The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: A.J. Brown
It’s a pleasure to kick off one of my favorite articles series that the writing staff puts together every offseason. The concept is simple: pick and a player who is ranked outside of the top-15 wide receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial rankings as discussed on the podcast.
The wide receivers who will be featured in this article series each possess a range of outcomes, with the high end being a top-12 WR come season’s end; but how will they get there? How will it happen? This article series aims to answer those questions when examining the range of outcomes. In 2020, we kick off this series with one of the hottest names in fantasy football, A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans. In his rookie season in 2019, Brown set opposing secondaries on fire. Can he continue in 2020? And if so, what is his ceiling?
Let’s start by recapping Brown’s 2019 season and project what a WR1 season looks like this year, and finally, give the percentage likelihood of a WR1 campaign.
2019 Season Recap
A.J. Brown came into the 2019 season as a rookie prospect that a lot of people weren’t too excited about. The hype was there regarding A.J. Brown coming out of Ole Miss, but after he landed in Tennessee, the fantasy world sort of soured on him, citing a bad landing spot as something that could hold him back in his rookie year. After all, they weren’t wrong. Marcus Mariota was the QB and we had just witnessed Derrick Henry run for 125 yards per game and 8 TDs in five December games. A run-first offense led by a disappointing passer in Marcus Mariota? “No thanks,” said fantasy football drafters. According to Fantasy Football Calculator’s half PPR ADP from 2019, A.J. Brown wasn’t even drafted.
Then, things changed. Former 1st round NFL Draft pick, Corey Davis, continued to disappoint. He had just 82 yards through three games, and Marcus Mariota continued to underwhelm. It appeared to be an offense to avoid until then backup, Ryan Tannehill, was named the starter. Tannehill took over as the full-time starter in Week 7, and from that point on, it was wheels up for A.J. Brown. It’s hard to put into words what Ryan Tannehill meant to the Titans’ offense and to A.J. Brown’s fantasy value, so let’s use numbers instead.
|Marcus Mariota||Ryan Tannehill|
|Half PPR Fantasy Ranking||WR47||WR3|
When examining the data from Brown’s 2019 season, there are some obvious differences that stand out. With Ryan Tannehill starting, Brown’s volume and efficiency both improved, suggesting improved QB play was at least partially responsible for Brown’s ascension into fantasy stardom. It’s also reasonable to assume that Brown was growing into an NFL receiver, learning how to be a pro and developing as a prospect. Can this continue in 2020? Let’s next examine the path to a top 12 finish this season.
The Path for 2020
In order for Brown to ascend to WR1 territory, there are a number of statistical benchmarks he must meet to become truly an elite fantasy option.
Target Share: The Titans’ passing distribution is relatively narrow. In 2019, just 15% of the targets went to the RB position, suggesting this is a relatively streamlined passing attack with the vast majority of targets going to the WR and TE positions. With Derrick Henry at RB, don’t expect this to change much. Brown saw 19.8% of the Titans’ targets in 2019 while Corey Davis saw 16.3%. Based on what’s on tape and the unproven track record of Davis, it’s probably safe to project Brown with a higher target share than Davis in 2020 as the team’s WR1. Given that there is some expected regression in Brown’s efficiency, Brown will probably need to build upon is 19.8% target share from last season. Of the top 12 fantasy WRs from 2019, only one had a market share of less than 20% and that player was Chris Godwin. For Brown to be a WR1 in 2020, he’ll likely need to eclipse the 22% market share threshold if his efficiency drops a bit compared to 2019.
Catch Rate – Brown caught 52 of 84 targets in 2019, good for about a 62% catch rate. Compared to other top-tier WRs, this is quite low and could be something that could be attributed to a couple of aspects. First, as we’ve discussed already, Ryan Tannehill came in and improved the passing game immensely. With Mariota at QB, Brown’s catch rate was at about 60%, and with Tannehill under center, it improved to just over 62%. Now, this isn’t a huge bump, but it’s an increase. It’s also important to consider that Brown played his first-ever NFL snaps with Mariota under center. It’s fair to say that Brown became a better receiver over the second half of the year independent of QB play. These two factors (better QB play + better individual play as a WR) give a reason for optimism with Brown’s catch rate improving in 2020. If Brown’s catch rate can improve to 65-68% range, he’ll be more likely to be in the conversation for WR1 status.
