This article is the second in a series of articles breaking down all six of the Titans 2019 draft picks. For more on first-round pick Jeffery Simmons, click here, and check back later in the week for more on Nate Davis.
In the second round of the draft, the Titans added a playmaker to their wide receiving corps with the selection of A.J. Brown from Ole Miss at No. 51 overall. In a deep class of receivers, Brown stood out as by far the most productive of Ole Miss’s talented trio of pass-catchers.
Many were surprised to see A.J. Brown taken before his teammate, super-athlete D.K. Metcalf, because the NFL usually falls in love with speed (Metcalf ran a 4.33 40-yard dash). At the same time, many had Brown rated as a top-50 talent.
Round 2. Drops are an issue for me. Feel like this year I really went back to the drawing board on WR evals. Not gonna get blown away by traits that don’t equal production. So I’m big on AJ Brown, NKeal, Marquise Brown, Deebo. https://t.co/Fg8DOPBZeY— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 28, 2019
Matt Miller had Brown as his #1 receiver this year and a top-15 player overall. The NFL seemed to agree with Miller’s rankings — the four receivers mentioned in the above tweet were the first four taken in the draft.
.@gregcosell: "I think AJ Brown is a better prospect than Will Fuller when he came out a few years ago. He is a move around guy, can lineup anywhere. He is a Z receiver and the Z is the movement receiver, lines up off the ball."— The Midday 180 (@Midday180) February 27, 2019
Arthur James Brown arrived on the Ole Miss campus as a four-star wide receiver recruit after playing ball at Starkville High School in Mississippi.
During Brown’s senior season (in 2015), he helped lead Starkville to their first state championship since 2012 and was named first team All-State.
Brown’s high school quarterback, Brady Davis, spoke with The Daily Mississippian about his former teammate:
“What sets A.J. Brown apart is his work ethic,” Davis said. “Every time we are both in Mississippi, we are working every day. And for him, that is just one of his two or three workouts for that day.”
Davis wasn’t the only former teammate who spoke highly of Brown. Starkville’s running back, Rodrigues Clark (who was just a freshman during Brown’s senior season), had this to say about the talented wideout:
According to Clark, Brown was frequently found practicing and working by himself outside of practice hours. “He put in work behind closed doors,” Clark said. “I remember going out to the field thinking I (was) the only one there, and just seeing him work by himself was so shocking.”
In addition to playing in the Under Armour All-American football game, Brown became just the second player ever to also be selected to the Under Armour All-American baseball game. Brown was actually drafted as a center fielder by the San Diego Padres in the 19th round of the 2016 MLB draft, but he chose to go play football at Ole Miss instead. He’s an all-around natural athlete.
Brown told the Titans’ Amie Wells about his love for football when he made his official Top 30 pre-draft visit to Nashville:
“I’m strictly football... I pretty much played baseball because my dad was a real big baseball guy, but my love’s in football and my passion is for football.”
Check out the full video below:
Let’s talk about what A.J. Brown did on the football field for Ole Miss.
As a true freshman in 2016, Brown played in all 11 games with one start.
He became the starting slot receiver in 2017 and set a school record for catches (75) and receiving yards (1,252).
The following season, Brown broke his own school records when he racked up 85 catches for 1,320 yards and became the school’s all-time leading receiver. He also holds the record for career 100-yard receiving games with 12.
Brown produced 33 explosive pass plays (20+ yards) last season and 24 the year before that. Last year’s 33 is even more impressive because only 10 of those passes traveled 20+ yards in the air, meaning that Brown did most of his work on those plays by creating after the catch. In fact, he averaged 7.6 yards after catch per reception for his collegiate career, according to PFF’s draft guide.
In contrast, the Titans offense as a whole (in a longer NFL season) produced just 48 explosive pass plays last year and only 37 the year before that.
59 of Brown’s 85 receptions last year came from the slot, but over the final four games of his last season at Ole Miss, Brown lined up exclusively on the outside (after D.K. Metcalf’s neck injury) and accumulated 25 catches for 515 yards in those four games (averaging 20.6 yards per catch).
