If you're a listener of the Fantasy Football Today podcast — and you should be — you know the running joke that I spend roughly half my time on the show talking about A.J. Brown. And while my colleagues and buddies Heath Cummings ( and show) and Chris Towers (on Twitter) seem convinced Brown can't get enough targets in the Titans' boring offense to make good on his ADP, I can't stop defending him as a good Fantasy football pick in the third or fourth round.
It's well past time for me to break down why I feel that way in a longer post. Brown — like many other young players I'll frequently discuss including D.J. Moore and Jonathan Taylor — came into the league with a sterling prospect profile featuring strong age-adjusted production and good draft capital as a second-round pick. I'll always value more information over less, and Brown's big rookie season adds to his impressive track record when you consider what he did before he entered the NFL.
But Brown most frequently comes up in our FFT discussions around regression, and it's true that any way you slice it — yards per route run, YAC, RACR, YPT, Fantasy points over expectation, et al — Brown's efficiency was otherworldly as a rookie, and it will be very difficult for him to repeat. Add in Tennessee's run-first tendencies, and Brown's upside looks capped.
To make the case for Brown, we need to understand not just that he'll regress, but how steep that regression could be. We'll also need him to see far more than the 84 targets he earned as a rookie.
Let's start with Brown the player and then discuss the volume constraints he'll face this season.
How good is A.J. Brown, really?
The specifics of what Brown has done leading into 2020 matter. Brown's college days overlapped with fellow 2019 rookie standout DK Metcalf at Ole Miss, but this was not exactly a dynamic duo, two dominant forces on par with one another. Yes, Metcalf dealt with some injuries in college. But Brown and Metcalf played 20 games together in college; Brown had more receptions in 17 of them, and more yards in 15.
For as good as Metcalf was as a rookie in the NFL — and he was very good, so this is not to disparage him — he was the clear No. 2 to Brown in college. In their time together, Brown had at least 100 more yards than Metcalf in the same number of games (5) as games in which Metcalf outgained Brown by any amount. Overall, Brown caught more than twice as many passes in their 20 combined games (129 to 64) and had 78% more yards (1,965 to 1,103). That's a huge disparity.
Then last year, Brown showed he can be a similarly dominant No. 1 at the next level. After playing snap shares in the forties in each of four September games, Brown jumped to around 60% per game from Week 5 through Week 9. Being brought along slowly is fairly common for a rookie, especially one who only turned 22 two months before the season started.
Brown was still productive as a part-time player, but he really took off after he first crested a 70% snap share in Week 10. In the final seven games, he earned a solid No. 1 role with 25% of the team's targets and 38% of their air yards; his 622 receiving yards in that stretch dwarfed Corey Davis' 227, the next highest figure on the team. Brown had more receiving yardage during that span than the next three Titans combined.
Of course, Tennessee went on to play three playoff games, and it's not to be omitted Brown was largely invisible in those games. We'll get into that, but even including the playoffs, Brown was a dominant No. 1 after establishing himself as an every-down player.
Brown's ability to earn a huge share of his team's receiving production is not the chief concern for his 2020 production: It's team volume. The Titans threw the second-fewest passes in the NFL in each of the past two seasons, Mike Vrabel's first two as head coach.
But we have to understand why that happened so we can project what might happen in 2020.
Tennessee's 437 and 448 pass attempts over the past two seasons are two of only four seasons of fewer than 450 for any team since 2014, after updated enforcement of illegal contact and defensive holding helped usher in a new era of increased passing efficiency. The league average for pass attempts last year was 558, and since that 2014 offseason an average of five teams per year have thrown fewer than 500 passes. So, sub-500 is a low number; sub-450 is basement-level.
The key here is this: Tennessee's extreme low volume in 2019 was driven in large part by their own efficiency. Brown's personal regression and the Titans' impending offensive regression are inextricably linked; from Week 10 on, when Brown was a full-time player, Tennessee paced for fewer than 400 pass attempts, a number no team has been below since 2005. As the clear No. 1 pass-catcher in terms of volume and production, Brown's 14.5 yards per target during that stretch is a big part of how that type of extreme low volume occurred.
