PITTSBURGH — The draft clock ticked into the late afternoon as Bruce Arians burned nervous energy inside the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ war room.
Before the team submitted selection No. 195, head coach Mike Tomlin asked the question Arians wanted to hear.
“You like your little one-cut guy here?” Tomlin asked Arians, then Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator and now the Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach.
“I love him right here,” Arians replied.
Before Antonio Brown was keeping business boomin’, twerking in the end zone and contorting defensive backs 100-plus times per season, he was known as a “one-cut player.” That’s how Arians referenced the 5-foot-10 Brown in meeting rooms back in 2010, fueling discussions that changed the Steelers’ offense for seven seasons and counting.
Brown could punish grass with his open-field cuts at Central Michigan. But no one except Brown — not even Arians — expected this: arguably the modern era’s best late-round success story, save Tom Brady.
“You never know how hard a worker someone is until you get them in the building,” Arians said. “Nobody works harder than Antonio Brown — to this day.”
Part of the NFL’s on-field charm lies with the dozens of late-round picks or undrafted free agents who turn team fliers into Pro Bowl aviation. But Brown’s tale, perhaps more than any other in the past decade, highlights what teams miss when they fixate on buzz words such as “small” and “slow.”
Common themes from Brown’s draft report sound familiar to many late-round playmakers: lacks size, raw route runner, not physical enough, catches into his body. Brown overcoming those stigmas is all the more impressive considering the curious lack of production by the 2010 receiver class.
Twenty-one wideouts were drafted before Brown. Thirteen of them, including the last 11 picked ahead of Brown, are out of the league. Eight of those 11 failed to play an NFL snap beyond 2013. For every Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, there’s David Reed and Mardy Gilyard.
Even now, the NFL’s receiver hierarchy accentuates Brown’s steep climb. On Pro Football Focus’ recent rankings of the best receivers against one-on-one coverage, Brown is sandwiched between a No. 6 overall pick (Julio Jones) and four first-rounders (Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans).
“One of the big head-scratchers of my career,” said Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who has represented hundreds of NFL players over two-plus decades.
Many evaluators who studied Brown acknowledge the NFL truism here: Some just play faster than their 40 time, which, in Brown’s case (4.56 seconds), wasn’t considered fast enough.
“Classic tweener,” former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. “Now no one can cover him.”
That most of the NFL missed on Brown is well-worn terrain. What the misses say about the process — and Brown’s process — helps explain this unusual star turn. With insight from nearly a dozen people who guided, evaluated or observed Brown in 2010, here is “The Brown 21” — one draft lesson for every receiver selected ahead of the Steelers star.
In 2007, Brown arrived at Central Michigan as a 160-pound introvert with a hesitant smile. Head coach Butch Jones knew that Brown came from a nontraditional family environment, with many people helping raise him in South Florida. Academic issues had forced Brown into a year of North Carolina prep school. Brown Rule No. 1: Perceived character issues aren’t always a bad thing (more on that later).
Many who care about Brown are protective of all the details, but they knew trust had to be earned with him.
Eventually, Jones learned that Brown could take a hitch 80 yards or run post-practice sprints through snow. Brown’s internal drive proved more expansive than that.
“Coach, have you seen Antonio’s apartment?” a group of players asked Jones. Brown Rule No. 2: Look in a prospect’s apartment.
Upon arrival, Jones saw two laptops on which Brown studied videos of NFL receivers such as Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. Then he noticed duct tape on the stairs. Brown had built a makeshift speed ladder for before-bed footwork sessions.
Jones hadn’t seen anything like it.
“He’s a self-made man — that’s always been his edge,” said Jones, now Tennessee’s head coach. “One of the most competitive people I’ve ever coached.”
Mel Kiper took the playcall over the phone and ignited the no-huddle offense from his desk.
2010 … 2010 … Antonio Brown … Wait one second …
Points started to fly from the ESPN draft maestro:
• Fourth- to fifth-round grade
• Incredible spirit Brown Rule No. 3: “Incredible spirit” should be worth bonus stars on a player’s profile.
• Didn’t play elite corners
• Electrifying but not super athletic
• Really quick, not super fast
• “Be interesting to watch this kid and see how he develops.” Brown Rule No. 4: Heed Kiper’s intuition.
