Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2019 Ultimate Draft Kit.
Much fanfare and hype has been thrown at the feet of Ole Miss wideout D.K. Metcalf. He’s earned that with his impressive skillset and outstanding physical gifts. However, don’t let him cast too large a shadow over his college teammate, A.J. Brown.
Not only did Brown lead the team in receiving yards in both of the last two seasons, he also kept pace at the NFL Scouting Combine. Metcalf’s blazing 40-yard dash at 228 pounds stole the show but Brown had a solid performance in his own right. Brown checked in as a 76th percentile SPARQ athlete, according to 3 Sigma Athlete, which is 17th among receivers in the class. It was just one reminder to not let the ceiling of Metcalf distract you too much from the potential of his now former teammate.
The more I watched of A.J. Brown, the more I became convinced of his pro potential. He offers several layers of skills that could make him a fit at multiple spots.
Brown’s demonstrated athleticism shows up on the field. One of the skills that stands out the most with him is his ability to earn extra yards after the catch. According to Sports Info Solutions, Brown averaged 8.7 and 7.0 yards after the catch per reception over the last two seasons.
His 226-pound frame grants him the assets he needs to shed smaller defensive backs and create YAC with power. You’ll frequently see him run through would-be tacklers, especially if they come at him from an angle. Brown is also able to use a wide variety of more agility-based moves and can juke out defenders when they take him head on. He also maintains the speed to gallop through the open field when the opportunity presents itself.
All the athleticism that Brown showed at the combine is littered throughout his game tape at Ole Miss. The splash plays should continue.
It’s his ability to make plays after the catch that will likely make Brown pop to early observers of his game. However, the true ceiling of his pro potential is demonstrated in his work before the ball arrives.
Last week we looked at the prospects of N’Keal Harry and a possible move inside to man the big slot receiver position. Harry isn’t alone among the group of receivers hoping to hear their names called in the first two days of the NFL Draft who should translate well to this high-value role. Unlike Harry, he’s less of a projection to the slot, as we have much more footage of Brown already in that role.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Brown lined up in the slot on 56.4 percent of his snaps last year. As a 6-foot, 226-pound player, he stands out next to the standard archetype of slight interior receivers. Bringing size to a position that often gets a free release is a tremendous advantage. Below you’ll see some of the receivers who see press coverage at the lowest frequency, according to Reception Perception data over the last five seasons. Almost of them were primarily slot receivers in these sampled games.
If Brown sees press coverage at this low of a rate, he’ll be a major problem for NFL defenses. Allowing a player with his size and athleticism to get into the open zones that quickly in their route will make them such a desirable target for a quarterback. What he can do after the catch will only further boost the value he brings to inside receptions.
One could contend we didn’t even get to see the best Brown could offer at Ole Miss based on his route usage. It often appeared that Brown was tasked with running out-breaking routes from the slot. Turn a good chunk of those routes to go over the middle of the field at the next level and you’ll see Brown pile up big plays against interior coverage on layup catches.
Having Brown in a usage plan that has him take a majority of his snaps from the slot would certainly allow his future team’s interior passing game to be maximized. However, I’d contend that Brown will not need to be a strictly inside receiver at the next level. When tasked with defeating press coverage, he showed a variety of release moves to get free off the line. He can also get free in the vertical game. Brown’s buildup speed is obvious and he is perhaps the best receiver in this class at shaking defenders at the stem of his routes. That will make him a chore to cover on deep posts and corners. He’ll wreck seems that way.
Indeed, the best role for Brown is likely a continuation of the resume he’s built as a big slot receiver. However, this is a player that can shine playing flanker at a near 50 percent rate in two-wide sets and may even be able to survive as an X-receiver on occasion, if his release technique continues to develop. Should he operate as a primary slot receiver, he won’t be one of these short-area exclusive threats. He’s a player that will do damage down the field, furthering his case as a player to maximize that slot spot.
One player who immediately jumped to mind when looking for a comparison to A.J. Brown’s came was current Saints and former Bears receiver Cameron Meredith. While that may not seem inspiring at first, remember that Meredith was on a clear upward trajectory before a devastating knee injury in the 2017 preseason. Brown could easily win in similar ways to Meredith when he looked all set for a breakout campaign that year.
When we last saw Meredith healthy on an NFL field, he showed an inside/outside skillset after winning in both the slot and flanker positions with the Bears. Much like Brown, he dominated zone coverage in the interior, posting an 84.2 percent success rate vs. zone coverage but was also more than capable of winning outside when pressed. Meredith checked in with a 68.5 percent success rate vs. press coverage in 2016, good for a 60th percentile score.
As mentioned with Brown, Meredith was not just some layup slot receiver. He shined on the inside and outside on in-breaking downfield patterns. His 2016 Reception Perception route success rate chart shows he could get loos with the best receivers on intermediate routes like the dig and vertical plays like the post:
Meredith and Brown are both big receivers who come with strong athletic gifts and win on the field in similar ways. For all the promise that’s been seemingly sapped from Meredith’s career, Brown could arrive in 2019 ready to recapture it.
From a pure results standpoint, Brown could bring big plays to the slot in the same way Seattle’s Doug Baldwin has. While not similar from a size standpoint, Brown could rival Baldwin’s 2017 12.7 average depth of target, a rather high mark for a slot receiver. Reception Perception shows that what makes Baldwin so unique is his ability to go beyond the traditional popgun routes of the interior receiver and become a true vertical threat:
For years, Doug Baldwin’s unique ability from the slot helped him be the engine of Seattle’s passing game, something we don’t often see from receivers of the interior archetype. Brown has the ability to do the same.
While more receivers than ever are auditioning to become the NFL’s next great big slot man, Brown will bring a compelling case in his own right. Much like the players he’s compared to, he’ll be able to maximize the slot receiver position on both free release short routes and vertical patterns, as well as earn steady separation outside.
While A.J. Brown seems to find his way to a handful of top-five positional rankings, he still feels a bit underrated in this process. He may not have some of the distracting flash of other peers, even the one on his own team, but Brown brings a wealth of appeal in his profile.
As the NFL continues to spread receiver formations out, versatile players who can maximize the slot and carry the route nuance to win outside when needed will only become more valuable. A.J. Brown will get his chance to be the next in line this coming season. Don’t bet against him exceeding expectations.