A.J. Brown has multiple legitimate paths to regression in 2020, but he also has a chance to distance himself from the rest of the Tennessee Titans receiving corps to create a target-funnel offense. Accounting for some of the variables, we can project a spectrum of outcomes to help determine if Brown is a worthwhile investment in the fourth round of fantasy drafts.
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Ryan Tannehill played at an unworldly level — for any quarterback — in 2019, and not only compared to his career. Tannehill topped his expected completion rate by 8%, averaged 9.6 yards per attempt and threw a touchdown on 7.7% of passes.
Brown averaged 8.8 YAC, topping expected YAC by a league-leading 4.9 yards. The Titans’ hefty usage of play-action passing was a critical component of the rookie’s success — Brown led the league in play-action yards (646) and YAC (345).
Most, if not all, of these outcomes aren’t sustainable. Brown will also see more shadow situations in 2020. In Week 16, Marshon Lattimore covered him on 61% of snaps, and in the Wild Card game, Stephon Gilmore locked on for 97% of his routes. Brown’s combined production in those two games was two receptions for 38 yards and zero touchdowns. Fortunately for Brown, his schedule isn’t full of shadow matchups. He will see Tre’Davious White in Week 4 and a loaded Ravens secondary in Week 11.
While the Titans' heavy-run nature sets up Brown in the play-action game, it can also serve as a hindrance to volume. The team attempted exactly 893 rushes or passes in each of the past two seasons — 87 below the NFL average. Only 448 and 437 of those turned into actual pass attempts, ranking 31st in back-to-back seasons.
The positive for Brown is that there's a chance for this offense to turn into a funnel situation in the passing game. Once he took over a full-time role in Week 9, he averaged 24% of the team’s targets. If we remove the Marshon Lattimore game, it jumps to 26%. Brown’s efficiency drop is coming, but it isn’t like the Titans are going to stop using play-action to create stress on the defense. His reduction in YAC and YPC could still leave him in a plus situation versus other receivers.
One simplistic way to model a range of outcomes for Brown is to remove his YAC per catch over expected (4.9) from his yards per route (20.2), which puts him at 15.3 yards per catch. If we assume the Titans stay close to their pass attempts for the past two seasons (not easy to do) and Brown’s catch rate drops from 62% to 60%, the following is a range of outcomes for receptions and yards.
|Projection Spectrum||Target Share||Team Pass Atts||Targets||Receptions||Yards|
The middle three buckets use reasonable assumptions, while the outer two paint the edges of less likely outcomes. Brown’s median projection puts him in a comparable range to receivers drafted around him. At the high range, he's in the ballpark of Mike Evans and Kenny Golladay. At the low mark, he drops into a tier with Marquise Brown and Brandin Cooks.
The spectrum is likely at the floor for team pass attempts, which are influenced by numerous factors beyond a coach's intentions. If the Titans were to attempt 500 passes — which still would have been the sixth-least in 2019 — the median outcome jumps to 78 receptions for 1,186 yards. A 28% target share would net 84 and 1,275, and a 30% funnel offense would generate 90 and 1,370.
There are hundreds of amalgamations unaccounted for above for the sake of simplicity. Fortunately, PFF's Eric Eager accounts for much more in the PFF projection model, which ranks Brown as the No. 8 receiver with 113 targets, 70 receptions, 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns.
Despite many valid reasons for an expectation in regression, A.J. Brown still has a nice chance to provide value in the fourth round of fantasy drafts.