Then Kiper digs into the numbers on sub-6-foot receivers from that draft. Day 2 picks Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Roberts ran in the 4.4s and had a vertical jump of more than 35 inches. The 186-pound Brown ran 4.56 and jumped 33½ inches.
“[Faced] much better competition and [have] better speed,” Kiper said of Tate, Sanders and Roberts, compared to Brown.
Brown’s 40 hurt, no doubt. He consistently was timed better in practice runs, Rosenhaus said. A few people noticed that Brown weaved out of his 40 path slightly, which possibly affected his rhythm. Any recorded time worse than 4.45 engendered skepticism.
“In 2010, teams were still looking for bigger receivers,” Kiper said. “Big receivers were en vogue then.” Brown Rule No. 5: Brown’s buddy Odell Beckham waves hello from the small receivers’ table.
The last four wideouts drafted before Brown were 6-2 or 6-3, despite two of them — Kerry Meier and Briscoe — running slower 40s than Brown’s.
An NFL personnel executive cringed while going through the list of receivers taken ahead of Brown.
“Rough,” the exec said. “But when [Brown] played fast and ran slow, teams probably lost their courage a little bit.” Brown Rule No. 6: No stopwatches on game days.
What tape are they watching?
That’s what former Steelers wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery wondered when Brown remained undrafted after the fifth round. Montgomery, now East Carolina’s head coach, said he had late second-round grades on Brown and Sanders, whom Pittsburgh snagged 82nd overall.
Online profiles took issue with Brown for his raw route running or catching passes into his body, but several evaluators said they had zero problem with those parts of Brown’s game. Brown Rule No. 7: Route running in college is overrated.
Several people interviewed said this: College systems are imperfect. By and large, route running is teachable.
The Steelers study prospects at every turn, from regional scouts to ace evaluators to general manager Kevin Colbert to members of Tomlin’s staff. Montgomery remembers each Steelers prospect getting a grade: A, B or C. The A grades garner serious consideration. Brown was an A.
“Short-speed quickness, he was elite,” Montgomery said. “You knew he played fast. You can measure the speed of corners and the angles they took to try to tackle him, and he would still win.” Brown Rule No. 8: At any level, outrunning cornerbacks is a good sign.
After the Sanders pick, the Steelers had several positions to address, including three defensive needs. But Tomlin remembered two of Brown’s strengths that had nothing to do with height. These strengths were transferable to the highest level.
“His ability to separate, his ball skills,” Tomlin said. “You’re looking at a guy that caught over 300 balls in three years at Central Michigan. So his in-game catching of the football experience was unique.”
This supports a Tomlin formula informally known as Brown Rule No. 9: Accentuate “distinguishing characteristics.”
Take it from Armanti Edwards, the quarterback-turned-receiver who threw to Brown at the combine and noticed a defining trait right away. “Ran a great deep corner route,” the third-round pick said. Brown Rule No. 10: A great corner route can change an entire NFL offense. The Steelers know this.
Ben Roethlisberger‘s success out of Miami (Ohio) gave street cred to the Mid-American Conference, but in 2010, the league’s athletes didn’t exactly get the benefit of the doubt.
Even this year, after Khalil Mack, J.J. Watt and many others found success after playing in the conference, questions persist about potential first-round receiver Corey Davis‘ level of competition while at Western Michigan.
But former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, who played at Eastern Michigan, cites Brown Rule No. 11: MAC dudes get respect in the locker room because of the edge that comes from being overlooked.
That doesn’t mean all MAC prospects succeed, but the good ones are hungry.
“It’s hard to get to the NFL, but it’s even harder to get there through the Mid-American Conference,” Batch said. “They viewed the MAC a little bit differently because we knew those players had to work. And we saw that from Day 1 with Antonio.”
Most of those interviewed said playing in the MAC hurt Brown’s stock. In Rosenhaus’ talks with teams, he wasn’t hearing negatives about Brown’s ability, but he heard about the MAC, which he feels is less stigmatized today.
One NFL coach had a neutralizer, or Brown Rule No. 12: The receiver with the cleanest jersey is usually the best.
This coach’s team barely had Brown on the radar, but when he watched 2009 tape, he rarely saw Brown hit the turf: no falls, no trips and he hit the ground only when tackled.
