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Rookie Receiver A.J. Brown Could Be the Titans’ Postseason Difference-Maker

Eight months ago, many teams had questions about how high Brown’s ceiling could be in the NFL. Now, his connection with QB Ryan Tannehill has Tennessee in prime position for a wild-card weekend upset.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first thing that stands out about A.J. Brown is his shoulder pads. That may seem like an odd detail to notice, but trust me, they’re enormous. Brown looks like Robert De Niro in The Irishman, except unlike De Niro, Brown isn’t a 76-year-old man trying to look like he’s in his 30s. Despite his clunky uniform choices, though, the rookie wideout has quickly become one of the best receivers in the NFL—and he could be the X factor in a potential Titans playoff run.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Over 16 games this year, Brown has accumulated 1,051 receiving yards and eight touchdowns (both of which lead all rookie receivers) on 52 receptions. That’s the 15th-highest yardage mark for a rookie in league history, putting Brown above the likes of Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Julio Jones, Jerry Rice, and plenty of other notable stars. And that number could have been even more impressive had the Titans leaned on Brown from the jump. He played less than 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps over the first four weeks of the season, and didn’t crack the 70 percent barrier until Week 10.

Brown averages an absurd 20.2 yards per catch, and his advanced metrics are arguably even more impressive. Brown has the ninth-best receiver grade from Pro Football Focus, is 11th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (total value), and is fifth in DVOA (value per play). He’s also a favorite in PFF’s yards per route run statistic, a metric that usually lines up with the eye test (Julio Jones is the perennial leader). Brown’s 2.67 receiving yards per route ranks third at the position behind only Michael Thomas and Stefon Diggs. And since Week 7, when Ryan Tannehill took over under center for Tennessee, Brown has averaged an astronomical 2.98 yards per route run—tops in the league over that stretch. Brown won offensive rookie of the month honors for December, and has a shot at the offensive rookie of the year award as well.

With Tannehill in the lineup, Tennessee has fielded one of the best offenses in the league. The unit ranks sixth in DVOA and third in weighted DVOA, which places a higher emphasis on recent performances. Though a good part of that is due to NFL rushing-leader Derrick Henry and the team’s success on the ground, the Titans also have the sixth-best passing offense by DVOA—and the Brown-Tannehill connection has been a huge part of that. Whereas Brown averaged 45.5 yards per game on 3.8 targets in games Marcus Mariota started, he jumped to 77.8 per game on 6.1 targets with Tannehill.

What has allowed Brown to make such a massive impact so early in his career? First, his frame. The budding star is stocky, packing 226 pounds onto a 6-foot-1 body. (Again, his shoulder pads accentuate this—call him a reverse Michael Bennett.) He has also been among the league’s best at creating yards after the catch. His twitchiness over the middle of the field makes him a handful to tackle:

Brown has 465 yards after the catch this season, tied for fifth most in the NFL. He averages 8.9 yards after the catch per reception, which is first in the league among wideouts with at least 40 targets. And while his speed didn’t raise many eyebrows in college or at the NFL combine (he ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash), Brown is still capable of looking like the fastest player on the field:

Brown is terrific with the ball in his hands; he’s demonstrated a running back’s knack for sliding away from defenders and picking up every inch of grass available to him. The Titans have even started giving him the ball in the backfield and letting him cook:

Tennessee is determined to feed the ball to Brown—so much so that on Thursday, head coach Mike Vrabel said the Titans have considered using the rookie as a punt and kick returner, something he has yet to do this season.

Eight months ago, no one saw this coming. Brown fell to 51st in last April’s NFL draft (as wideouts Marquise Brown, N’Keal Harry, and Deebo Samuel all went before him), in part because of a perception that he would mostly be a slot receiver in the pros. That’s what he played in college at Ole Miss, and it wasn’t clear whether Brown had the speed to take the top off a defense or the size to bully opposing defenders if he moved to the outside.

Brown is now doing both of those things in Tennessee—in fact, he’s being used almost exactly the opposite of how he was in college. Brown has played just 10.4 percent of his snaps in the slot this season, per Pro Football Focus, the seventh-lowest mark for any receiver. As Tennessee’s go-to outside wideout, Brown has frequently gotten behind coverages, demonstrating the skill set that some doubted he’d have in the pros:

The Titans’ rookie has also shown a promising ability to work through coverage and make himself available to his quarterback. He’s excellent at tracking balls through the air, helping Tannehill by hauling in some impressive “right in the bread basket” catches. One play in particular stands out: In the fourth quarter of Week 17’s Titans-Texans game, Brown came up with a huge 47-yard catch. He had to split double coverage to do it, and get himself in perfect position:

Brown will have his work cut out for him in Tennessee’s wild-card matchup with the Patriots on Saturday. He’ll draw consistent coverage from Stephon Gilmore, who is the fifth-highest rated corner by PFF and could be the league’s defensive player of the year. When being targeted in coverage this season, Gilmore has allowed just one touchdown and taken in six interceptions. He leads the league with 20 passes defended, and his allowed passer rating of 47.4 ranks fourth best among corners with at least 326 coverage snaps.

The Patriots have the league’s best defense, both overall and against the pass, by DVOA. The Titans will need a star receiver to challenge that unit, and Brown appears up to the task.