With a new NFL season right around the corner, all 32 teams are looking to start the year on the right foot. And while no individual player or front office member can completely shape an NFL team, duos are becoming increasingly important. From the college stars being reunited in the pros to the tense QB-GM dynamic in New York, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today, it’s Julio Jones and A.J. Brown, perhaps the best on-paper wide receiver tandem in the league.
When Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown got to the NFL in 2019, he chose no. 11 as his jersey number. The choice was to honor his idol, Falcons receiver Julio Jones. Just four weeks into Brown’s rookie season, Brown’s Titans visited Jones’s Falcons in Atlanta. The Titans won 24-10. After the game, Julio took off his uniform, wrote a message on it in Sharpie, and the two swapped jerseys. “keep ballin,” Jones wrote across his no. 11. “Much luv.”
Less than two years later, Tennessee traded a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder for Jones (plus a sixth-rounder), officially pairing Brown with his receiving idol and creating perhaps the most talented receiving tandem in the league. “When I found out, I didn’t really believe it,” Brown told NFL Network at the time. “I was like, ‘This has got to be a joke.’”
Brown was set to be Tennessee’s clear no. 1 wide receiver. Now that they’ve added another player famous for wearing no. 11, the Titans have two no. 1–caliber receivers. Jones’s arrival makes the Titans’ passing attack more dangerous—on paper, at least—but it also raises a handful of questions: How is Tennessee, which has had one of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL in recent years, going to change with Jones opposite Brown and a new offensive coordinator on the sideline? How much does Julio Jones have left at 32 years old and after missing seven games due to injury last year? And what is the fantasy football value of Jones and Brown now that Brown is playing with his football idol?
Julio Jones is a receiver worthy of being idolized. He is the prototype for size and speed at the position, but also has the technical proficiency and work ethic for young players to study if they want to go pro.
“[Julio] doesn’t have any flaws to his game,” Brown told ESPN in June. “For me, in college, he was teaching me everything and didn’t even know it.”
Jones has averaged more than 95 receiving yards per game in his career. That’s the most in NFL history. (He’s about 10 yards per game ahead of second-place Calvin Johnson.) Jones has 12,896 receiving yards through 10 seasons, second only to Jerry Rice. He has more 100-yard receiving games since entering the NFL (58) than the Tennessee Titans do as a team in that span (50). By almost any statistical measurement, Jones is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. But Jones cannot be captured just in statistics.
In Atlanta, Falcons beat reporter Vaughn McClure wrote last year that Jones was “the ultimate guy the players look to in the locker room.” In college, Jones’s mental and physical toughness changed the culture at Alabama. “Most of the time receivers, they want the ball,” Nick Saban told the Falcons website in 2018. “And if they’re not getting the ball, they’re over there pouting some place. He changed all of that.” A few years ago, Jones recalled an Alabama practice when Saban’s staff had the receivers max out their legs while weight lifting and then had them run in the midday Alabama heat. If any player showed signs of tiredness like putting their hands on their hips or bending over, nobody got credit for the rep. “I had to hold up people,” Jones said. “‘Don’t lean over, just lean on me.’”
More than a decade later, the Titans need to figure out how much they can lean on Jones. He missed seven games last year with hamstring injuries. In the six seasons before that, he had played in 92 of a possible 96 regular-season games, but he was routinely gritting out foot and ankle injuries to stay on the field. Jones has barely practiced for Tennessee during training camp with an undisclosed leg issue, and head coach Mike Vrabel told a reporter that Jones may not even practice this week.
When Jones is healthy, there’s plenty of evidence he’s still elite. His maximum speed doesn’t appear to be significantly declining. Last year, Jones ranked second among all receivers in value per pass, according to Football Outsiders. But now Jones is playing with another receiver he’ll be able to lean on.
A couple of years ago, A.J. Brown was the other guy in the shirtless DK Metcalf photo. Now he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL. In his first two seasons, Brown has 2,126 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns—the fifth-most receiving touchdowns in the NFL in the past two years, with only Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, and Adam Thielen ahead of him. The Titans haven’t passed enough for Brown to have gaudy yardage totals, but his performance on a per-play basis is elite. Since entering the NFL, he is tied for the fourth-highest PFF receiving grade (91.0), tied for fourth in yards per catch (17.4), second in yards after the catch per reception (7.3), and tied for second in yards per route run (2.7) among all wide receivers. Quarterbacks have the highest passer rating when targeting him (130.1). Last season, Brown had 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. That stat line becomes a lot more impressive considering what Brown went through last season. In January, Brown went on Instagram Live immediately after surgery on both knees—and clearly still a little loopy from the surgery—poured his heart out in between talking to the nurse about how cold his Coca-Cola was and watching Pardon the Interruption on ESPN.
“Nobody knew,” Brown said. “They told me I was done for the year in like Week 2. I played all year. I ended up making the Pro Bowl. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it. I did it.”
Entering 2021, Brown was considered a serious candidate to lead the NFL in every receiving category before the Jones trade. Wide receivers Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, and Kalif Raymond and tight end Jonnu Smith all left Tennessee in free agency, leaving 207 targets from 2020 unaccounted for in 2021. It was assumed Brown would vacuum much of those, but the Jones trade changes the equation in Tennessee.
When Jones and Brown are on the field together, the most striking part might be their size. Julio is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with 33-inch arms, which is in the 93rd percentile among receivers. Brown is also, uh, not small.
2018 Ole Miss had DK Metcalf & AJ Brown.— Kyle Brandt (@KyleBrandt) November 13, 2020
And lost 62-7 to Tua & Alabama.
