The Raiders got good value in giving up only third- and fifth-round picks for Antonio Brown. Guaranteeing him $30 million over the next three years is no small risk—the Steelers just found out how miserable life can be with an often-unhinged diva on the books. But Oakland wouldn’t have acquired an expensive, soon-to-be 31-year-old wideout if they didn’t think he could immediately catapult their anemic offense. So the question is: Can he?
If we’re talking about just Brown on the field, the answer is yes. Though no longer “young,” Brown has shown no hint of decline in the body control or the multidirectional speed and quickness that allow him to explode in and out of his breaks. In this critical department, he is better than every receiver save for maybe Odell Beckham Jr.
More importantly, NFL cornerbacks will tell you that Brown’s greatest trait is his uncanny sense for getting away with push-offs and grabs. He doesn’t just know when to contact defenders, but also how. If you’re covering Brown one-on-one, you’re liable to have your collar gripped, your jersey tugged and your arm locked. Brown runs routes with the kinetic genius of an MMA fighter who understands trigger points. He knows at what spot in his route officials can’t see these tricks, and the tricks are impossible for a defender to prepare for since they’re often too subtle to see on film. This craftiness transcends physical aptitude, suggesting that when Brown’s feet do slow down and his ability to separate declines, he’ll still have a strong capacity for making contested catches. He should remain productive for the next three years.
That is, if he’s in the right situation. Which brings us to Factor B of Oakland’s blockbuster trade: the players around Brown. A misconception in 2018 was that Jon Gruden ran an unimaginative, outdated offense. But in truth, the Raiders, schematically, aimed for a modern passing game. That passing game was eventually watered down because Gruden didn’t believe his rookie offensive tackles (Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker) could survive in pass protection for the duration of a five-step dropback. And Gruden may not have trusted quarterback Derek Carr to consistently execute those five-step dropbacks, as they require the assertive, tight-windowed timing-and-rhythm throws that Carr, when he’s not playing confidently, has been known to pass up.
Can things change? At left tackle, Miller fights his tail off and is a few mechanical adjustments away from improving against the bull rushes that have too often left him looking foolish. The belief in Oakland is the 2018 first-rounder will soon be fine. Parker, the right tackle, is a different story. The 2018 third-rounder showed little sign of long-term potential during a mostly disastrous rookie season. A quality NFL offense can scheme around an iffy right tackle, but it can’t fully scheme around an outright bad one. Parker will have a short leash, with declining veteran Donald Penn being the likely Plan B. Yikes.
If right tackle is a problematic position, Carr must prove he can make firm throws from a muddy pocket. Otherwise, Gruden will return to that quick-strike passing game, grimacing between play calls and fantasizing about trading for a 30-something-year-old QB with more intestinal fortitude. In that scenario, Oakland’s intermediate passing game is diminished, and it’s at the intermediate levels where Brown is most dangerous. Brown, of course, can enhance your spread quick game, but those are inherently unthreatening routes. They don’t offer full value from your No. 1 receiver.
Even if the Raiders can execute deeper dropbacks, there’s still the matter of Brown’s supporting cast. Jordy Nelson can no longer run. Marcell Ateman never could. Slot man Seth Roberts is a quality seam route runner but nothing more. Martavis Bryant is suspended indefinitely. And if free agent Jared Cook is not re-signed, the Raiders have no receiving tight end threat, which removes a huge chunk of their passing game’s schematic flexibility, including in formationing and pre-snap motion (tactics that can define the defense, helping a jittery QB play more decisively). Without better weapons around him, Brown will attract extra defensive attention the way Brooklyn attracts hipsters, with safeties rolling to him, linebackers sinking underneath him and corners, protected in all directions, pressing him aggressively.
The Raiders have plenty of cap space and three first-round picks, but even if they can drastically improve more of their offense, Brown is in a significantly worse situation than he was in Pittsburgh. Given what we’ve seen from him lately, how Brown handles that adversity is anyone’s guess.
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