Ask any NFL fan for their list of the best wide receivers in the league right now, and the names Julio Jones and Antonio Brown are probably right at the very top. The two have long been competing for that honor, and they will share the field this weekend when the Falcons (1-3) take on the Steelers (1-2-1) in Pittsburgh.
While the two are very different physically – Jones is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds while Brown is 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds – they have been on a torrid pace since entering the NFL and are extremely well-rounded with polished skill sets.
Their combination of rare athletic traits and intense work ethic have made both Jones and Brown lethally effective from every area of the field. While many players in the NFL excel in one or two roles with their team, the truly elite like Jones and Brown can do anything their offense may ask of them – and they can do it at a very high level.
Beating defenders quickly never looked so easy
Upon first glance, Brown would seem like the receiver most likely to be effective on short, quick routes. These types of routes require very precise route running and the ability to accelerate very quickly, which Brown does better than anyone. In fact, Pro Football Focus pegged Brown as their prototypical route runner prior to the season.
What makes Brown so effective in small spaces is his sudden ability to change direction without losing speed. That same skill is applicable all over the field, but when defenders are able to get their hands on you near the line of scrimmage, the ability to make them miss is important.
The Steelers also put this aspect of Brown's game to use on screens, often finding creative and quick ways to get their top playmaker the ball with space to run.
Despite his size, which doesn't often coincide with quick-twitch agility, Jones is well-equipped to make an impact on quick throws.
Using his elite first step, Jones often keeps defenders guessing at the line of scrimmage. Because Jones can get up to speed in a flash, one wrong step by a defender can lead to an easy completion for the Falcons.
Of course, Jones' size is also a benefit in short-yardage throws. Very rarely can an opposing defensive back disrupt Jones' path, and he frequently muscles his way into position to make a catch.
Magicians at finding and creating space
Intermediate routes are where Jones and Brown operate most frequently and truly make their greatest impact.
Pro Football Focus noted this offseason that Jones is their highest-graded receiver on routes that break towards the middle of the field since 2013, and that's apparent nearly every Sunday. Possibly the route where Jones' connection with Matt Ryan is strongest is the long, deep crossing route that the Falcons marry to their play-action to devastating effect.
That play requires good protection by the offensive line, but if given the chance to develop, very few defenders can carry Jones all the way across the field.
Interestingly enough, the player just behind Jones on Pro Football Focus' list of best in-breaking receivers is Brown. The Steelers' All-Pro receiver caught nine passes on in routes last season for 181 yards, and his route-running ability is very effective in creating space on such routes.
Brown has a good feel for finding the soft spots against zone coverage downfield and it's difficult for a single defender to stick with his sudden change-of-direction ability in man coverage.
Both of the route patterns shown above take longer to develop, but both Jones and Brown have rare deceleration abilities, which make them effective on quicker five-step-drop routes like comebacks and back-shoulder throws.
Brown seems to favor the back-shoulder throws, which play into his quick-plant skills and allow him to make a move back to the ball before a defender can react.
The traditional comeback route is something Jones runs exceptionally well, due to how quickly he can throttle down from full speed, plant and drive back to the ball. For any player regardless of size, Jones is among the best at that aspect of the game.
More than enough speed to get behind defenses
When talking about the versatility and well-roundedness of Brown and Jones, it's meant to convey that they fit virtually every receiver archetype. They can be possession receivers, route-running artists and vertical deep threats.
It's the last category that sets Jones and Brown apart. A player of Jones' size isn't supposed to have track-star speed, while a smaller player like Brown isn't supposed to be as adept at leaping and making contested catches as he is. Per Pro Football Focus, Brown's 22 contested catches and the 424 yards off of those catches were both second in the NFL last season.
Jones is also terrific at making contested catches, and some of his most memorable plays have been acrobatic contested catches. But such plays often come over the middle of the field for Jones.
When it comes to his straight downfield speed, there aren't usually many defenders in position to contest the catch. With a well-thrown ball that he can catch in stride, Jones is one of the most effective deep threats in the league.
X-Factors: Strength, balance and big-play ability
Watching both Brown and Jones, it's apparent that they are capable of doing everything a receiver in the NFL has to do at an extremely high level. But each receiver has his own individual qualities that lend themselves to a unique playing style.
To use an analogy from another sport: Jones' rare combination of size, speed and feel for the game are comparable to what LeBron James does in the NBA. Likewise, Brown's lightning-quick moves and non-stop motor aren't unlike James Harden's free-flowing style on the court. Both James and Harden are among the best NBA players, but they have unique skills apart from the other.
For Brown, his ability to create a massive play out of nothing is among the best in the league. His open-field awareness and elusiveness make him a dangerous runner the moment he gets the ball in his hands. Brown finished second among all NFL receivers in 2017 with 492 yards after the catch, while Jones ranked sixth with 457 yards.
Jones' unique skills are pretty easy to identify. The blend of strength and balance that Jones possesses, in addition to his other athletic gifts, means he rarely gets tackled by the first defender. When he's got a full head of speed in the open field, Jones is can run through players or around them.
Through the first four games of the season, Jones is the NFL's leading receiver with 502 yards. Brown has 272 yards and three touchdowns during that same stretch, but he's not going to be held down for long.
There's no question these two are among the best wide receivers to ever play the game and that any fan base would be happy to have them. But which one is the very best? Well, that's up for you to decide.