Matt Waldman shares his pre-NFL Draft and post-NFL Draft analysis of Titans receiver A.J. Brown, a player Waldman labeled an immediate starter and noted to the fantasy community that Brown was underrated by almost one round in early rookie drafts.
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss (6-0, 226)
Depth of Talent Score: 91.7 = Franchise Starter: Immediate production and leadership anchor.
The best receiver at Ole Miss for the past few years has been Brown. He gets overlooked a bit because he’s seen as a big slot receiver, and D.K. Metcalf’s potential cast a hefty shadow. A closer look reveals an excellent playmaker with the speed and physicality to play outside, the quickness to play inside, and the football smarts to thrill the team that picks him in April.
Brown has an arsenal of moves to release from man coverage from the line. He uses swipes, double swipes, arm-overs, shakes, swims, and chops in conjunction with various foot-fire releases of one-, two-, three-, and four-steps. He’ll combine a shake with his foot-fire and an arm maneuver to get free.
There are moments where Brown doesn’t earn more than a half-step of separation, which could be a cause of concern about his perimeter potential. However, Brown can lean too much on his swim move and a little more variance of strategy should help him. His 4.49-second, 40-Yard Dash is on par with Hakeem Butler and Deebo Samuel. Once he earns a runway, he can taxi into flight.
Brown executes his stems with a quick pace and sells the potential deep route with his pads over his knees. He’ll widen his stems against off-coverage to set up a break back inside.
He manipulates the directions of his stems and uses head and shoulder fakes to bait defenders at the top of the stem. Brown also varies his pacing and stride length to achieve a similar effect.
Like Butler, Brown can execute a single, long drive step into his hard breaks. He’ll finish with a good bend to drop his weight into the break and come back to the quarterback. When the play breaks down, Brown is an aware receiver who works to open space.
He uses all of these tools to execute double moves to get open in the vertical game. He’ll also run the whip route with a bend and quickness that rivals some of Keenan Allen’s work with this difficult underneath route.
When executing speed breaks, Brown delivers a sudden snap with his turn and breaks flat or towards the ball. His speed out might be his fastest pattern. He also has a quick drag step into breaks on slants, so he can maximize his acceleration upfield.
Brown is a clutch receiver with good technique against tight coverage and in highly trafficked areas. He knows when to use the appropriate hands’ position for the target location and he attacks the earliest available target window. If his route doesn’t earn him separation, he’ll battle for position with the ball in the air.
Brown can high-point the ball or dig it out from the ground. He’ll take hits to his back and make difficult adjustments to the football with defenders hanging off him. He’ll have the occasional drop because he diverts his focus from securing the ball to turning upfield.
Brown is a strong target for back-shoulder plays, corner routes, and comebacks. Ole Miss used him frequently on slants in the red zone because of his quickness off the line and sturdiness at the catch point.
“Sturdy” is a good description of Brown. He’s built like a power-back and often plays like one, too. Trailing linebackers need more than a wrap if they hope to drop Brown to the turf.
When he’s wrapped, he’s strong enough to run through the linebacker or at least drag an opponent for extra yards. Once a defender compromises Brown’s balance, he will extend for all the yards he can get. He’s willing to throw his body around for that extra yard.
Defensive backs have difficulty bringing Brown to the ground if they wrap him high. For a receiver, he has a low center of gravity, which helps him break reaches and wraps as well as bounce off contact. Brown is also shifty. He’ll square up defensive backs in space and juke them. He can spin away from direct contact and he has an excellent stick move where he can stab his leg towards an opponent and work in the opposite direction. Brown often uses that stick the way a boxer uses an active jab to set up a bigger punch.
Brown has a good stiff-arm with some heft to its delivery. He’ll rock a defensive back when he strikes. He carries the ball with the appropriate arm to avoid the nearest pursuit angle. He maintains a high and tight carriage in traffic and rips and slaps to the ball don’t phase his security.
In the open field, Brown’s ball security gets looser and he’ll tighten it when he spots pursuit closing on him. He doesn’t switch the ball to the appropriate arm when there’s space to do so. Brown’s effort as a blocker is inconsistent. When he makes it a point to block, he’s strong, physical, and technically-sound.
He’ll close the gap on an opponent, square his position, bend his hips and attack with intensity. He will roll through uppercut punches to stun a defender when stalk blocking and this technique will be good at the edge of a defense against weakside linebackers and box safeties.
As a stalk blocker, he’ll maintain a square position, approach with patience, and maintain low pads and active hands. When he has lapses with technique, it results in Brown overextending.
There are valid arguments Brown is the top receiver in this class. He reminds me of Anquan Boldin with more speed. He could wind up a high-volume slot receiver with big-play ability in the red zone and on the perimeter.
Based solely on his play, he could be the safest receiver on the board. He’ll play immediately in the NFL and he’s a fit for any team. I’d love to see him in Dallas because I think he’d mesh well with Dak Prescott as a player who can be where he’s supposed to be in and outside of structure, but it’s unlikely.
Patrick Mahomes needs more weapons that can play outside, inside, and run the football. They’d be a great pairing for years to come—especially when plays break down.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Brown is the third of three receivers that the RSP has awarded a franchise starter grade. This has been a rare occurrence of late. Brown is worth a top-five pick. There isn’t a running back or tight end that I’d take before him unless the league uses a 1.5 PPR premium for tight ends. While a bad offensive situation could rob him of immediate upside, his skills will eventually shine through. Take him with confidence.
RSP Post-Draft Advice: Good Fit
Tennessee WR A.J. Brown: From what I’m hearing among those in the fantasy community, the early reactions to this pairing of Brown and the Titans aren’t positive. The thought is if Corey Davis hasn’t become a top player, then Brown has virtually no chance. The blame they’re laying is on Marcus Mariota.
Considering that Corey Davis lost Delanie Walker and didn’t have a quality receiver to divert a defense’s focus from him, I find it difficult to agree with this common assessment. Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe are neither skilled nor consistent enough to place this judgment on Davis and Mariota.
Mariota actually improved his deep accuracy percentage last year—to a point that he was among the better deep throwers in the league. Mariota has also been a decent passer in the middle of the field when he has the caliber of receivers to support him.
Enter Brown, who may initially project as a flanker to Corey Davis’ split end, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Brown earns significant time in the slot 11, 10, and empty sets. Big slot receiver Rishard Matthews earned 118 catches, 1,740 yards, and 13 touchdowns during the 2016-17 seasons with Mariota—and Mariota started 30 of 32 games during that span.
Expect Davis and Brown to create enough difficulties for opponents that they bolster each other and the passing game as a whole. With Delaine Walker returning and Adam Humphries added to the roster, Mariota will have the best complement of weapons he’s seen. And if Mariota gets hurt or falters, Ryan Tannehill was the passer who supported Jarvis Landry’s excellent seasons as Miami’s slot man.
Brown will earn a lot of targets as a flanker/slot in Tennessee—don’t let last year’s production from the Titans offense trick you into thinking otherwise.
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