After reports late last week that Antonio Brown was heading to the Buffalo Bills, the Pittsburgh Steelers will instead reportedly trade their star receiver to the Oakland Raiders for a third- and a fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft. When the deal is finalized on Wednesday, Brown will have a restructured contract from the Raiders — adding $30 million in guaranteed money — which will make him the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL. In a trade largely about money, the Raiders get perhaps the best receiver in the NFL for a pair of low-value draft picks, and the Steelers get to move on from a relationship that had become toxic and untenable for all involved.
Brown will land atop an Oakland receiving corps that is sorely lacking in playmakers, and he’ll surely become the focal point of the passing attack. But how exactly will the Raiders deploy their new weapon? Under head coach Jon Gruden, the Raiders used West Coast passing concepts extensively in 2018. Quarterback Derek Carr’s average depth of target fell from 8.2 yards in 2017 to 6.9 in 2018 as Gruden reshaped the offense into one built on shorter curl, flat and slant routes that did not try to stretch the field. Under Gruden’s system, Carr’s completion percentage rose to a career high of 68.9 percent, padded in part by the bevy of high-percentage passes he was tasked with throwing. But when we adjust for the shorter, easier passes, Carr still recorded a completion percentage 3 percentage points higher than what we would expect, the first time in Carr’s career that he ascended into positive territory in completion percentage over expected (CPOE).1 The short game under Gruden seems to be under control; instead, where Oakland can use help in the passing game is deep, with patterns like the go route that attack the defense vertically downfield.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Antonio Brown was exceptional on go routes last season, catching four touchdowns and accumulating 216 receiving yards on 15 targets on the route. Meanwhile, the Raiders were atrocious targeting go routes over the same period, with Carr throwing two interceptions on just nine attempts. While Carr lacked receiving weapons after the trade of Amari Cooper to Dallas last season, it’s not clear that — even with good receivers — he has the ability to throw a reliable deep ball. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Carr ranked 26th in Raw QBR on passes thrown 15 yards deep or greater in 2018. On go routes in particular, just four of Carr’s nine pass attempts were deemed catchable. Brown is likely to command more than nine targets on his own next season based on his past production, but Carr will need to do his part delivering the ball to him.
There is some hope for Carr deep. He was excellent when targeting seam routes, a type of deep route that is run vertically up the hashes near the middle of the field. According to charting by Sports Info Solutions, 13 of Carr’s 17 pass attempts on seam routes were graded as catchable, and three of those throws went for touchdowns. Carr also threw zero interceptions when targeting players deep up the hashes. However, it’s hard to measure how much Brown offers in Carr’s go-to route: He was targeted on only one seam last season — though he caught it for a 17-yard touchdown.
If we look at routes that the Raiders employed frequently and Brown did run more often in Pittsburgh, the new Oakland receiver doesn’t compare that favorably to the production offered by Oakland’s 2018 receiving corps. On slant routes — short patterns run across the middle of the field at an angle — his expected points added (EPA) per play relative to the Raiders’ receivers was pedestrian. Oakland was collectively more than half an expected point better per play on slants than Brown was in Pittsburgh — with Jordy Nelson, Jared Cook and Seth Roberts all more productive on the route. Cook may end up leaving in free agency and could free up some of those targets, but Brown may not be able to make much of an impact in the short-area portion of the Raiders passing game.
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There are also other concerns. Brown was ineffective in the middle of the field in general in 2018, posting negative EPA on digs and posts — two other in-breaking routes. He increasingly ceded targets over the middle to Juju Smith-Schuster, who is bigger, younger and perhaps more eager to put his body on the line for a reception. With no guaranteed money in Brown’s contract, self-preservation could have been a contributing factor to his seeming unwillingness to catch balls over the middle last season. At least that’s what the Raiders are hoping is the case: The alternative — that Brown is declining and no longer able to produce over the middle — is slightly terrifying for a team that just made Brown the highest-paid receiver in the league.
Ultimately, how Oakland chooses to optimize around its new weapon will define its 2019 season. The Raiders are a team between homes and lacking a coherent identity. It’s unclear if they are in the midst of a long-term rebuild or if they believe they can field a team that will contend with Kansas City for a division title. Brown is still in his prime, but entering his age-31 season, he’s a player with more productive years behind than in front of him. His final years are probably not best spent with Carr throwing to him. Instead, Gruden and rookie GM Mike Mayock could use their fourth overall pick in the draft on a QB like Kyler Murray — a player who actually can throw deep with accuracy. Such a move would make sense for a franchise looking to build and would leverage Brown’s talents with an eye toward the future. After all, there are few things better for a young QB’s development than the luxury of throwing to a player who is a likely future Hall of Famer and who remains one of the league’s greatest receivers.
From ABC News: