A popular argument that is made constantly on football message boards, articles, and just between fans is who the best receiver in the NFL is. The two names most commonly mentioned are Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. These two have been putting on a show that this league hasn’t seen before and are both great, but Brown edges Jones in the argument of who’s better.
Why Antonio Brown is the Best Receiver in the NFL
Don’t get me wrong. Julio Jones is an all-time great receiver. He would be the best in the league if Antonio Brown didn’t exist. Jones’ final stat line last season was 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns over 14 games. Brown had 106 receptions for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns over 15 games. Yes, Jones had 125 more yards over one less game, but Brown had 23 more receptions and six more touchdowns. The only thing in the NFL that truly matters is touchdowns, and even if Jones had played that one game, it’s highly unlikely he would’ve found the end zone six times in that game. Jones has great stats, but you might see that these numbers could be helped out by the passing defenses the Falcons played against.
Jones and the Falcons had a phenomenal offensive season if you look at the numbers, and they were truly tremendous. Atlanta’s offense was very good, particularly their passing offense, but it didn’t hurt that out of all of the Falcon’s opponents, only four of them had passing defenses ranked in the top half of the league. Those teams were the Denver Broncos (first), Arizona Cardinals (fourth), Seattle Seahawks (eighth), and Philadelphia Eagles (13th).
In those four combined games, Jones gained 338 yards on 23 receptions and caught a touchdown. That works out to 5.75 receptions per game, 84.5 yards per game and .25 touchdowns per game. Those are good numbers against good defenses, but the other ten games that Jones played were against bottom half pass defenses. They were actually all ranked 20th or lower.
As every other team does, the Falcons played their divisional opponents six times. Against the NFC South, Jones gained 649 yards on 36 receptions and four touchdowns. That may look impressive, especially the 649 yards, but these games were all against bad passing defenses.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the best passing defense in the division, but they were ranked 22nd. To put that into perspective, the Cleveland Browns were the worst pass defense in the AFC North and were ranked 21st. Against Tampa Bay, Jones had 12 receptions for 177 yards and two scores in two games. Against the Carolina Panthers 29th ranked pass defense, Jones gained 360 yards on 16 catches and also had a touchdown in two games. And against the New Orleans Saints 32nd ranked pass defense, Jones gained 112 yards on eight catches for a touchdown in two games.
In the first game against the Carolina Panthers, Jones had 300 yards on 12 catches and a touchdown. That was no doubt an impressive performance, but it came against a bad pass defense who decided it would be a good idea to play man to man coverage against one of the best receivers possibly ever. It speaks volumes that the cornerback that shadowed Jones, Bene Benwikere, was released by the Panthers the day after the game and did not see the field for another NFL team the rest of the season. Jones was also shut down in the first game against the Saints recording only one catch for 16 yards. It seems rather odd that someone of Jones’ stature and skill would only record one catch against the league’s worst pass defense.
Jones was also held to 29 yards on three catches against the Green Bay Packers who had the 31st ranked pass defense. Set aside his game against the Broncos, Jones carved up the AFC West. Against the Oakland Raiders, Jones had five receptions for 106 yards and a score against the 24th ranked defense. Against the San Diego Chargers, he had nine catches for 174 yards against the 20th ranked defense. And against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jones had seven catches for 113 yards against the 18th ranked passing defense. Jones put up impressive numbers, but the inferiority of the opposing pass defenses should also be put into consideration.
The Steelers had a good passing offense, but it was nowhere near the level of the Falcons. Something that should be considered is the fact that the Steelers played more games against top half pass defenses than the Falcons. They played eight games against top 16 ranked passing defenses, as opposed to the Falcons four. The Steelers played the Buffalo Bills (sixth), Baltimore Ravens twice (ninth), Cincinnati Bengals twice (11th), New England Patriots (12th), Philadelphia Eagles (13th), and the Miami Dolphins (15th). In those eight games, Brown finished with 641 yards on 52 receptions for two touchdowns. The numbers average out to 80.125 yards per game with 6.5 receptions per game and .25 touchdowns per game.
Jones averaged more yards while Brown averaged more catches while both averaged the same number of touchdowns per game. While they have similar averages in games against better defenses, it should be noticed that Jones played all of his games with a healthy MVP-caliber quarterback. Brown played one of his games with Landry Jones at quarterback while Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with an injury he sustained during a game against the Dolphins.
As I stated that the Falcons played many games against bad defenses, it is only fair to say that the Steelers played their fair share of bad defenses as well. In seven games against lower half defenses, Brown recorded 607 yards on 54 catches and ten touchdowns. The bad pass defenses the Steelers played were the Washington Redskins (25th), New York Jets (17th), Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys (26th), Cleveland Browns (21st), Indianapolis Colts (27th), and New York Giants (23rd).
In the season opener against Washington, Brown caught eight passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Jets Brown had nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. When the Steelers faced the Chiefs, which was a common opponent shared between Atlanta and Pittsburgh, Brown recorded four catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, Jones had more yards and catches than Brown, but the game isn’t won by gaining yards, it’s won by scoring, and Brown did that twice while Jones didn’t see the endzone.
