Fantasy Court: The Case for A.J. Brown in 2021
If you are new to the Fantasy Footballers or are unfamiliar with the Fantasy Court series, this article can be one-half of a tandem argument or a stand-alone read. I detail the case for A.J. Brown in this piece while fellow writer Ryan DeVaney will lay the case against him for the 2021 season. Make sure to check out Fantasy Court: The Case Against A.J. Brown to read the other side of the argument.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Fantasy Jury… My name is Nate Henry, and I stand here once again having to defend a man who should need no defense. It is my client’s third year in the NFL, his third year producing fantasy points for fantasy managers, and yet his third year being questioned.
I will admit, I was surprised when the prosecutor, Mr. DeVaney, decided to bring these charges against Mr. Brown. By now, I figured that my client’s consecutive years of fantasy dominance (WR15 in ppg in 2019; WR5 in ppg in 2020) had ended all such baseless claims. But here we are again.
Still, despite this needless trial, by the end of my closing arguments, you’ll clear my client’s name, you’ll draft him to your fantasy team, and you’ll donate to Mr. Brown’s favorite charity at the end of the year in celebration of that #FootclanTitle.
A.J. Brown had an unbelievable rookie season. Most notably, he led the NFL with an average of 8.8 yards after the catch, led the NFL with 12.5 yards per target, and had a 9.5% touchdown rate. These numbers validated what an elite draft prospect A.J. Brown was. He finished as WR15 in ppg with only 84 targets and a mere 15% target share, which is not terribly surprising given that the Titans brought Brown along slowly, playing him only about 40% of the snaps in the first month of the season until he eventually worked into a full-time role by Week 10 (approximately the same time Ryan Tannehill became the starter in Tennessee). So, in limited work, A.J. Brown showed his elite talent, demonstrating the ability to catch the ball deep, make a play after the catch, and score touchdowns when it counted. Many of these skills are difficult to teach, especially the “skill” of being 6’1″, 230 lbs, and having a 78″ wingspan.
The other important event from Brown’s 2019 season was the quarterback change from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill did great things for the offense from an efficiency standpoint, which undoubtedly helped Brown score fantasy points, especially by generating touchdowns. But they clearly had a vibe, and it showed.
Nevertheless, nasty words like “regression” and “outlier” got thrown about, ignoring A.J. Brown‘s upward trajectory, monstrous body size, and likely improvement after his rookie season. But still, some of these numbers were a bit on the implausible side of things. Regardless, the one number that wasn’t likely to repeat was a 15% target share for a second-year wide receiver.
It didn’t. Instead, A.J. Brown saw 106 targets, good for a 27.29% target share. This target share is an elite number – ranking him 6th in target percentage behind only Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, and Jakobi Meyers. On 106 targets, A.J. Brown accumulated 1073 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Notably, A.J. Brown‘s touchdown percentage increased to 10.4% in 2020, improving on his 2019 rate! Most important for fantasy players, he was 5th in WR consistency.
While it’s true that his yards after the catch and yards per target came down to 10.1 yards per target and an average of 6.2 yards after the catch, he still managed elite numbers in both figures. Brown is still the best player after the catch, ranking second in the league in 2020 and creating far more yards after the catch than advanced statistical models predict. Oh, and he did all this on two gimpy legs.
The point is 2020 validated the elite receiver A.J. Brown is in almost every way. He barely regressed; he more accurately improved just about everywhere, and he finished as WR6 in 0.5-point-scoring.
Last year, regression was the basis of questioning Mr. Brown; this year, it’s Julio Jones. Yes, the Titans traded for the fantasy superstar, Julio Jones, but the addition of Julio will have very little bearing on A.J. Brown‘s ability to finish as a top 5 WR in 2021. Let’s look at the numbers.
In 2020, the Titans threw the ball 485 times (compared to 521 rushing attempts – a 48% pass-to-run ratio). The Titans were the 3rd most run-heavy team in 2020 behind only Baltimore and New England, both of whom had mobile quarterbacks, which Tennessee doesn’t (Tannehill had only 43 rushes in 2020). While it’s true that Tennessee likely wants to be a run-first offense with Derrick Henry toting the ball, the Titans are also well aware that Derrick Henry cannot run the ball 378 times in a year (or maybe he can – he may not be human). But still, the trade for Julio demonstrates a desire to run a more balanced attack, which means more passing and probably something closer to a 50-50 run/pass ratio.
While Derrick Henry will get him, and the Titans will run, one thing the Titans are unlikely to do is pass to the running back. Last year, the running back position as a whole only received 11% of the passing targets, which is extremely low (consider J.D. McKissic alone had a 19.6% target share). So, while Tennessee’s low passing volume is likely to be a tick against A.J. Brown, it is completely offset by the fact that almost none of the passing volume goes to the running back position.
In addition to not having to compete with any Titan running backs for targets, Brown also no longer has to compete with Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Adam Humphries, as the Titans lost through free agency their second, third, and fifth leading targets. This vacated 192 targets. The combination of Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds, and A.J. Brown is likely to consume that vacated pie.
But I look around, and I still see hesitancy in your eyes because Julio is such a big name. Well, fear not because Julio Jones is now 32 years old and declining in production (aDOT 14 in 2018, 12.2 in 2019, and 11.2 in 2020). Also, let’s not forget that he hasn’t played a full season since 2018.
But more importantly, recall that targets are a talent-based statistic. In order to receive a target, a player needs to get open. So, talented players get open more often regardless of who is playing across from them. If anything, the addition of Julio means fewer double teams for A.J. Brown in 2021 meaning he can get open more regularly and get targeted more often. There is no doubt that Julio Jones is still talented, but A.J. Brown is younger and equally or arguably more talented than Julio at this stage in Julio’s career.
Brown is being drafted as WR7 on Sleeper and WR8 on Fantasy Football Calculator. In other words, Brown is being drafted at about his floor. Brown has WR1 overall upside, but you can get him for a third-round pick. All it takes is a bit more passing from Tennessee and maintaining something close to that 27-28% target share. He’s not starting the year on the PUP, and he’s ready to win fantasy championships. Knowing A.J. Brown is there in the early third gives early pick drafters the ability to confidently draft running backs in the first two rounds and still come away with A.J. Brown.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, I conclude by again reminding you that A.J. Brown is an unbelievable talent, as he has proven in his first two NFL seasons. The addition of Julio is not a hindrance but instead helps his ability to get open more often. And with that, I rest my case.