While much of the attention early in Pittsburgh Steelers training camp has focused on position battles at outside linebacker and running back, one roster spot that is already locked down is actually causing me the most concern for the upcoming 2013 season.
With the free-agent departure of Mike Wallace, fourth-year pro Antonio Brown becomes the de facto No. 1 wide receiver. While undeniably talented, Brown has yet to show the maturity and intangibles necessary to lead the passing attack for a team that is simultaneously trying to develop a quality ground game.
It remains to be seen if the running backs step up to the level of ferocity that the team was once known for; there is no denying that in recent years the offense has lived and died by the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. While Wallace became an unpopular player in Pittsburgh, his elite speed made him a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses, even with his suspect hands. Roethlisberger loved throwing to him, even if it was only because Wallace was nearly impossible to overthrow.
Prior to Wallace, Hines Ward was a reliable and productive No. 1 wide receiver for the team, but for completely opposite reason than the speedster who left for Miami. Ward was never known for his wheels, but he more than made up for it with his sure-handedness, savvy route running and toughness. These attributes, along with many others, helped Ward to become the eighth player in NFL history to amass 1,000 receptions.
Chances are, Brown will never come close to the lofty numbers accumulated by Ward, but the focus here is on this season, and this season only.
Here are just a few of the concerns that I have about Brown taking over as the No. 1 option in the Pittsburgh passing game:
At 5 feet 10 inches and 186 pounds, Brown may just be the smallest target of any lead receiver on an NFL team. Obviously, I don't have the space in this column to list the measurements of all of the No. 1 receivers on the 32 NFL rosters, but I will provide a few: Calvin Johnson: 6-5, 236; Brandon Marshall: 6-4, 230; Demaryius Thomas: 6-3, 229; Josh Gordon: 6-3, 225.
See the pattern? These guys all tower over Brown and the majority of them have equal or better speed. Considering that the average height of NFL cornerbacks is 5-10, the extra half foot or so of size on those other guys is a monstrous advantage, particularly in the red zone. Not only does Brown lack the height, but he can more easily be pushed around or jammed at the line of scrimmage due to his limited bulk. Even Ward weighed in at 205 pounds, or 20 pounds more than Brown, which will also limit him in his blocking assignments.
Brown's 2011 season was impressive for a second-year player, as he complied 1,108 yards receiving and 1,062 total return yards. He followed that up last season with just 787 receiving yards and was used minimally in the return game. While he did raise his receiving touchdowns from 2 in 2011 to 5 in 2012, his overall performance was not nearly what it was from the previous season. Part of the blame can be placed on the absence of Roethlisberger for three games, but other receivers such as Buffalo's Stevie Johnson prove that they can produce regardless of the caliber of quarterback throwing to them.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Brown's play last year was his drops. Again, Wallace was vilified in Pittsburgh because of his hands, but he had 7 dropped passes on the year while Brown was right behind him with 6. Yet no one complains about Brown's hands. They are equally suspect to Wallace's.
Then there was Brown's fumble in the Dallas game, a major guffaw that allowed the Cowboys to tie the score 24-24 six plays later. They would go on to lose the game 27-24 in overtime. While turnovers are a major part of the game, and indeed the ball was punched out of Brown's grasp on a great defensive play, the fact remains that in a close game and with the Steelers' season on the line, Brown needed to hold on to the ball.
The consensus opinion in Pittsburgh when Wallace left this offseason was good riddance. Not just because of the idea that he was a "one trick pony" with lousy hands, but also because of his poor attitude and the whole concept of the Young Money Crew. This was the name Wallace gave to him and the other young receivers on the team, and painted a picture of a bunch of money-hungry, big-ego guys.
Let's not forget that Brown was an integral part of that crew, and even though Wallace may be gone, the mentality of the Young Money Crew remains alive and well in Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Now that Brown is actually the lead dog in Pittsburgh, the possibility of his ego becoming even greater is a real threat.
All of that being said, the hope is that Brown can step up, reign in, and actually perform like a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Steelers. While this may be a lot to ask for, if anyone can keep his players in line and get the most out of them, it's head coach Mike Tomlin. If Brown falters, and with very little in the way of wide receiver depth on the team, it could be another long season for the Black & Gold.