Sanders, Brown and Holmes: a Tale of 3 WRs

When the Steelers shipped Santonio Holmes to the Jets last spring, I feel confident in writing that we all were picking our collective jaws off up the floor when we found out. I remember reading the headline and thinking, “Clearly, there’s more to the trade than just a fifth-rounder.” Nope. That was it.

Which meant the Steelers were heading into 2010 with 13-year veteran Hines Ward, second-year nine-route expert Mike Wallace, and tight end Heath Miller. Oh, and their franchise quarterback was sitting out the first four games because he couldn’t keep his willy in his pants in public. Not exactly how you draw up plans for a Super Bowl run.

But the Steelers have weathered every storm — the Holmes trade, Ben’s mandatory vacation, and countless injuries — to find themselves in the Big Game for the third time since 2005. There are myriad reasons for this, but near the top of the list has to be the play of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, the rookie wideouts who came into camp with virtually no expectations because, well, rookie wideouts historically have a difficult time transitioning from college to the NFL.

Not only that, but Pittsburgh’s track record with drafting wide receivers (especially after the first round) can kindly be described as horrible. Since 2000, when the Steelers took Plaxico with the eighth overall pick, the WR draft haul looks like this:

2000 – 4th round, Danny Farmer
2001 – 7th round, Chris Taylor
2002 – 6th round, Lee Mays (woo hoo!)
2002 – 2nd round, Antwaan Randle El
2005 – 4th round, Fred Gibson
2006 – 1st round, Santonio Holmes
2006 – 3rd round, Willie Reid
2007 – 7th round, Dallas Baker
2008 – 2nd round, Limas Sweed
2009 – 3rd round, Mike Wallace
2010 – 3rd round, Emmanuel Sanders
2010 – 6th round, Antonio Brown

Not a whole lot there after the first round until the Steelers landed Wallace in 2009. So the pre-training camp trepidation was understandable; recent drafts suggested that Pittsburgh was more likely to miss than hit on a wide receiver. And then they showed up in Latrobe and Manny and AB started opening eyes. Here’s what I wrote after the first preseason game:

“And then there was Antonio Brown who looked a lot like Holmes — but faster — taking an innocuous pass across the middle (another perfectly thrown ball from Dixon that hit the receiver in the hands, in stride) and turning it into an 68-yard touchdown.”

And this, a week later:

“I love Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown (although I could do without all of Browns’ Holmes-esque first-down gesticulating, especially when he’s four yards short of the sticks). And even Randle El impressed me with a couple catches. And while I miss Holmes, I have to keep reminding myself that this team won the Super Bowl with Hines playing opposite Cedrick Wilson. It could be a lot worse.”

Of course, the next day Eddie B. wrote that, “The coaches believe Antonio Brown is not smart enough to grasp the routes he has to run as a wide receiver. I’m told his roster spot is in jeopardy because of it…”

And then, eight days later, in the Steelers third preseason game, I wrote this:

“I love that Antonio Brown’s teammates now call him Rod Tidwell because all the premature celebrations from the first two weeks of preseason games. I also love that Brown continues to make plays on offense even though he can’t read or write, and consequently has no shot in hell of learning the playbook. It’s a heartwarming story, really.”

(So AB has two nicknames — Tidwell and Young Money. Duly noted.)

Things turned out pretty well for a guy who sucks at reading comprehension. The first time Brown touched the ball in a regular season game, he scored a touchdown (Week 2, opening kickoff vs. the Titans). And in his first two career playoff games, he assumed Holmes’ role of finisher by ending the Ravens’ season with a 58-yard reception on third and 19, and doing the same thing to the Jets a week later on a third-and-6 catch.

Funny addendum (via Gretz at FanHouse):

  • Steelers traded Holmes on April 12, for a fifth-round pick;
  • Two weeks later, the Steelers acquired Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick from the the Cardinals for the fifth-rounder they got from the Jets for Holmes;
  • That sixth-round pick would eventually become Antonio Brown.

Everybody agrees that Holmes was the Steelers best wideout. But as JJ’s mentioned throughout the season, there was a silver lining to getting rid of him. First, more weed for everybody else (okay, that’s my silver lining). Second, if Holmes was still on the roster, there’s a good chance Brown — and maybe Sanders — wouldn’t have been drafted. Not only that, Holmes, like Ben, was going to miss the first four games of the season. Which meant that the Steelers would have Hines, Wallace, Heath Randle El, Arnaz Battle and Limas (before he got hurt) as the primary receiving targets for September.

I’ll readily admit that a lot of this is luck — nobody had any idea that Sanders and Brown would be such an integral part of this offense (Sanders has been more consistent, but Brown has come up big lately). And that definitely would have been the case had Holmes not been shipped to New Jersey.

Below, some fun with regular-season numbers (note: “S+B = Sanders and Browns’ combined numbers):

		catches	yards	YPC	long	TDs
Holmes '06	49	824	16.8	67	2
Holmes '09	79	1248	15.8	57	5
Holmes '10	52	746	14.3	52	6
Sanders		28	376	13.4	35	2
Brown		16	167	10.4	26	0
S+B		44	543	12.3	35	2
Player		 Rec	 Yds	 TD
Holmes '06	15.71%	20.47%	8.70%
Holmes '09	22.51%	27.76%	17.86%
Holmes '10	18.12%	21.95%	30.00%
Sanders		9.40%	9.67%	9.09%
Brown		5.37%	4.29%	0.00%
S+B		14.77%	13.96%	9.09%

If somebody told you that Sanders and Brown would combine for 44 catches for 543 years and two touchdowns during the regular season, I’m guessing you’d take it. More than that, Sanders and Brown accounted for 15 percent of the Steelers’ catches (compared with Holmes’ 16 percent his rookie season), 14 percent of the receiving yards (to Holmes’ 20 percent), and nine percent of the touchdown catches (same as Holmes). Not too shabby.

Neither player is as good as Holmes, but given Wallace’s emergence they don’t have to be. And if it means the locker room — and the team — is better off for it, then that works for me.

Random postscript: I stumbled across Manny and AB’s combine workouts and pre-draft scouting reports. Enjoy:

Manny Sanders: Combine * Scouting Report
Antonio Brown: Combine * Scouting Report

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  • Stillerfan
    • WarriorBlitz

      THAT is funny. shows what these morons know.

  • Gretz

    I’ll also add that Wallace, Sanders, Brown and Ward all had a higher DVOA, value on a per play basis via FO, than Holmes did this season.

    • ryan

      Good point. Not sure how I overlooked that.

  • DC in ATL

    Well said Ryan.

    Imagine if Santonio had stayed, and we hadn’t added a young WR in last year’s draft. I’m pretty sure Holmes would have left via Free Agency after this season, and I suspect Ward may be retiring after the Super Bowl. We would have had a big problem at WR beyond Wallace to start the 2011 season. Instead we have two up and coming playmakers to go with Wallace. This has worked out nicely.

    Does anyone else think we’ll see Santonio leave the Jets as a free agent and the Ravens sign him to replace Derek Mason and/or Houzmanzadeh?