The other big part was of course Derrick Henry, who rushed for 6.5 yards per carry on 23 carries per game in that stretch. Hayden Winks broke down 2019 run/pass splits this week at Rotoworld and found that no team had a lower pass rate in situations where their win percentage was greater than 75% than Tennessee, and the Titans' commitment to running with leads was stark. Their 31% pass rate in those situations made them one of just two teams below 39% (Minnesota was the other).
While the Titans are run-heavy in all situations, how heavily they lean on Henry with a lead also meant they had the seventh-largest disparity between their pass rate while leading and trailing. From Weeks 1-9, Tennessee was pacing for 492 pass attempts; their volume only dipped from Week 10 on, when they went 5-2, averaged 7.3 yards per play (no offense since the merger has hit 7.0 for a full season), and converted 38% of drives into touchdowns (bested only by the 2018 Chiefs and 2007 Patriots since 2000).
The Titans will be run-heavy again in 2020, but teams can't just choose to throw fewer than 450 times. Game situations dictate a high percentage of run/pass splits, and it took a confluence of factors that look very unlikely to repeat. The only team to throw fewer passes in 2018 than the Titans was the Seahawks, and they jumped from 427 passes that year to 517 in 2019, in part because they fell from 11th in points allowed to 22nd. Keep in mind Seattle was still a run-leaning team, and the narrative this offseason has still been whether it will throw more.
Tennessee heads into 2020 without star tackle Jack Conklin, who left via free agency, and with the prospect of Henry coming off more than 400 touches through the playoffs last year. Brown's own efficiency plus their rushing efficiency should dip, and both of those results mean more passes as their drives take more plays overall and their scripts shift toward fewer obvious run situations late in games. Of course, if Henry were to miss any time, we can expect Tennessee not to run at such an absurd rate overall or especially in winning situations, where their run/pass rate was the largest outlier.
Projecting Brown's volume
In that stretch from Week 10 on, when Brown was a full-time player, his 16-game pace was still only 98 targets. And in three playoff games, Brown saw just 10 targets.
As for the playoff games, the Titans were more run-heavy than ever in their two wins, throwing just 16 and 15 passes in those two games. For reference, even the ultra-low 450 attempt mark for a full season equates to 28.1 per game. Tennessee then threw 32 times in its playoff loss to Kansas City, and Brown did see six targets in that game.
If we take Brown's 25% target share at the end of the regular season and give the Titans 450 attempts, we'd be looking at more than 110 targets. This is a significant number for me, because I've seen suggestions Brown will struggle to reach 120 targets this year after his 84 last year. The way I think of his range of volume outcomes is I feel much more confident about his floor being around this 110 mark, and it's his ceiling that feels less certain. For Brown to fail to hit 110 targets, the Titans would have to be meaningfully below 450 attempts or his target share from late last season would have to fall from the 25% mark it was at, even after his breakout and as he enters Year 2 as the unquestioned top option in his passing game.
Brown's 25% share from Week 10 on was not a particularly gaudy figure for a No. 1 option, and thus reasonably sustainable. It also came at an aDOT of 15.4 yards, an extremely high figure; the league average for wide receivers is around 11.
There are two important points related to Brown's aDOT:
- Because the depth of a throw impacts per-target efficiency stats like YPT, Brown's efficiency was somewhat tied into this depth (it doesn't explain all of his very high efficiency, but does explain some).
- It's more difficult for downfield weapons to rack up high target shares, and if the Titans prioritize Brown's after-the-catch ability with more bubble screens or short passes near the line of scrimmage, that's an easy way to envision his 25% share rising (and it would also naturally regress his per-target efficiency).
