Every NFL season there are a number of players that gain massive hype and shoot up draft boards, only to disappoint because their expectations were too damn high. Conversely, there’s a similar group of players who get pushed down in the draft and consequently become post-hyper sleepers and late round steals. My goal of this series is to look past the popular sentiment, share some statistics, and offer a contrarian opinion for you to consider before drafting a player too early or writing someone off too soon come Draft Day.
#1 – A.J. Brown – WR, Tennessee Titans
It’s no secret that A.J. Brown is a Beast. Watch any highlight of his, and you can tell he’s got special play making ability after the catch, thanks to his 6-foot, 226 pound frame and breakaway speed. BUT, the hype has gotten a bit out of control. I’ve heard he’s being touted as a Top 10 dynasty WR after a single season, I’ve heard him being drafted as the third WR off the board in best-ball, and I’ve heard full-time analysts talk about his stock settling around the late 4th / early 5th round. I’m a Titans fan, and even I know this train needs to slow down before it derails at the 2020 Week 1 regular season station. Let’s dive in to why you should NOT draft A.J. Brown too early.
A.J. Brown finished as the #15 WR in Half-PPR scoring in 2019 with 191.1 fantasy points. He finished 3.1 points behind Tyler Lockett and just 1.8 points ahead of D.J. Chark. Let’s take a look at each of their receiving stats below.
In a Half PPR league, Brown is behind by 20-30 catches and still hangs among the ranks of Russell Wilson’s #1 target and a bona fide early-season breakout… what gives? Well, what this graphic doesn’t show you is the 49 yard rushing touchdown that saved Brown’s day statistically against the Saints in Week 16. Without this play, he ends Week 16 with one catch on two targets for 34 yards; essentially locked up by Pro Bowl Cornerback Marshon Lattimore. If we watch the play itself, an arguably missed holding call and a badly missed tackled were large enablers to Brown going the distance. Without this 49-yard rushing touchdown, Brown finishes with 180.2 points on the year, which puts him down at WR22. Sure, if we take away rushing stats from guys like Robert Woods and Stefon Diggs, they’re likely to drop a few spots as well. But this still puts Brown at around WR20 in Half-PPR, which seems to be a more reasonable ranking given his boom-bust nature throughout the year.
Speaking of being boom-bust, A.J. Brown scored 48.7% of his fantasy points on his nine scoring plays in 2019.
It comes with the territory of fantasy football that scoring plays will almost always be worth more points than any other play in football, thus the more touchdowns a player scores in a season, the higher percentage contribution those plays will have to their fantasy total at the end of the season. For context, Kenny Golladay finished the season as the #6 WR in Half-PPR with 65 receptions, 1,190 yards, and 11 TDs, with 55% of his fantasy points coming from his 11 scoring plays of the season. But conversely, Mike Evans finished the season as the #12 WR (in three fewer games, mind you) with 67 receptions, 1,157 yards, and 8 TDs, with only 35.5% of his points coming on scoring plays.
The argument here is that touchdowns are widely regarded to be less predicable than yards, and big-play TDs can be just as much a result of the defense breaking down as it is the talent of the man with the ball in their hands. I have yet to do deep research on whether there’s a correlation between percentage of fantasy points scored on non-scoring plays and overall fantasy success, but if I’m looking for a WR option who’s not reliant on one-sixth of their touches to make or break their season, then Brown is not on my watchlist.
A.J. Brown had six ‘bad’ games, five ‘good’ games, and five ‘great’ games across the season,. Four of his five great games came against bottom half passing defenses.
I mentioned a big play can be as much because of the offense being amazing as it is the defense being horrendous. When we hone in on the key plays/games that defined Brown’s season and make him a Rookie of the Year candidate, they were against the Falcons, the Raiders, the Jaguars, and the Texans twice. The Texans and Raiders were both weekly plus-matchups for receivers. The Titans played the Falcons in Week 4, when Dan Quinn’s defense was in shambles and we were talking about the Atlanta Head Coach losing his job. Last but not least, the game in which Brown burned the Jaguars was in Week 12, after All-Pro Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was traded to the Rams. When Brown faced the Jags in Week 3 (and Ramsey was still on the team), he only managed a single catch for four yards on five targets. I give Brown all the props in the world for taking advantage of the mismatches given to him, but at this point in his career, I’m not sure he’s dominated an elite corner playing at the top of their game yet. There is a level of uncertainty in performance one must consider with Brown’s boom-bust nature on full display in 2019.
Per Mike Tagliere, “A.J. Brown averaged 8.8 yards after the catch in 2019, which led the league.” Mike continues to say, “According to NFL’s NextGenStats, he should’ve averaged just 4.0 yards after the catch based on where he caught the ball and who was around him. That 4.9-yard difference was easily the most in the NFL, as no other receiver had a difference of more than 2.6 yards. Sadly, regression is in order.”
When he started for the Titans Weeks 7-17, Ryan Tannehill’s passing touchdown rate was 8.1%. For context, Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 TD% was 8.6% and Lamar Jackson’s 2019 TD% was 9%. If we look at the six-game stretch after the bye where Brown became more involved in the team’s offense and set this to a 16-game pace, Tannehill’s TD% would be 9.25%. Again, regression will be coming in a BIG way for the Titans’ pass offense, especially because…
The Titans ran the ball on 48.79% of their plays in 2019, the third highest rate in the NFL. This limits the number of targets Brown will see on a game to game basis. He’s at the mercy of a positive game script, and we have plenty of evidence that the Titan’s run-first mentality has the ability to remove Brown from the gameplan completely. People will look at Damien Williams’ post-season finish as an argument for why he’s still a top RB selection in 2020 fantasy drafts, but considerably less people will point out that Brown ended his three-game playoff run with 10 targets, four catches, and 64 yards, and how it should be a knock against his 2020 draft stock.
A.J. Brown’s 16-game pace from his last six games of the season is unreal. No literally, it’s unrealistic to expect anything like these numbers in 2020.
When you look at Brown’s game log, it’s clear the Titans made an effort to get him more involved Weeks 12-17, when the playoffs were on the line. If we take Brown’s receiving line during this stretch–again, this was the same stretch where Ryan Tannehill was throwing a TD on over 9% of his throws–and extrapolated the numbers over a 16-game span, his season-end numbers would look like this:
104 Targets, 67 receptions, 1,613 yards, 13 TDs – Simply put, that’s insane.
To put those yardage numbers in context, Michael Thomas led the league with 1,725 receiving yards in 2019, and he needed 78% MORE TARGETS (185) than Brown’s 16-game pace target numbers to achieve that milestone. In 2018, Julio Jones led the league with 1,677 yards on 170 targets. Even with opportunity for Brown’s target numbers to take an uptick via an increased role from Year One to Year Two, he has a snowball’s chance in Hell of reaching the same target numbers Thomas and Julio reach perennially, and it’s highly unlikely both Tannehill’s and Brown’s efficiency metrics maintain themselves through the 2020 season.
A.J. Brown looks like a special, talented player in highlight reels. He’s a home-run hitter that can offer massive upside to your lineup when everything is going right, but with the current state of the Titans offense and the volume required for Brown to improve upon his rookie numbers, I don’t like his chances of being worth the investment you spend on him in 2020. I would love to snag him in the 6th or 7th round when the core of my team is established, and take a shot on him as an X-Factor week-to-week and a potential league-winner.