The NFL’s most recent biggest-ever soap opera is over, as the Pittsburgh Steelers basically gave away traded superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders, in turn, gave him a massive contract, one that Mr. Big Chest deserves. His guaranteed money went from nothing to around $30 million, with his overall money ballooning up to $50 million for the next three years. The Raiders, for their troubles, sent the Steelers a 2019 third-round pick and a 2019 fifth-round pick. This compensation is hilarious when you consider the difference between Antonio Brown and Martavis “smoking my way out of the league” Bryant is a fifth-rounder. What happens now? What are the fantasy football ramifications of this move? Well, when you move a player of Brown’s caliber, it certainly will have some wide-reaching ripples, and we’ll take a look at those ripples going into 2019.
First, the situation he left behind. Many are prognosticating a huge step forward for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh. While I love JuJu, and I think that he is an exceptional talent, I am bearish on him going into 2019. As of writing this, JuJu’s FantasyPros Expert Consensus Rank for 2019 is WR9. This is not what gives me pause, what gives me pause are the multitudes of fantasy football prognosticators predicting a massive step-forward for JuJu. I don’t see it. His target share with Brown on the field was 3% higher than when Brown was off the field, which portends problems ahead. The big issue I have is his 166 targets last year, to Brown’s 168. Brown’s highest target count when he was Antonio Brown, was 193 targets. Let’s give JuJu those 193 targets, that’s only 27 extra targets, or about three extra targets every two games. JuJu was already top-five in yards, receptions, and targets last season, so the jump-forward is… touchdowns? Touchdowns are notoriously fluky, so predicting a step forward there, and hitching yourself to that wagon, is not a good idea.
Another reason I don’t like JuJu as much as most is that he will get a lot of attention as the only wide receiver worth a lick in Pittsburgh. Defenses will focus on him, and decrease his efficiency. The entire offense will suffer without Brown. However, nature, like fantasy football, abhors a vacuum, and someone has to step up to get those 168 targets. I see a lot of those being distributed around the team, but sophomore wide receiver James Washington should get a huge bump on his 38 targets last season. He’s built like a running back (5’11”, 213), but he is a deep threat guy. We saw what he could be capable of in two of his last three games in 2018, going for 65 yards and 63 yards in week 15 and 17. An increase in targets would mean a huge step forward for Washington in 2019, which makes him a great middle-to-late-round flier.
And what of AB84’s in his new digs, Oakland? Well, Derek Carr should have a better floor, though not enough to make him viable weekly. Jordy Nelson’s value is officially dead, and free agent Jared Cook would be better served finding greener pastures. And for the man himself? Probably a huge step back come 2019. For starters, the Raiders don’t throw it a lot. Big Ben threw the ball 122 times more than Derek Carr last season, or just about 7.6 more pass attempts per game. Let’s assume that Antonio Brown keeps his Steelers target share (where he was a massive target hog) and he gets 26% of Derek Carr’s targets, and let’s roll with Carr’s career average of 560 passes. That’s just 146 targets for Brown, or his fewest targets in any season where he started more than ten games. There’s also the sixteen passing touchdown deficiency between the 2018 Raiders and Steelers to worry about, given how much of Brown’s production last year was touchdown-based. Note that I am not confident that AB84 will drag the Raiders offense, kicking and screaming, into relevance? That’s because Amari Cooper’s 2018 usage was criminal, and his fantasy football production more-than-doubled in Dallas. Was it because Cooper was suddenly good, or maybe, just maybe… Jon Gruden isn’t quite sure what he’s doing in the modern NFL?
The Antonio Brown shoe dropped relatively quickly, in the span of sports dramas. Now that it’s settled, the fortunes of the Steelers and Raiders are inexorably, irreversibly changed, as are the fantasy football fortunes of those who choose to invest in the Raiders or Steelers in 2019. The Raiders and Brown seem to be happy together, but they are still in the honeymoon phase. Let’s see if they still love each other on their second anniversary… wedding.
[Author’s Note]: Almost immediately after this was set up to publish, the Steelers signed Donte Moncrief to fill the hole in their WR corps. Moncrief peaked with the Colts in 2015, getting 64 receptions for 733 yards and six scores on 105 targets. Moncrief could turn in similar production in Pittsburgh, but don’t expect a massive upside for the sixth-year wideout.