Jeff McLane 🤷🏻♂️
You hear it often from NFL general managers at the conclusion of the draft: “We got better this week.” And yet, many teams don’t improve based upon their rookie class, or relative to the rest of the league. Sometimes it takes years before the draft pays dividends. But the Eagles may have the best case for making that claim after trading for A.J. Brown.
The former Titans wide receiver is a known commodity and a special one at that. He is arguably the best receiving threat the Eagles have had since Terrell Owens. The 6-foot-1, 223-pound Brown had three very good seasons in Tennessee, but probably didn’t get to scratch the surface playing in a run-based offense with a good, but not-great quarterback.
The Eagles had an obvious need for a receiver opposite DeVonta Smith. Brown should draw attention away from the second-year receiver and allow him to run the routes that accentuate his strengths. They also complement each other and when used effectively will force defenses into coverages that must account for both on either side of the formation. There really isn’t much Brown can’t do. He runs most routes well. He’s a yards-after-catch virtuoso. He can win balls in the air. And he’s clutch on third down and in the red zone.
So why did the Titans trade the not-even-25-year-old receiver? Well, it clearly had to do with money. Brown wanted to be paid among the top five receivers in the NFL. The Titans, who have large expenditures devoted to quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, said they couldn’t meet those demands. But it’s not as if there would have been dire salary-cap ramifications. Tennessee could have found a way to make it work. The Titans weren’t the first team that opted to trade an elite receiver rather than become part of the exploding market at the position this offseason. The Chiefs and Packers decided that Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams weren’t worth the cost, especially when the return in draft picks was so great.
Both teams have top-five quarterbacks, though, with contracts that eat into their salary caps. The Titans may have viewed Brown as a luxury considering their offensive formula, but many GMs still don’t consider receivers near the top in positional value. There has been a significant shift away from that thinking, though, with only the top quarterbacks having a higher per-year salary than the top receivers.
“If we’re going to be the same as everyone else, we’re probably going to finish in the middle of the pack,” Eagles GM Howie Roseman said before the draft when asked about the receiver contract boom. “Sometimes you have to take risks and you have to stand out there and do something different than everyone else.
“So that doesn’t mean that there aren’t right decisions to make at that position. But at the same time, if you’re doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, you’re probably a step late.”
Roseman seems to view the Eagles’ accumulation of draft picks, which gave him the opportunity to acquire Brown, as being ahead of the curve. Perhaps, but the contract he just gave the receiver — a four-year, $100 million deal with $57 million guarantee — was built off the Hill, Adams, and Stefon Diggs templates.
Brown is now far and away the highest-paid player on the Eagles roster. Having Jalen Hurts still on his second-round rookie contract gave Roseman the flexibility to make the trade. It can no longer be said that the Eagles didn’t surround the quarterback with enough talent. Brown should, in theory, make Hurts better. But Roseman didn’t make the move specifically for the short term.
Still, will Brown be worth the cost, especially when the draft offered cheaper opportunities? The top four receivers — Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jameson Williams — went before the Eagles moved up to No. 13 for defensive tackle Jordan Davis. Maybe they would have done the same for Williams if the Lions hadn’t vaulted into No. 12. But Roseman likely didn’t see enough value at No. 18 and thus the trade for Brown — the Eagles sent that pick and the No. 101 selection in the third round to Tennessee — was triggered.
After Penn State’s Jahan Dotson went to Washington at No. 16, the Titans drafted Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks at No. 18. There was a drop-off until another receiver was taken at No. 34 in the second round. All told, 13 receivers were taken in the first two rounds, which matched the amount from 2020.
In the last four drafts, an average of 11.3 receivers were taken. In the previous four, there were 7.3. Many once considered the 2014 class of receivers one of the best, but the increasing importance, coupled seemingly with the allure for young athletes, has flooded the draft with premium talent at the position. The Eagles, in the last four years, have expended three first-rounders, a second-rounder and a third-rounder, if the Brown compensation is included, on receivers.
Roseman has placed great value on the position, but not as much on the defensive backs who are tasked to cover them.
Brown also comes with questions about his health. He was red flagged by the Eagles and other teams before the 2019 draft over concerns about his knee. He didn’t miss a game as a rookie, but was sidelined for six for various injuries, including the knee, over the last two seasons. His openness about his struggles with depression — he said that he contemplated suicide two years ago — has been admirable. Brown said in November that he is in a much better place than he was then.
EJ Smith 👍
It has been quite a while since the Eagles had a pair of receivers as good as Brown and Smith.
At 24, Brown is still young enough to suggest he’s still an ascending player and his production through three years in the league is elite. He has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark twice in three years even though he has played in an offense that primarily featured star running back Henry. Last season was statistically his worst, but he still managed 63 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
The advanced numbers suggest he’s one of the most efficient receivers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked fifth out of 94 qualifying receivers in yards per route run last season, trailing only Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, Antonio Brown, and Adams.
» READ MORE: Eagles grades for each 2022 NFL draft pick
Drops can be an issue with Brown; he had nine last season and 20 over three seasons. Even though Brown has a muscular 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame, he also has missed a couple games in each of the last few years with minor injuries.
Aside from those two drawbacks, Brown is an ideal fit in the Eagles’ offense for several reasons. He already has experience making the most of his targets in a run-heavy scheme and will contribute to an Eagles offense that was already difficult to match physically thanks to Hurts, Dallas Goedert, and Miles Sanders.
Speaking of Hurts, Brown is the type of ball-winning receiver who will help a developing quarterback and will also help the evaluation process for the 24-year-old signal-caller next season.
The price to secure Brown was a significant one, especially when you consider the totality of the picks surrendered and the contract extension that followed. They gave up a first- and third-round pick for the opportunity to give Brown a four-year contract worth up to $100 million with $57 million guaranteed.
It’s daunting to look at the amount of assets and cap room the Eagles have invested at the receiver position in the last few years only to make this move, but the decision to ignore the sunk cost of Jalen Reagor and JJ Arcega-Whiteside when targeting Brown could pay dividends.
This trade gives the Eagles the best chance to figure out what they have in Hurts next season and could potentially help them pursue a star quarterback if needed. Brown is the type of player who improves the allure of a team, which is part of why this trade makes so much sense.
Josh Tolentino 👍
Brown has ascended to the league’s top-tier of NFL receivers ... all while playing within a run-heavy offense. Sound familiar?
The Eagles will likely favor the run once again in 2022, but Brown’s arrival provides more opportunities for coach Nick Sirianni, and Hurts, whom Brown counts as one of his best friends. That Brown departed the team that helped develop him and signed a large extension with the Eagles at just 24 years old is astounding, but also a sign of change in today’s NFL.
Brown can be deployed in a multitude of ways, and he should serve as a tremendous complement to Smith and Goedert, with the three players headlining Sirianni’s passing game.
With additional weapons around him — paired with a stout offensive line — it will be up to Hurts to take advantage of these opportunities, and show he has made improvements with his timing and progressions. It also helps that Brown and Hurts have a long-standing relationship, and that should aid with the duo’s on-field chemistry.
Brown has missed a few games during his three-year career, but long-term durability hasn’t necessarily been a huge issue — he played in 16 regular season games in 2019, 14 games in ‘20, 13 games in ‘21, and he appeared in all five playoff contests during that span. Brown’s 25 total touchdowns is a testament to his talent and physicality.