Week 17 Fantasy Football Booms and Busts: A.J. Brown breaks the rules

Drafting is hard.

I’m not just talking about our fake football thing, I’m talking about the real thing, the NFL draft. Talent evaluation is hard. Even the smartest men in the NFL are generally mediocre at the college draft table

Take A.J. Brown, for example. He’s exploded onto the scene in the last few weeks, jumping to the head of a loaded rookie receiver class. He was a key league-winning fantasy piece over the second half of the year. Along with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, he completes a fun set of Tennessee triplets. No one wants to face these junkyard dogs in the playoffs. 

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And yet, Brown was merely the 51st pick in 2019’s draft — not a throwaway pick, of course, but not an expensive one. Marquise Brown, N’Keal Harry, and Deebo Samuel were the receivers selected ahead of Tennessee’s Brown, and while all three of them had moments in 2019 — Deebo ripped a gorgeous touchdown run as I started this piece — we’d have to assume AJB would be the top 2019 wideout on board if the league redrafted tomorrow. 

I’m a lifetime packrat and historian, someone who loves to look back at past perception, for fun and for illumination. I’ve saved all sorts of annuals, draft guides, preview issues; Zander Hollander felt like an old friend. I spend time in the Sports Illustrated vault just about every day. The Sports Reference sites are my plasma. I rewatch documentaries like a CSI detective.

With all this in mind, I wondered what Brown critiques were before the year. What kept him out of the first round? What was not to like here?

It's not a reach to say A.J. Brown is already a bona fide NFL star. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
It's not a reach to say A.J. Brown is already a bona fide NFL star. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Here are the eight knocks from Brown’s draft profile at NFL.com. To be fair, there were also a ton of pros, things I won’t list; if you want the full context, go to the link. I’m interested in what held Brown back in April. 

  • Swagger level against LSU and Alabama appeared lower than usual

Good thing LSU and Alabama weren’t on Tennessee’s schedule, I guess. The Brown I saw the last few weeks showed plenty of swagger. Maybe he’s worked on it.

  • Struggled to uncover against LSU mega-athlete Donte Jackson in 2017

I’ll take their word for it. 

  • Faced limited press looks from slot

You can overcome this with coaching and experience, right? I’d like to think so. 

  • Appears more quick than fast

This is the one I have fun with. (“Hey, let’s draft Brown! Wait a second, what if he’s more quick than fast?”) 

  • Drops appear when focus declines

Most receivers are wired like this, right? You focus more on the degree-of-difficulty plays, and sometimes let up on the routine. This is the last thing I’d worry about. 

Needs to prove he can work downfield against NFL speed

Is there any rookie player we can’t say this about? 

  • Needs to make better adjustments to poorly thrown balls

I think Brown is getting the hang of this. 

  • Can get too slick at top of his route when trying to separate against athletes

I’m not even sure what this means, but I’m sure it means something. 

Full transparency, I’m having fun here. I’m like most of you, a lifetime football observer and a reasonably-intelligent fan. I am not a trained scout. I am not an NFL coach or general manager. I haven’t coached football on any level, either. I’ve just been around it for a long time, with my eyes wide open. 

And to be fair, the Brown pre-draft capsule still listed him as a first or second-round pick. The net of the analysis: he could be really good.

Brown’s elite skills were on display in Sunday’s romp over Houston — a right-sideline gallop that reminded me of rookie year Randy Moss, and a contested-catch on the left sideline that blows your mind. Even when Brown isn’t open, he’s open. He beat two defenders and a tight space on that latter play, the best catch I saw in Week 17. 

For the day, Brown posted four catches, 124 yards and that touchdown. A good DFS punch, for sure. The No. 3 wideout as this B&B goes to press.

No one is dug in yet on 2020 rankings, but they’re fun to think about. Brown strikes me as a third-round pick at the moment, and if someone wanted to consider him at the end of the second, I could live with it. I assume Tennessee will at least franchise Tannehill, and that’s a good match for Brown. The rook has shown the ability to win even as a team’s No. 1 downfield target. His combination of build, speed, and power is remarkably uncommon. And whatever he lacked coming into the league, I think he’s picking most of that stuff up. 

Again, drafting is hard. Some scouts thought Ryan Leaf was the right pick before Peyton Manning. Doug Baldwin went undrafted. Jacksonville selected a punter with Russell Wilson still on the board. The Ravens liked Lamar Jackson, sure, but they drafted an old tight end — Hayden Hurst — a few picks before Jackson. Heck, Hurst wasn’t even the best tight end Baltimore took in that same 2018 draft. 