When the Steelers faced the Cowboys, Brown had 154 yards on 14 receptions with one of those catches being a touchdown. Against the Browns, a divisional rivalry game, Brown had eight catches for 76 yards while only playing against Cleveland once this season. Against the Colts, Brown had 91 yards on five catches and had three touchdowns. So Brown and Jones both had impressive games against bad defenses with Jones getting 300 yards and a score against the Panthers and Brown scoring three times against the Colts.
As stated above, the game is won by scoring more, not gaining more yards, and Brown’s game against the worst defense the Steelers played all year was more important to the team than Jones’ game against the third worst defense the Falcons played all year. The Steelers also played a game against the Giants and Brown had six catches for 54 yards and a score.
Julio Jones had more yards in more games against bottom-half passing defenses, but Brown had more touchdowns catches. Also worth noting is that the Steelers only played in three games where the opposing passing defenses were worse than the Falcons’ opposition, so even when both of these teams were playing bad defenses, the Steelers were still playing better defenses. Soft defenses yield more catches and more yards, and the Falcons played some of the softest pass defenses all year.
A receiver’s chemistry with his quarterback is among the most important factors in their success. It didn’t hurt Jones that Matt Ryan had one of the most prolific seasons of his career. Ben Roethlisberger did not have his best season, and maybe his reliance on Brown hurt him as he tried to force the ball to him when he got into a jam and ended up throwing 16 picks on the year. Roethlisberger didn’t even play in a game because he was sidelined due to a knee injury. Landry Jones ended up being the starting quarterback for that game and Brown still ended up with 106 yards on seven receptions. The fact that Brown put up 106 yards with a quarterback he had little chemistry with is impressive. He very well may have had a better game had a healthy Roethlisberger played in that game.
Julio Jones had a good 2016 playoffs that still isn’t over as the Falcons earned a Super Bowl berth. In the NFC Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks, Jones recorded six catches for 67 yards and a score in a great game pitting great offense against great defense. The next week, Jones caught nine balls for 180 yards and two scores against a battered, bruised, and mediocre Packers secondary. Jones’ two game totals for the playoffs are 15 catches for 247 yards and three touchdowns.
Antonio Brown also had a good 2016 playoffs with five catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Wild Card Round against the Dolphins, six catches for 108 yards against the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round, and seven receptions for 77 yards in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. You don’t have to be great at math to see that Jones averaged more receptions and yards per game while scoring more touchdowns.
It should also be known that the Falcons played two games in a dome while the Steelers played a game in less than ideal weather conditions and a game in where Brown was spotlighted for the entire game and still had a respectable 77 yards. Also, the Falcons played both of their playoff games at home while the Steelers only played one home game and two road games.
Home-field advantage is a big factor for teams. That advantage increases in the playoffs. The Falcons had that advantage while the Steelers did not. Also, Matt Ryan continued his high level of play while Ben Roethlisberger was still erratic and inaccurate like he was during the second half of the regular season. Receivers can only catch the ball when their quarterback can get it to them, and Matt Ryan was constantly on the money while some of Roethlisberger’s passes weren’t even in the same zip code as Brown.
That being said, Brown made the passes he did catch count as he turned two catches against the Dolphins into long touchdowns and caught a pass on the sideline to seal the game against the Chiefs. While Jones takes an edge in averages per game, it’s only a slight edge. It is only that slight because one quarterback was accurate and one was not. Antonio Brown is great because he makes every catch count because he knows he might not get many more opportunities. Jones gets targets galore from an accurate quarterback so he has every opportunity to put up huge numbers.
Comparing these two by their physical stature and speed is like comparing apples to oranges. Julio Jones is 6’3” weighing in at 220 pounds and running a 4.39 second 40-yard dash. Antonio Brown is 5’10”, weighs 180 pounds, and ran a 4.47 second 40-yard dash.
They both have different skill sets to make them great. Jones uses his size and physicality to overpower opposing defensive players while Brown uses his quickness and agility to get behind defenders and avoid them in the open field. Something that is also extremely important is their catching ability. This season, Jones caught two more targeted passes than Brown did, but Brown had a more consistent catching percentage per game.
Brown’s lowest catch percentage in a game was 36.4% and it was his only game below 45%, while Jones’s lowest catch percentage was 14.3% and had another game at 33.3%. While Jones had high percentages in many of his game, they were all against soft defenses, which, as stated earlier, means better numbers. Jones didn’t have games against many good secondaries, so he got good separation and wasn’t contested with his catches very much.
Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are two amazing receivers, both being all-time greats. They are putting up otherworldly numbers at the same time, making this a heck of a time to watch the NFL. They are both different types of receivers with different skill sets. Julio Jones is an amazing receiver, but it is hard to argue against Antonio Brown. Yes, Jones had more receiving yards this year, but that’s only one factor used to judge receivers. Brown had significantly more receptions and, more importantly, touchdowns. We are getting a treat watching these receivers operate on their respective teams, and both of them catch their way presumably into Canton one day. Jones is an all-world receiver, but in the end Brown gets the slight edge.