this season.
Let’s start with the obvious: His 106 catches (on 155 targets) rank second in the league and his 1,284 yards (he didn’t play in Week 17) slot him fourth. In fact, this is the fourth consecutive year that Brown has eclipsed the 100-catch barrier, tying an NFL record set by former Indianapolis Colts great and future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison.
Better yet, in an offense starving for big plays, the Central Michigan product ranks third with 22 catches of 20 yards or more, trailing only T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones. As a reference point, consider that other elite wide receivers like Mike Evans, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Allen Robinson, Brandon Marshall, Brandin Cooks and Demaryius Thomas all have 15 or less.
Plenty of credit for Brown’s production should go to his superstar quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. But also remember that Pittsburgh severely lacks a second option at receiver. Dynamic deep threat Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year, Sammie Coates has been injured and second-year man Eli Rogers is a mixed bag. Versatile All-World running back Le’Veon Bell assumes the role at times, although Brown draws the top cornerback every week and often absorbs double coverage, only to beat it nearly every week.
Brown, a former sixth-round pick, separates himself with his impeccable route running and a remarkable consistency to flat out catch the football. While No. 84 has been targeted on about 25 percent of Roethlisberger’s throws, he has dropped just two passes all season. In fact, the wideout’s 1.3 percent drop rate is fourth-best in the league for receivers with at least 60 catches (behind Doug Baldwin, Stefon Diggs and Pierre Garcon), according to SportingCharts.com. Simply put, nobody ― regardless of position ― is steadier or more lethal on a weekly basis.
Perhaps the real genius of the 5-foot-10, 181-pound Brown ― well on his way to a fourth straight All-Pro selection ― is the sheer timeliness of his receptions.
Take into consideration Pittsburgh’s crucial Week 16 comeback against Baltimore to clinch an AFC North title and, in turn, a playoff bid. With no timeouts left and the season dwindling, Brown’s Herculean effort to find the end zone sealed a 31-27 win. Moreover, his stellar play in the clutch is a key reason why Big Ben ranks second in the league in fourth-quarter quarterback rating.
Additionally, Brown is second in the league for catches for first downs ― with 64, he’s behind only Tampa Bay’s resurgent Mike Evans ― and his 12 touchdown catches trail only Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson.
Of course, realistically we know that the chances of Brown (and his unmistakeable touchdown celebrations) capturing MVP honors are extremely low, particularly with the sizzling play of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
The last non-QB to win the award was Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012, when he had one of the single greatest seasons in NFL history. But the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders and Brown might be the most important reason for that. At the very least, that has to cement him firmly into the conversation for pro football’s highest honor.