Even now, Brown never really falls in practice.
“It’s something people don’t always notice, but the great ones are rarely on the ground,” said the coordinator, whose team wasn’t in the market for an outside receiver that year.
Brown wasn’t a character issue from a legal standpoint, but some believed grades and attitude were a problem in early college, though Jones said Brown “excelled in the classroom” late in his Central Michigan career.
Teams had yet another excuse to avoid Brown. But Montgomery cites Brown Rule No. 13: Context is crucial. The issues were “strictly environmental” for Brown before he got to CMU, Montgomery said. “Coming from certain circumstances with your background doesn’t mean you have bad character,” he said. “He brought a different level of hunger.”
One team’s scouting report labeled Brown “a little bit high-maintenance” with coaches, but as clearly stated in Brown Rule No. 14: With wide receivers, “high-maintenance” can be channeled for good. At least, that’s what Jones realized after Brown was “in his hip pocket” from the sideline during a blowout loss to Kansas in 2007. The freshman was begging for another chance to touch the ball. Jones obliged, and Brown broke off a reverse-direction, 65-yard punt return negated by a penalty.
“See? I told you. Give me the ball,” Jones recalled Brown telling him as he came off the field, in a tone that would not at all surprise the Steelers.
Jones was a bit stunned — and satisfied.
“He wants the ball thrown his way in critical moments. As a coach, that’s what you love,” Jones said. “That rubbed some people the wrong way, but he’s one that only comes around so often.” Brown Rule No. 15: Most good NFL teams don’t want players who won’t command the ball.
Rosenhaus has a message for anyone who lowered Brown’s stock for any perceived character concerns: “They blew it.”
Brown’s early days with the Steelers reveal most of what the team loved about the prospect, except for a few hiccups.
Brown overslept and missed a meeting, Montgomery said, and that resulted in a suspension from his first NFL game. Montgomery remembers Tomlin telling Brown, “See you in a week-and-a-half,” citing his lack of discipline. Brown was reminded of Brown Rule No. 16: Adversity can be a springboard..
Montgomery saw raw pain on the face of Brown, who admitted that he let the team down and vowed to fix it. The next week, in his NFL debut, he broke off an 89-yard reverse on a kickoff return for a touchdown. That 40 speed looked just fine to every player of the Tennessee Titans he outran on the play.
Brown’s football prowess took flight behind the scenes. Batch could tell by the third offseason practice that Brown “would be too good to stash on the practice squad.” He noticed a player who kept quiet, asked questions and was eager to compete with Sanders at every turn — “two dogs, one bone,” as Tomlin called the two-man battle. Brown Rule No. 17: Find the hungry dog.
Sanders earned more playing time in that first season, and he has produced a fine career in Denver. But Brown had the secret weapon, known as Brown Rule No. 18: Don’t forget to check the apartment.
“Yoga mats and chicken and fruits,” Montgomery said of what Brown kept in his apartment early in his career. “He was just a focused individual.”
When elite athletes breeze through the 40 and snatch clouds on their vertical, the numbers can be intoxicating. This routine happens every year, one NFL personnel exec said: The freak athlete with mediocre game tape becomes overrated because teams can’t resist.
But most successful teams follow Brown Rule No. 19: Listen to Marvin Lewis.
“Combine and 40-yard dash is not an end-all for a player,” the Cincinnati Bengals coach said. “It’s a confirmation one way or the other. That’s all it is.”
Those who follow that rule definitely follow Brown Rule No. 20: Listen to Bruce Arians, too.
“Too much stock in the combine, not enough in the tape,” Arians said. “[Brown’s] tape was great.”
These rules don’t promise success. Kiper sees multiple players slip through the cracks every year, he said. Thousands of players cross Kiper’s desk, and most of them receive positive recommendations from their colleges. Many won’t meet expectations.
“How about the hundreds of guys who do hit?” Kiper asked.
Fair enough. Brown has something for that, too.
Brown Rule No. 21: The last laugh is worth the last word.
6th Round. 195th overall.
“Lacks functional strength…”
I’m still hungry.
Just watch !! pic.twitter.com/vxvciWAK6Q
— Antonio Brown (@AntonioBrown) February 27, 2017