LATROBE, Pa. (AP) Antonio Brown rolled up to the dorms at Saint Vincent College last week in a Mercedes conversion van.
It’s fitting in a way. Five years into a blossoming career, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is playing the role of dad – OK, maybe slightly older brother – to a group long on talent but short on experience.
Four years ago, Brown was one of those players who arrived at his first NFL training camp confident but curious. Now the 26-year-old is the sage to rookie Martavis Bryant and second-year guys Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown.
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Ask Brown if he’s OK with being in the spotlight and he flashes a grin. At this point, does he really have a choice?
”Everyone’s watching,” Brown said. ”Everyone’s watching my attitude, my demeanor my approach. Coach (Mike Tomlin) says I’m the guy to look to do things, so there’s a lot of emphasis on how to handle things and how to go about a lot of things being the leader.”
It’s a far cry from his days as a founding member of the ”Young Money Family” – the nickname Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders gave themselves as the next generation to become quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets behind veteran Hines Ward.
The trio eventually did get paid, but Wallace and Sanders had to leave Pittsburgh via free agency to cash in.
Not Brown, who signed a lengthy $42 million extension two summers ago. At the moment, he looks as if he’s one of the better bargains in the league a season after setting a club record with 1,499 yards receiving and becoming the first player in NFL history to have five receptions and at least 50 yards receiving in all 16 games.
Heady territory for a former sixth-round pick turned two-time Pro Bowler who still prefers football pants over shorts during walkthroughs because it better simulates how he’ll feel during a game.
It’s that attention to detail that has helped the 5-foot-10 Brown thrive at a position dominated by decidedly larger men.
”I thought AB was dominant the first year he got here,” Steelers cornerback William Gay said. ”I was wondering why he was drafted so low. Money don’t make a difference. Pro Bowls don’t make a difference. He still feels like he’s the underdog.”
Maybe that’s because he is. You won’t find Brown on the cover of a video game or hawking sports drinks. Not that he’s complaining. If he feels disrespected, he keeps it to himself. No matter, the guys he works for are happy to take up the cause.
”I think AB, in my opinion is just as good as most of the receivers around the league,” wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. ”He might not be as big as some of them but the production is there, the yards after catch are there. A lot of times beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
And no wide receiver in the franchise’s eight decades of football had a better year than Brown did in 2013. Thrust to the top of the depth chart after Wallace took his sprinter’s speed to Miami, Brown caught 110 passes, hauled in eight touchdowns and averaged 12.6 yards as a punt returner.
Handling kicks isn’t in the job description of most No. 1 receivers. Yet it’s a responsibility Brown will happily embrace if he’s not supplanted by Wheaton or rookie running back/receiver Dri Archer.
For all his success, however, Brown insists there is plenty to work on. He’s not the most instinctive run blocker. Mann calls Brown’s ability ”adequate” but allows there is plenty of room for improvement in sealing off defensive backs.
”A lot of time your presence is good enough,” Mann said. ”We want him to be accountable and I think he’s stepping up to the plate.”
It’s what Brown does. Though he’s not one to invite controversy, he is growing more comfortable with the idea that what he says carries weight.
When Sanders told a Denver radio station earlier this week that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is a far better leader than Roethlisberger, Brown chastised his friend while also sticking up for the teammate who helped Sanders land a lucrative free agent deal with Denver in the first place.
”That was terrible,” Brown said. ”You don’t throw your quarterback under the bus, the guy who makes you who you are.”
Brown feels an equal sense of ownership as the longest-tenured player at his position. Sure, he had a career year last fall. It didn’t stop the Steelers from missing the playoffs.
Getting back in 2014 will depend in part on how quickly he can brink the kids along. And Brown knows it.
”I think the potential is nothing unless we unlock it,” he said. ”We have to unlock it.”
NOTES: Tight end Eric Waters left practice on Thursday with lower back tightness. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey also left early, though Tomlin did not give a reason for Heyward-Bey’s departure. … Running back LeGarrette Blount and tight end Matt Spaeth were given the day off.
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