Brown received quite a bit of recognition for his play at Ole Miss, including the following awards and accolades:
- 2018 All-SEC First Team (AP, Coaches)
- 2018 All-America Second Team (FWAA, Phil Steele)
- 2018 All-America Third Team (AP)
- 2018 All-America Honorable Mention (CollegeFootballNews.com)
- 2018 C Spire Conerly Trophy Finalist
- 2018 Biletnikoff Award Semifinalist
- 2018 Maxwell Award Watch List
- 2017 All-SEC First Team (Coaches, AP, Phil Steele)
- 2017 All-SEC Second Team (Athlon)
- 2017 All-America Second Team (Phil Steele)
- 2017 All-America Third Team (AP)
- 2017 C Spire Conerly Trophy Winner
- 2017 Biletnikoff Award Semifinalist
Brown isn’t a physical freak like his former teammate at Ole Miss, but he’s still a plus athlete, posting an elite Relative Athletic Testing score at the combine.
You can see from Brown’s spider-graph that he has a strong and stout build; his explosive testing numbers are impressive for his size.
I really loved A.J. Brown’s film. I had more clips saved for him than any other player (at any position) in this draft class. Forgive me if I get a bit carried away with the number of GIFs below...
Let’s start by looking at A.J. Brown’s route-running. He is a detailed and nuanced route-runner that creates separation well with excellent balance and play-speed.
One reason he’s so effective is that he’s consistent in his stem, never telegraphing his breaks against off coverage. This skill is demonstrated in the series of plays below.
First, facing a nice cushion, we can see Brown’s attention to detail as he keeps his route straight upfield (using the hashmarks for reference). At the top of his stem, exactly ten yards downfield, Brown hesitates slightly before breaking inside. Brown is able to create a huge amount of separation for his quarterback (and then flashes the hands to catch the ball away from his body).
Here’s a similar play against a different team. The route looks almost exactly the same, which is in fact the point.
Here’s another similar play, but this time against zone coverage. Again you can see Brown keep his shoulders square upfield before cutting across through the hole of the zone for a wide open reception.
Aside from the uniformity, there’s nothing entirely special about the above plays. But Brown maintains that uniformity as he varies his routes, making him difficult to cover one-on-one.
In the next play, Brown feints as if he’s running a dig or post route like the clips above, with the same slight hesitation before cutting inside, but then he breaks upfield wide open.
The throw is extremely late, but Brown continues working towards open space while staying within range of his quarterback. As a bonus, after catching the ball, Brown displays the start-stop ability that makes him so elusive as a ballcarrier.
The next play looks almost identical to the one above (which again is the point). Brown fools the secondary into thinking he’s breaking inside but instead turns upfield, wide open. He keeps his balance as he extends to haul in the catch, tracking it over his shoulder and taking it all the way to the end zone.
One more of these for good measure (and because it’s the play that produced the article’s cover photo). Brown gets the safety to come downhill by showing the same inside fake and then heading upfield for an easy touchdown.
Here’s another example of Brown using route deception to create massive separation. He starts by angling inside to gain leverage before bending his route back out to the wide open space in the defense’s zone coverage.
On the next play, Brown again angles inside, matching the route stem from the previous clip, but this time, when it looks like he’s going to bend the route back outside, he instead continues over the middle and picks up a huge chunk of yards.
The television coverage of the previous clip unfortunately never showed us exactly how Brown got so wide open, but regardless the defender is nowhere near him when the ball arrives.
Brown also creates separation in his stem by anticipating contact from defensive backs and either knocking it away or avoiding it all together.
In the clip below, the corner attempts to play bump and run on Brown out of the slot. It’s subtle, but pay close attention to how Brown releases off the line with a slight hesitation, inviting and anticipating the corner’s punch. As the corner tries to get hands on him, Brown dips his shoulder while driving upfield to avoid the contact.
The corner is shading outside because he thinks he has help from the safety. Brown’s patient release catches the corner flat-footed, and avoiding his punch gets him off balance before he’s into his backpedal. As the safety bites on the play-action fake, Brown takes advantage by using his inside leverage to stack the corner upfield. Late hands reach out to snatch the ball out of the air, and Brown holds on as the corner tries to rip it out going to the ground.
The next play is another example of Brown anticipating and shedding contact from the defensive back to separate against man-to-man coverage.
This time, Brown fakes a drag route with an inside jab, which invites contact that Brown anticipates. He swims over the corner, then disengages while maintaining his speed upfield, again catching the ball with his hands away from his body and continuing to run after the catch.
Defensive backs who try to slow Brown with contact in his stem usually get left behind. That is the case in the next clip, as Brown is ready for the contact and swats it away easily, yet again throwing the defender off balance. The former center fielder’s natural ball tracking is also on display.
The ability to anticipate defensive contact and avoid it like Brown does is an advanced skill for a rookie receiver to enter the league with. Even more advanced, however, is the knowledge Brown displays when making route adjustments based on the coverage he’s facing after the snap.