Any good quarterbacks go after Mitch Trubisky? 

Maybe the Steelers have this receiver draft thing knocked — their track record is amazing. For just about everyone else, the draft is difficult, near impossible. I wish I saw this Brown thing coming before the year, but I’m content that I added him just in time for some of my teams this year. That’s the key with this fantasy thing, you don’t really have to be right all that often. You just have to be a little more right than the guy next to you.

Quick Hits

• Success in many seasonal leagues comes down to figuring out the new season, or the new reality, first. Maybe you were the guy who punted quickest on Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. Maybe you accepted Ryan Fitzpatrick or DeVante Parker at the right time. I go into every season with all sorts of ranks, targets, fades, and opinions. But I write those in pencil, and I try to be open minded to the changes in the sea level. Every season is weird, and every season is weird in its own way.

• Parker didn’t just blossom into a star, he proved his juice by taking down a number of star corners. I thought Stephon Gilmore was the Defensive Player of the Year favorite into Week 17; Parker might have swung that vote, dominating Gilmore on several snaps.

• I haven’t harshly criticized Tom Brady because the 2019 Patriots offense is a losing hand. No deep threat; Julian Edelman’s been significantly hurt for weeks; a banged-up, disappointing offensive line; Sony Michel can’t make anyone miss. A division title with little playoff upside, that feels about right. James White is a fantastic support player, but he can’t be your best skill guy.

But Brady’s days of driving an offense are long over. He’s never needed help this badly, and I don’t see where it’s going to come from. He’s still good at avoiding negative plays, but Brady has no mobility at a time where the league is demanding it from its quarterbacks. There’s no one who can drag this offense.

• Russell Wilson doesn’t have a single MVP vote in his career, and he might not get one this year, either. Like most reasonable people, I’m fine with Lamar Jackson winning. He’s the right pick. But I think Wilson was probably better than Cam Newton in 2015, even as I get why Newton won the award, and I think Wilson has been an eyelash underrated most of his career.

But heck, MVPs aren’t everything. Drew Brees is going to retire without one (though I’ll always maintain he was robbed in 2009).

• It was fun betting against Freddie Kitchens while we still could. We’re not in the locker room or the meeting room; we’re not on the team plane. But Kitchens’s public actions gave it away, just how overmatched he was for this job.

• Beckham is going to be priced to move next year, but unless it’s a giveaway, I’ll just sit it out. As dysfunctional as the Browns were, Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry kept scoring consistently. At some point, we have to accept Beckham is the common denominator in everything that happens to Beckham.

• I am not dismissing Sam Darnold out of hand, but I would bet on him instantly if Adam Gase were out of the picture. The Jets would love to dump Le’Veon Bell, but the contract stinks and that’s a big number to eat. 

• Not that beating the post-Rivera Panthers means much, but it was probably good for the Saints to put up 42 points on a day where Michael Thomas was contained. As much as I love the 49ers, I’m not sure they’re better than New Orleans.

• Somehow Christian McCaffrey had four months of wins while everything around him crumbled. He’s the no-brainer No. 1 pick next year, then paths get splintered. 

• I don’t think Curtis Samuel is a bad player, and a return to quality quarterbacking will help, but it’s hard to believe Samuel vs. DJ Moore was once a discussion held by rational people. 

• Where do you start in fixing the Chargers? The city doesn’t want them, and the old, immobile quarterback doesn’t want the city. If Austin Ekeler has the clear path to the featured job next year, he could be a first-rounder. 

• The Bucs never unlocked O.J. Howard, but Breshad Perriman’s late emergence was fun to watch. The draft pedigree makes sense. The talent flashed. As for Jameis Winston, he puts the fun in dysfunctional, but he’s just good enough to lose with. Tampa is probably forced to keep him, but can you ever see them going deep with him? 

• Tyler Higbee and Kaden Smith had something for us, they just needed a chance to play. Higbee is probably a star going forward, while Smith is more of a speciality player, but I’ll try to draft some of each next year. 

• While the wideout injuries crippled the Eagles offense all year, the injuries actually helped the backfield — it forced the team to play its best guys. Carson Wentz has become a polarizing player; I’m in his corner. But this team definitely needs a new field stretcher, assuming DeSean Jackson’s relevance is done. 

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