FOXBOROUGH — When opposing defensive backs look across the line of scrimmage from the Patriots the rest of this season, they will see Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman, and Josh Gordon.
That’s a lineup you used to see only in Madden video games.
“It looks like a create-a-team, to be honest,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said.
But it’s reality for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels in 2019. When you add in James White, Rex Burkhead, Phillip Dorsett, and a handful of other receivers, it’s probably the best set of weapons Brady has ever worked with. It certainly is as good as the 2007 unit (Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donté Stallworth) or the 2013-17 teams (Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola).
“Tom Brady has really never had a receiver like AB,” former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said Monday.
“Not as dominant as Randy [Moss] and all that, but [Moss] was never the guy that was to go deep, to go short, could get in small spaces, could throw screens to,” said Orlovsky, now with ESPN. “They’re going to use AB like no one they’ve ever used before.”
In his nine-year career, all with Pittsburgh (at least on the field), Brown has developed into a consistent and dominant force. He has made seven Pro Bowls, and twice led the NFL in receiving yards and catches. Brown currently has six straight seasons of 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus yards.
And even though he is 31 years old, Brown should still be at the top of his game. He’s coming off a season of 104 catches, 1,297 yards, and 15 touchdowns. Brown had four catches of 50-plus yards last year, matching the Patriots’ entire output.
The Patriots know how tough he is to defend. Brown has faced the Patriots seven times in his career (playoffs included), and has 43 catches for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns against them. That’s a 16-game pace of 98 catches, 1,205 yards, and 9 touchdowns.
“Just an elite receiver,” Harmon said. “You don’t really say that word too much, but he does it all. One of the things that’s even more special about him, he produces when teams are double-teaming him. He’s found ways to continue to be productive going against a double-team.”
Brown, who is 5 feet 10 inches and 181 pounds, excels at several facets of the game.
With his burst and quickness, Brown has the ability to catch a quick slant and take it 31 yards to the house, as he did last year against the Bengals.
He also excels on short drags over the middle on “pick” or “rub” routes, and could be unstoppable when criss-crossing with Edelman and Gordon.
Brown can catch a bubble screen on the 6-yard line and dance around two defenders to get to the pylon, as he did against the Ravens.
He can beat a press-man cornerback off the line and haul in a 52-yard pass down the sideline, as he did against the Panthers.
He can beat a cornerback off the line of scrimmage and beat the safety coming over to double-team, as he did on a 20-yard touchdown against the Saints.
And he can improvise with the best of them, always keeping his eyes on the quarterback and finding open space, such as when he beat the Chargers’ double-team for a touchdown.
Orlovsky expects the Patriots to use Brown more like a running back in their offense.
“They’re not just going to line him up as wide receiver Antonio Brown,” Orlovsky said. “They’re going to line him up in the backfield and get him the football in different ways, whether it’s screens, or jet sweeps, motion him to get matchups. They’re going to use him the way we’ve seen them use their running backs, but with the ability to go outside and win one-on-one.”
Brown also has reliable hands. Last year, he had zero official drops in 168 targets (Edelman, for comparison’s sake, had eight drops in 108 targets). In the last three seasons, Brown has just five drops on 495 targets (1 percent).
And to top it off, he can contribute on special teams. Brown was the Steelers’ regular punt returner through 2015, and still did it until last year. Brown has four punt-return touchdowns in his career, and also a kickoff-return touchdown in his rookie season of 2010.
“He can run deep, he can run intermediate routes, he can run low routes,” Harmon said. “He can literally line up in every position and he produces.”
Adding a high-volume receiver like Brown could result in fewer opportunities for some of the Patriots’ other receivers. But more likely, everyone will benefit from more single coverage.
“When you look at the middle of the field, between James White, Edelman, and Brown, that’s where you’re going to see [Brown’s] real value a lot,” a former general manager said. “I think they’re going to be impossible to defend in that regard. It will be like the way Gronkowski controlled the middle of the field, but by committee.
“I like the combination of Edelman and Brown inside, with Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon outside. I like that a lot.”
The former GM said zone coverage simply won’t work with Brady, Edelman, Brown, and White working the middle of the field. The defense’s only chance is lining up in man-to-man coverage and hoping it has the cornerbacks and speedy linebackers to keep up.
“You’ve got five receivers that can win one-on-one,” he said. “[Defenses are] going to have to survive a lot of pick routes,” he said. “And the rare team that can match up with them athletically, you’re going to need undersized and fast linebackers that can get off the field on third down by playing man-to-man.”
When at Wednesday’s practice Brady sees Brown to his right, Gordon to his left, and Edelman in the middle, he may have to pinch himself just to make sure this is real. Add in White, Burkhead, Dorsett, Thomas, Jakobi Meyers, and eventually N’Keal Harry, and the Patriots look locked and loaded like never before.
“It sounds like 40 points per game,” Orlovsky said. “Their offense could do whatever they want.”