On this next play, Brown is meant to be running a ten-yard hook (note the attention to detail as he again runs it to exactly ten yards) — if there’s any doubt about the designed route, just look at the receiver on the other side of the formation.
However, as he comes back downfield, Brown recognizes that the defense is dropping into a Cover 2-zone with a linebacker directly in the throwing lane. Jordan Ta’amu wants Brown on the initial hook, but he hesitates on the throw. Brown smartly adjusts his route and runs to the open space outside, essentially allowing his quarterback to throw him open.
After the catch, Brown shows off his elusive ability, turning this ten-yard button hook into a 31-yard touchdown against coverage designed to take away that route.
On this next play, if Brown runs his dig route the same as those at the start of this “Film” section, the linebacker would drop into the area and possibly take away the throw. Knowing his route will lead him into coverage, Brown tricks the linebacker into stepping forward by feinting inside (of course the play action helps, too). Brown finds the hole in the zone behind the linebacker, then makes the safety look silly as he takes it all the way for a 71-yard touchdown.
Brown also shows off his football IQ when working off-schedule after a play breaks down, seen in the next couple plays.
I pointed out one example above of Brown working towards open space downfield while staying in range of his quarterback. Here’s a more extreme example of that, culminating in an impressive contested catch followed by a long sprint to the end zone. Watch Brown never give up on this play, always working to stay open, and then come back downhill for the underthrown pass.
(Sidenote, this was Brown’s second 70+ yard touchdown in as many possessions.)
Brown’s contested catch ability is yet another area where he stands out on tape.
This play (like the last one) shows Brown continuing to work after the play breaks down and then making an impressive contested catch. This one also demonstrates Brown’s ability to control and contort his body in the air. He maintains body position between the corner and the football all the way through the catch and gets two feet down in bounds.
Here’s another great example of Brown working back to the ball to make a difficult contested grab. This aggressive “my ball” mentality is critically important, and on this play it likely prevents an interception.
On this next one, he actually looks a little like a defensive back jumping a route:
The next pass is underthrown, so Brown does his best JJ Arcega-Whiteside impression and boxes out the corner before creating late separation and again plucking the ball out of the air.
The last trait I want to cover (almost done, I promise) is Brown’s incredible ability to make yards after the catch. He didn’t run the 3-cone drill at the combine, but he did run an unofficial 6.89 at the Ole Miss pro day.
You can see that “phone booth” short-area quickness constantly appear on tape. Brown is quick to transition from receiver to ball-carrier, frequently making people miss and slipping through tackles.
Brown was often used as the recipient of short screens and swing passes in Ole Miss’s offense, relying on his vision and ability to break tackles to create yards.
He loves that Odell Beckham-style move where he spins back around to the opposite side of the would-be tackler to use their momentum against them (like this):
(The Rebels beat the socks off this poor UL-Monroe team by a final score of 70-21.)
Here’s that half-spin thing on display again:
I have so many more clips of Brown escaping tacklers like these plays above, but that ability is evident in almost every play in this article, so I’m going to move on.
You may have noticed that all of the above clips specifically showcase Brown running out of the slot. For the final portion of this breakdown, we’ll look only at plays from his final four games at Ole Miss, where (as I mentioned above) Brown lined up exclusively outside.
There have been some concerns expressed about Brown’s ability to separate against man-to-man and press coverage on the outside. In this play below, we see what happens when a corner tries to get hands on Brown. It’s not press coverage, but the corner tries to control Brown in his stem.
Just like when he’s aligned in the slot, Brown is ready to swat away the corner’s punch, and he knocks the corner’s hand away so quickly it actually knocks him off balance. Brown then uses that leverage to create separation at the top of his stem with a sharp break inside. The corner is reeling 5 yards away when Brown adjusts to the pass away from his body without breaking stride. And as is customary for him, Brown turns upfield to maximize yards after catch.
Last year, Brown torched Vanderbilt to the tune of 212 yards on 9 catches lining up exclusively outside, including this 90-yard touchdown catch where Brown simply runs away from everyone.
The Patriots drafted Joejuan Williams in the second round of the draft. Here’s A.J. Brown beating Williams downfield, who attempts to slow the receiver with a punch at the line of scrimmage before falling into a classic trail technique.
Brown is not bothered by the presence of the corner. In his own words, defensive backs “are just in the way.” Instead, Brown anticipates and absorbs the punch, leaving Williams off balance as he attempts to recover. Brown then casually elevates and instinctively positions his body to protect the ball as he brings down the pass and tucks it safely away with two feet in bounds.