What the hell man. pic.twitter.com/LZAp8PwCV0
At 226 pounds, Brown is about 35 pounds heavier than Calvin Ridley, Jones’s old running mate in Atlanta. But despite the weight difference, Brown is almost as fast as Ridley. Brown’s speed score—which adjusts a player’s speed based on their weight—is in the 90th percentile among wide receivers. Jones’s speed score is in the 98th percentile. These guys are big and fast.
“I may get CB1 or Julio may get CB1,” Brown told ESPN in June. “But whoever gets CB2, [that cornerback] is going to be in trouble.”
Right now all of this is hypothetical. Jones has missed most of training camp and Brown missed OTAs and minicamp while rehabbing, so the two have barely been on the field together. That makes it even harder to project what this offense will look like with Jones in the fold. But we know that Jones is swapping the volume of the Falcons passing offense for Tennessee’s efficiency. Jones saw a lot of targets in Atlanta—he has the third-most targets through the past four seasons. Those targets were largely because Atlanta threw a lot. In each of the past three seasons, the Falcons ranked in the top five for passing attempts. The Titans ranked in the bottom five. There is little doubt Jones will see fewer passes in Tennessee, as the Titans offense isn’t expected to be drastically different even under new leadership. Jones could have his lowest per-game totals for targets, catches, and yards since 2012. But he could also challenge his career high for touchdowns.
In the past two years, the Titans have tied for the most offensive touchdowns in football, while the Falcons tied for 19th. Jones has bizarrely struggled to score in the red zone in his career. In the past seven years, his average season is essentially 1,450 receiving yards, but just six touchdowns. That much yardage with that few scores doesn’t seem to make sense, especially considering Jones’s size, speed, and skill. Yet Jones simply hasn’t scored. He hasn’t had double-digit touchdowns since 2012. In 2017, Jones became the first receiver in NFL history with more than 1,400 yards but fewer than four touchdowns (the median figure for receivers with more than 1,400 yards in a season is 10 touchdowns). In 2016, Jones once had 300 yards in one game but scored only once, which feels impossible. Last year, Jones played in nine games but had just one target while the Falcons were inside the 10-yard line. Tennessee might use Jones more effectively in the part of the field that matters most. (Brown, for example, had eight targets inside the 10-yard line for the Titans last year.) Jones could be in for the biggest scoring season of his career—but that’s assuming Tennessee’s scoring doesn’t drop this season.
Tennessee has been the best red zone team in football through the past two years. In fact, they are the first team in modern NFL history to convert more than 70 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. The odds of maintaining that figure were slim, even with their old coordinator Arthur Smith, who took the Falcons head-coaching job. Without him, new coordinator Todd Downing has nowhere to go but, well, down.
There’s also the fact that the Titans are a strange team for two elite receivers to collide. The team’s offense changed after Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback for Marcus Mariota midway through the 2019 season, and has since been near the top of every offensive efficiency leaderboard. Tannehill’s second-act resurgence has been one of the most amazing NFL stories of the past two seasons (better late than never!). But the Titans’ identity is still based on its Derrick Henry–led rushing attack. Henry has led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns each of the past two seasons. The Titans ran the ball more than every team except Baltimore last season (33 times per game). They were the third-most run-heavy team in pass-to-rush ratio. On early downs in neutral situations—which removes third downs and big leads that alter a team’s play-calling—the Titans were the most run-heavy offense in the NFL last year, running the ball 58 percent of the time according to The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia. This is King Henry’s offense.
Jones’s arrival would suggest Tannehill and the Titans will likely pass at least a little more—there’s certainly more a team can do with Jones than Corey Davis, the Titans’ no. 2 receiver last year. We can look at Davis’s 2020 season of 984 receiving yards and five touchdowns as the likely floor for Jones’s season, provided he remains healthy. His ceiling is a Titans team that passes more than in previous years, launching him well over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns for the first time in nine years.
So where would that put each player in fantasy? Jones is currently being drafted as the 15th wide receiver and 41st overall player in half-PPR format, per FantasyPros. We here at The Ringer have almost the exact same ranking, with Jones as our 16th-best receiver and 36th overall player. Jones’s name value and status as one of the best receivers in the past decade might push him even higher, but he has more risk than the players around him. His injury issues are nagging. Jones has had multiple foot and ankle issues in his career that he’s played through, plus his hamstring issues. His new role is ambiguous, and so is the injury that’s keeping him out of practice. Because of name value, Jones might be being drafted closer to his ceiling than his floor. Age, health, and past red zone troubles are all concerns. At this point, Jones is probably a better player in real life than in fantasy football.
Still, Brown is the sexier player in drafts this year. The Ringer has Brown ranked as the 21st overall player and the seventh wide receiver, one spot behind his former college teammate Metcalf and two spots behind Ridley, who steps into the vacuum Jones left in Atlanta. Ridley was the biggest winner from this trade from a fantasy perspective, as he now has a clear path to target domination in Atlanta with Jones gone and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts learning the ropes. But Brown has a chance to be nearly as strong in fantasy this year. If he grinded out almost 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns on potentially season-ending knee injuries, it’s daunting to imagine what he can do at full health. In Brown’s career, he has just 10 games with eight or more targets. He had at least 100 yards and had a touchdown in more than half of them. If Tennessee passes more this season—whether because of a game plan built around its two elite receivers or a different offensive coordinator—Brown could be a top-three receiver in fantasy. But Jones’s arrival makes that a lot less likely.
When Jones was traded to Tennessee, Brown offered the no. 11 jersey to Jones. Jones declined. Instead, Jones will wear no. 2 (i.e., 1+1). After years of Julio being a no. 1 receiver in fantasy, him being no. 2 now sounds about right.