My favorite stat about Brown's 2019 is also tied into his aDOT, and it's that he was third among wide receivers in yards after the catch (YAC) from Week 10 on despite the fact that YAC tends to be tied to the depth of the throw, with passes thrown closer to the line of scrimmage leading to more yards after the catch. Brown racked up 302 YAC in that stretch; all seven receivers within 100 YAC of his total had an aDOT shallower than league average; none was anywhere close to his 15.4 figure.
The bet on talent
Because of a track record that extends back to Ole Miss and a ridiculous rookie season, I'm already comfortable placing Brown among the league's elite at the wide receiver position. I understand that sounds like exuberance — it should, there's a lot of it in the Fantasy space and skepticism is always warranted — but there's a huge advantage to identifying this early, both for re-draft leagues and especially for Dynasty. Brown's price is high in both, but there's room for him to out-perform the cost if he really is that good.
And I feel confident he is that good. Brown not only dominates targets, he wins in so many ways — on intermediate passes and down the field, as well as after the catch with both speed and power — that even though we can assume he won't be as efficient as he was as a rookie, he still has the kind of skill set that should make him stand out in any context.
The questions about volume should linger, and that's fair. Brown will almost certainly have low-target games when Tennessee is able to control things and throw fewer than 25 times. That should happen less often in 2020, but it will still happen.
But whether Brown's volume rise offsets his impending per-target and per-route regression isn't necessarily the way to look at things. There are multiple paths here. If you buy that 450 pass attempts is a lot closer to Tennessee's floor than their ceiling — and you should — you can start to see substantial target upside even in a run-first offense. The Titans didn't make major additions to their passing game this offseason, and Brown's ability to dominate his team's targets could be in the Davante Adams or Michael Thomas realm. Last year, there were just two players with a target share over 30% — Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins, while Adams was at 29%. If the Titans were to throw just 500 times, a 30% share would mean 150 targets.
That's a lofty goal, and it would undoubtedly mean a drop in Brown's aDOT and a more well-rounded receiving profile. But if he doesn't come close to that volume — say he's in the 120-target range — that might be a scenario where he could be a low-end WR1 with a YPT around 10, much like both Kenny Golladay and Amari Cooper were last year on fewer than 120 targets.
Brown won't match his 12.5 YPT from 2019 — that was the third highest figure among all 80-target players since targets were first tracked since 1992 — but with his downfield profile plus YAC ability, his regression may not be as steep as many projections will indicate. And while high efficiency is difficult to project, Chris Godwin is another receiver who finished even higher than Golladay and Cooper on right around 120 targets (Godwin played just 14 games), due to 11.0 YPT that's almost as much of a lock to regress as Brown's given his much lower aDOT.
Godwin goes much higher than Brown, and rightfully so given his offense, but he's another example of WR1 production at lower volume. In other words, trying to project Brown's final line isn't really the point, because Tennessee's 2020 almost certainly can't mirror its 2019. I only briefly mentioned a potential Derrick Henry injury, and while we'll never wish for that type of outcome, that's yet another scenario that could flip much of the analysis about Tennessee's offense on its head.
The point instead is there is upside beyond what is readily obvious, and the baseline projections will all be close to Brown's floor. It's not just guys like Cooper, Golladay or Godwin, and these are not just one-off examples — nearly any great receiver with a similar receiving profile to Brown has multiple seasons of high efficiency early in their career, though it's premature to compare Brown to Julio Jones, Terrell Owens or Torry Holt.
I still think the most likely outcome for Brown in 2020 is he doesn't quite get enough targets and the regression is steep enough that he doesn't make good on his ADP when we view his end-of-season line. But that's less risky in 2020 because regression is a more widely understood concept, so betting on a player like Brown to maintain some degree of his otherworldly production doesn't cost as much in Fantasy football drafts as it might have years ago.
More importantly, it's hard to see many scenarios where he craters your season — his floor feels very secure — and there are paths that aren't altogether ludicrous where Brown can have far more positive of an impact on your Fantasy season that what his downside looks like. That's the type of asymmetrical bet I try to make whenever possible in drafts, and while there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Brown in terms of both regression and volume, he's one of my favorite picks to make so far in 2020.