Receptions – There was only one WR in the entire NFL who averaged more yards per reception than A.J. Brown in 2019: Mike Williams. Brown’s 20.2 yards per reception speaks to how insanely efficient and explosive he was last season. One of A.J. Brown’s best attributes is the run after the catch, acting almost as if he’s a running back once the ball is in his hands. His 465 yards after the catch were tied for 14th most in the league. When you watch Brown on tape, this skill stands out like a sore thumb, so I don’t expect this to change a ton. However, it is possible that his efficiency drops. With this in mind, he’ll likely need to improve upon his reception total if he wants to maintain or improve upon his fantasy production, especially in PPR formats. His 52 receptions in 2019 are low relative to other top-15 fantasy WRs. For Brown to finish inside the top 12, he’ll likely need to push for at least 70 when you consider a reduction in efficiency.
Yards – A.J. Brown started off slow but caught fire down the stretch, posting four games of 114 or more yards in his final six contests. To put this in perspective, 58% of Brown’s receiving yards came in the final six weeks of the season, and those 4 monster performances accounted for 50% of his yardage. Bottom line – if Brown is going to finish as a WR1, he’ll need to be more consistent with his production. As we’ll discuss next, there isn’t a high likelihood that Brown’s TD production will increase. Therefore, if he’s going to become a WR1, it’ll probably need to be on the back of receptions (in PPR formats) and yardage. 1,051 yards as a rookie is impressive, but a 1,200-yard season is likely needed for Brown to take the next step.
TDs – Unfortunately for Brown, this Titans’ offense is going to run through Derrick Henry, especially in the red zone. This fact alone is going to limit Brown’s TD upside. In 2019, he had eight receiving TDs, and only four of them came inside the red zone. How many receptions did he have inside the 20-yard line? Just five. To put this in perspective, Taysom Hill, Steven Sims Jr., and even C.J. Uzomah had more receptions in the red zone than Brown last year. Basically, all of Brown’s red zone receptions resulted in TDs. That is very unlikely to happen again in 2020, and there may not be much that changes for Brown in terms of volume. When the Titans enter the red zone, it’s the Derrick Henry show. His 45 red zone rush attempts were the 7th most in the league. For Brown to enter WR1 territory, he’ll probably need to replicate his eight TD total from 2019 at a minimum, and without red-zone targets, it’s tough to project Brown for more than eight scores in 2020.
WR1 Possibility: Low Chance (Below 30%)
This percentage is based upon the combined average of the Fantasy Footballers writing staff. I polled the staff asking for their answers in regards to the percentage chance that Brown is a WR1 in 2020, and answers ranged from 10% to 33%. To enter WR1 territory, Brown will need to put up consistent top-24 finishes at the position week in and week out. Last year, he finished inside the top-24 just six times or 35% of the time. To put this in perspective, Michael Thomas is probably more like a 90% chance given his consistency, volume, and lack of injury history. A guy like Cole Beasley is probably at about 5%.
A.J. Brown is a WR who is oozing with upside, as we saw in 2019. However, Brown was just too inconsistent early in the season to push for WR1 status. Through Week 11, he only had one, yes one, top-24 finish at the WR position. If Brown can build on what we saw in the second half of the year when he was a top-10 fantasy WR, while also factoring in regression in efficiency, Brown has an outside chance to push for back end WR1 numbers. However, he probably profiles as an upside WR2 for your fantasy roster. At his current price tag of WR23 according to early drafts on Fantasy Football Calculator, it appears he is a bit of a value, but will the hype get out of control this summer?