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Odell Beckham Jr. Or Antonio Brown — Which Player Is More Important?

The Giants and Steelers feature two of the best receivers in the game today, but which means more to his team?

NFL: New York Giants-Training Camp William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The New York GiantsOdell Beckham Jr. and the Pittsburgh SteelersAntonio Brown: they are two of the top three wide receivers in the NFL.

They are both transcendent talents and despite the differences in how they came in to the league, there are some significant similarities between the two. Both are undersized according to the NFL’s physical archetype for a “Number One” receiver — Neither measures up well to the physical traits of Julio Jones or A.J. Green.

They are both savvy route-runners, who play everywhere on their offense. They both play with a barely-bridled passion that has occasionally drawn sideways looks from more “Old School” observers.

Beckham and Brown were drafted by “Flagship” NFL franchises, connected by history and blood ties — The Giants and Steelers are as good as football “cousins”. They also catch passes from a pair of Hall of Fame bound quarterbacks inextricably linked as the standard bearers of one of the greatest quarterback draft classes in League history. Both players are production machines, turning scores of targets into points and yards for their offense.

But which one means more to their team?

As it turns out, that is a question much easier asked than answered.

Football is a many-layered and complex game with intertwining variables on every play. For instance, while Eli Manning has played every game since Beckham was drafted, 48 games, Beckham has missed five of them. On the flip side, Antonio Brown has played 47 games in that span, but Ben Roethlisberger has only played 43.

It hardly seems fair to compare games Manning has played with Beckham to ones Brown has played without Roethlisberger, and vice versa. To help make the stats more comparable, I filtered out the games those games affected by injury (and one suspension). Let’s take a look at what I got from the raw data.

Since 2014, when Beckham came into the league, Brown has been the more productive player, with 59 more receptions for 352 more yards. Both, however, have the same number of touchdowns — a league-leading 35 over that span.

In that span the Giants offense was based on the pass, with Eli Manning attempting 63 more passes. But despite seeing fewer passes thrown, Brown was targeted by a higher percentage. He saw 485 of Roethlisberger’s 1,586 passes (30.5 percent, or roughly 11.5 targets per game), compared to Beckham being the target of 457 of Manning’s 1,649 passes (27.7 percent, roughly 10.6 targets per game).

At first blush, it would seem that Brown hasn’t just been the better receiver over that span, but more important. But, as I said before, football is complicated. Brown, and the Steeler offense, has one important piece for which the Giants — and pretty much every other team — simply don’t have an analogue: Le’Veon Bell.

So let’s take things a step further and look at what each receiver means for their offense as a whole, and not just for their quarterback.

In the 42 games that Roethlisberger and Brown have played together since 2014, the Steelers scored 118 touchdowns. Of them, Brown’s 35 touchdowns makes up 29.6 percent of the Steelers’ offensive out-put. In the same time period, the Giants have scored 104 touchdowns, 33.6 percent of which came from Beckham.

And while Brown has had more yards than Beckham since 2014, so have the Steelers as an offense. With both Brown and Roethlisberger on the field, Brown was responsible for 4,474 of the Steeler’s 16,946 yards (26.4 percent). Beckham’s 4,122 yards accounts for 26.8 percent of the Giants’ 15,349 yards with him on the field.

Perhaps the clearest representation of how much each team relies on its star receiver came when they were knocking on the door to the end zone. Beckham has been a much more important weapon inside the 20-yard line, receiving 26 red zone targets in 2016. That is eight more than Brown’s 18 targets last year, per

Given the makeup of the two rosters, that really shouldn’t be surprising. The Steelers have had a better and more varied cast of weapons on offense — including a dangerous running game. Since 2014, Pittsburgh has had 39 rushing touchdowns (with and without Roethlisberger), while the Giants have had a paltry 24 rushing touchdowns — more than half of which came in 2014.

All of this just goes to reinforce what our eyes have said for the last three years. That both players are exceptional, and in a vacuum Brown is probably — marginally, right now — the better receiver. However, if the Steelers were to be without him, they could field a viable offense built around Bell.

It is almost impossible to imagine the Giants fielding an offense without Beckham. The one time they had to do so since his debut in Week 5 of 2014, it was a painful 49-17 rout that saw Eli Manning taken out of the game before the final whistle. The team, and especially Manning, have to hope that Beckham won’t have to be THE offensive weapon for the Giants. Hopefully, Sterling Shepard will take a step forward and build on his 2016 season, the running game will get traction, and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram will help to balance the offense and take the load off Beckham’s shoulders.

It’s also important to keep in mind that Odell Beckham has only played just three seasons in the NFL. When he exploded onto the scene in 2014, Brown was entering his fifth year in the league. Considering the unreal numbers Beckham put up almost immediately and how he rocketed to the top of the “Best Receiver” conversation, it’s easy to forget that he is being talked about with players in their primes who have played twice as many seasons as he.

It still boggles the mind that Beckham has accomplished what he has in less than three full seasons — that it wasn’t until Brown’s fourth season that he dominated the stat sheet like Beckham has since his rookie year.

Neither player will likely take the field Friday night in the teams’ preseason opener. And while the fans are going to be missing out on the show, both receivers are too important to their respective teams to risk in the first exhibition game.

Especially, though far from overwhelmingly, Odell Beckham.