The Fantasy Impact of the Antonio Brown Trade
Now that the Antonio Brown Saga is finally over, we can begin to evaluate what his arrival means in Oakland and how his departure will impact his former teammates in Pittsburgh.
Impact on Antonio Brown
Let’s start with Brown, who joins a Raiders offense that was 28th in total points scored and 23rd in yards gained. Clearly he’ll help the Raiders, but how will the Raiders affect his fantasy production?
In 2018, Brown once again posted a per game average (PPR) in the top two at his position. It was the fifth straight season he finished in the top two. On paper, it certainly looks like he’s going to see a downgrade at quarterback from Ben Roethlisberger to Derek Carr.
Over the past two seasons, Roethlisberger has averaged 0.63 fantasy points per pass attempt directed at Brown. He has averaged 0.46 fantasy points per pass attempt (FP/PA) to all other Pittsburgh wide receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster (0.59 FP/PA).
Conversely, Carr averaged 0.44 FP/PA to all of his wide receivers in 2018, including Amari Cooper. (I only looked at 2018 for Carr since it was his first and only season in Jon Gruden’s offense.) Effectively, Carr was almost as productive on a per attempt basis as Roethlisberger was when he was throwing to any receiver not named Antonio Brown. This indicates that the drop off from Roethlisberger to Carr is not as severe as it appears on the surface, so despite the historical trend that free agent receivers tend to decline, Brown has a chance to maintain his status as an elite fantasy receiver.
My primary concern isn’t Carr, it’s Gruden, who failed to get much of anything out of Cooper. At the time of Cooper’s trade, we weren’t sure who to blame, but after his post-trade explosion in Dallas—he played at a 96-catch, 1304-yard, 10.2-touchdown pace in 11 games with the Cowboys—Gruden has to shoulder most of the blame. Will he struggle to get the most out of Brown in 2019?
Another issue is overall volume. Roethlisberger averaged 650 pass attempts over the past two seasons while Carr only attempted 541 passes in his first year playing for Gruden.
Impact on Derek Carr
Brown’s arrival is great for Carr, but is it enough to turn him into a QB1? His career was certainly trending that way after a No. 14 finish in his second season (2015) and a No. 13 finish in (2016). Since then, he has posted back-to-back disappointing finishes (No. 22 and No. 18) in the last two seasons, and there were serious questions about whether Gruden was committed to Carr as his franchise quarterback.
It appears now that Gruden will move forward with Carr. Brown’s presence in Pittsburgh served to raise Roethlisberger’s FP/PA by 10.2%, so if Brown sees a similar target share and posts similar per target production in Oakland, then Carr’s per attempt production should rise by about the same amount. Assuming the same volume, that sort of rise would have made Carr the No. 15 QB instead of the No. 18 QB in 2018, so a QB1-type season is within reach if Carr exceeds expectations or Gruden cranks up his volume.
Impact on Ben Roethlisberger
Let’s revisit a stat from earlier:
Over the past two seasons, Roethlisberger has averaged 0.63 fantasy points per pass attempt directed at Brown. He has averaged 0.46 fantasy points per pass attempt to all other Pittsburgh wide receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster (0.59 FP/PA).
Brown’s departure is certainly a blow to Roethlisberger’s fantasy outlook, but the good news for Big Ben is that he has another very talented receiver on the roster in Smith-Schuster who can pick up some of the slack. Vance McDonald was also a good target (0.50 FP/PA) in 2018, and he should see a much larger role with Jesse James departing via free agency. The question is whether James Washington (0.34 FP/PA) will be ready to be the No. 2 or No. 3 option or if that production will have to come from elsewhere. Update (3/13): I watched most of Washington's late-season targets and he certainly looks capable.
In other words, Brown’s departure is a downgrade for Roethlisberger, but it’s certainly not a death knell to his fantasy value.
Impact on Steelers Remaining Receivers
Brown averaged 11.4 targets per game (T/G) in his last two seasons with the Steelers. Smith-Schuster averaged 10.4 T/G in his second season, blossoming into a bona fide fantasy WR1. He’s going to see more defensive attention with Brown gone, but he should be able to handle it. In the three games that Brown missed over the past two seasons, Smith-Schuster posted receiving lines of 6-75-1 (7 targets), 9-143-1 (10) and 5-37-1 (10), so I’m not worried about JuJu.
Since Smith-Schuster is already a star, Washington is the Pittsburgh receiver most likely to make a major leap in 2019. The former second-rounder was highly productive in college, racking up 145 catches for 2929 yards and 23 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Oklahoma State. He won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver in 2017 and was a favorite of #ReceptionPerception creator Matt Harmon as he evaluated last year’s draft class.
After a strong preseason—catching seven passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns—Washington had a quiet rookie year, catching 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown on 30 targets, but there wasn’t much room for Washington in the offense with Brown and Smith-Schuster gobbling up 166+ targets apiece. Even though he was playing fifth fiddle in the passing game, Washington still played 55% of the snaps and had two of his best games late in the season, posting 3-65 on four targets against the Patriots in Week 15 and 3-64 on three targets in Week 17 with Brown sidelined.
As a receiver who is very likely to see 100+ targets from Roethlisberger in a potent offense, Washington is definitely in the WR3 mix this summer and has the upside to finish in the top 20.
Finally, I think McDonald is capable of expanding his role in the passing offense as well. He caught a solid 50 passes (on 73 targets) for 610 yards and four touchdowns, and he even missed Week 1. He finished as the No. 10 tight end in PPR formats and should see a significant increase in playing time now that Jesse James is out of the way. McDonald played on 55% of the snaps last season while James played 50%, so unless the Steelers decide to directly replace James with another player, McDonald’s playing time should surpass 70%. If he stays healthy and plays starter’s snaps I believe McDonald has top-five upside.