In this next play, Brown makes a similar catch but this time against off coverage. His concentration through traffic and ability to secure the ball in contested situations is on full display here. Watch him disengage from the corner with a downward swipe just before he attacks the ball with his hands.
Unfortunately, the broadcast neglected to include Brown in the frame on this next play, and they didn’t show the full route in their close-up replay either. Still, if we watch closely, we can see Brown create massive separation by getting the corner to open his hips to the sideline before exploding up the seam.
I have no worries about Brown’s ability to play and win on the outside. When D.K. Metcalf first got injured, Brown was asked in a post-practice press conference if he’d be comfortable moving outside if the coaches asked him to. His response:
“I don’t have a problem [playing outside]. That’s home for me, honestly. I always mess around with the guys and just do releases and stuff on the outside. That’s not a problem, if it comes down to that, it’s not a problem.”
He proved over those final four games that it indeed was not a problem.
In Brown’s final game, he scored a long touchdown that was actually called back because the ball was technically snapped after the end of the third quarter. It was a pretty bizarre sequence that led to last year’s infamous Egg Bowl fight when Johnathan Abram for some reason would not let go of the ball after A.J. Brown muscled his way across the goal line.
The fight continued when Abram threw a very ill-advised punch at Brown, who retaliated. Abram will make for a great Raider.
Neither Abram or Brown were ejected, but four other players were (the referee announced “unsportsmanlike conduct on all players from both teams”). Crazy play in a crazy game.
And lastly, because blocking is certainly important, here’s a montage of Brown as a blocker. He is more than willing, he’s actually effective. I’m not going to break down his blocking technique, he just gets the job done.
If I had to cite a criticism for A.J. Brown, it’s that every so often he’ll drop an easy pass that he should’ve caught.
In my opinion, these drops are not much to be concerned about because of the natural hand-eye coordination Brown displays on countless other plays.
Compared to this Taywan Taylor drop, which is anything but coordinated...
Even on those drops, Brown shows off other traits that get you excited about his abilities.
He had 5 total drops last season on 115 targets (and 14 drops in his collegiate career on 254 total targets) according to Pro Football Focus. For comparison, Marquise Brown, the first receiver drafted in 2019, had 14 drops on 185 career targets.
Typically when I start an evaluation of a player, I try to answer the question, “How does he win?”
A.J. Brown wins in a lot of ways. He wins with natural athleticism. He wins with advanced hand usage and contact anticipation in his stem. He wins because he is a persuasive salesman with his route deception. He wins because he knows how to adjust according to the defense he is facing. He wins because he knows to work towards open space when a play breaks down. He wins because he can elevate and position his body to make difficult contested catches. Like Vince Young and Tim Tebow: He. Just. Wins.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was the fist player that came to my mind when watching Brown. I thought I was being clever with that comparison... until I realized everyone was drawing the same conclusion. That was confirmed for me when I saw him lay out an LSU defender (in the blocking montage above) in much the same way that JuJu laid out Vontaze Burfict.
That doesn’t make Brown a dirty player, but he definitely plays with an aggressive edge. You can see it when he attacks the ball in mid-air, when he’s blocking, and in that Egg Bowl fight where he doesn’t back down from Johnathan Abram. It’s just a level of passion and fire that he plays with.
I expect Brown to win the starting job across from Corey Davis, even in two-wide sets, before the end of his rookie year. Adam Humphries will likely start in that role and bump inside to the slot in 11-personnel early on, but Brown is the type of player who will force his way onto the field with his playmaking abilities.
If he can pick up the offense quickly, I wonder if the Titans will end up playing more 11-personnel this season. One interesting nugget about Brown is that the Ole Miss offense supposedly only had 11 plays in the playbook, so how quickly Brown can transition to using an NFL playbook and verbiage remains to be seen. He did demonstrate quick recognition and processing abilities with his route adjustments on the fly.
Overall, Brown is a reliable target who can uncover quickly underneath as well as win vertically. He excels in the short and intermediate areas, where Mariota does his best work.
Brown should thrive wherever he lines up for the Titans. He has the best chance of any receiver in Titans’ history to finally end the 2nd-round wide receiver curse. We suffered through Tyrone Calico’s injuries, Justin Hunter’s inconsistencies, and Dorial Green-Beckham’s... um... intelligence deficiencies...? all so that we could truly appreciate A.J. Brown.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown ended up being the Titans’ 1A option in the passing game to Corey Davis’ 1B over the next few seasons. He’s a special player the Titans stole at pick No. 51.