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Fantasy Football: Will A.J. Brown become *THE* WR1 in 2021?

Jan 10, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) reacts after a catch against the Baltimore Ravens during the first quarter in a AFC Wild Card playoff game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

There simply haven’t been many better wide receivers than A.J. Brown over the past two seasons. The Titans’ second-round pick in the 2019 draft didn’t even receive a full-time role until his fifth game; the only problem since has been that Brown hasn’t been involved enough in the league’s reigning 10th- and fourth-ranked scoring offense.

Standing at 6-feet, 226 pounds, and possessing sub-4.5 speed, Brown is big, physical and can even run past plenty of NFL-caliber corners. We’ve seen nothing except good things happen when the Titans have put the ball in his hands; now the question becomes whether or not AJB can take a leap into the true elites at the position in his third year in the league.

What follows is a breakdown of just how good Brown has been and what to make of his fantasy football stock ahead of 2021.

Brown is already on the shortlist of the NFL’s very best WRs by any efficiency metric

AJB WR1 szn was a regular occurrence in 2020, as the Titans’ No. 1 pass-game option made a habit of ripping off at least one exceptional play a game. Credit to the always underrated Ryan Tannehill for plenty of great passes, but it’s also tough to find a receiver who has made better use of their opportunities than Brown.

Sure, Brown hasn’t exactly lit the box score on fire, with 52 receptions-1,051 yards-8 TD and 70-1,075-11 receiving lines to start his career, but this is almost entirely due to his lack of high-end opportunity — somehow he ranks just 31st among all wide receivers in targets over the past two seasons.

Brown has more than balled out when given ample opportunity, posting rather absurd 10-151-1, 8-114-1, 7-112-1, 4-101-1, 6-83-1 and 7-82-1 receiving lines in his only six career games with more than eight targets.

Volume figures aside, it’s tough to find an efficiency stat that paints AJB as anything other than a top-five receiver since entering the league.

  • PFF receiving grade: 91.0 (tied for No. 4 among 77 qualified WRs)
  • Yards per reception: 17.4 (tied for No. 4)
  • YAC per reception: 7.3 (No. 2)
  • Yards per route run: 2.66 (tied for No. 2)
  • WR rating: 130.1 (No. 1)

The yards after the catch figure is probably the most absurd of the group because Brown doesn’t make his living off low-aDOT targets like most receivers we see near the top of this metric. Credit to Deebo Samuel (9.8), Hunter Renfrow (6.3) and Robert Woods (6.0) for joining AJB (7.3) in the top-four of the metric; they each had averaged target depths of 7.6 or fewer yards while Brown has been targeted on average 12.3 yards down the field. The only other player to average at least 6.5 yards after the catch per reception with a double-digit average target depth of at least 10 yards over the past decade is Josh Gordon.

We’ve established that Brown already deserves to be in the conversation among the league’s top-five real-life WRs. Now we’ll move on to why AJB might just have the sort of volume in 2021 to join that same group in fantasy land.

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The Titans don’t exactly have many places to go with the ball

Only four offenses have at least 200 vacated targets from 2020: Lions (360), Jaguars (240), Titans (224) and Panthers (200). Only three units have at least 2,000 available air yards up for grabs: Lions (3,516), Jaguars (2,147) and Titans (2,143).

The Lions are dealing with probably the single-worst WR room in the league and have Jared Goff under center. The Jaguars’ latest perplexing decision is the desire to seemingly feature Tim Tebow as their version of Taysom Hill. And after much thought and deliberation, I’m comfortable calling Sam Darnold a bad professional QB.

The Titans have always been the top spot for either a great free agent or rookie receiver to land throughout this offseason cycle due to the departures of Corey Davis, Adam Humphries and Jonnu Smith. Sure, we can even throw Kalif Raymond in there.

At the moment, the following wide receivers and tight ends make up the bulk of the Titans’ depth chart (NSFW):

  • AJB: He’s good.
  • Josh Reynolds: A good-not-great ex-complementary WR from the Rams who I project to be “just a guy” in three-WR sets. With that said, he should be considered the favorite to lead the way in secondary targets.
  • Nick Westbrook-Ikhine: A second-year, former undrafted free agent who has three career receptions to his name.
  • Chester Rogers: An ex-Colts backup WR who will struggle to do more than steal some slot snaps.
  • Cameron Batson: Has earned just 24 targets in 23 games over the past two seasons. I’m still incredibly confused why he had four rush attempts in 2020 and Brown had zero.
  • Dez Fitzpatrick: Fourth-round rookie WR who possesses the sort of speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash) to replace Raymond as the play-action deep threat; expecting him to slide into Davis’ old job seamlessly is probably wishful thinking, though.
  • Cody Hollister: Brother of Jacob Hollister, Cody is another former undrafted free agent who has three catches to his name after spending the last two years in Tennessee. 
  • Marcus Johnson: Maybe my favorite secondary option of the group, Johnson regularly made the most out of his deep-ball opportunities with the Colts over the years. The soon-to-be 27-year-old WR is certainly a cut candidate in this incredibly uncertain picture, though there are more than a few examples of Johnson making high-level plays over the past two seasons.  
  • Anthony Firkser: Locked in as Tannehill’s No. 1 TE, the 26-year-old talent has posted 8-113-1, 5-51-0 and 3-19-0 receiving lines in his only three career games with more than five targets. The risk with Firkser is that he might not be a complete enough TE to stay on the field all the time; he’s only played more than 50% of the offense’s snaps in two of 47 career games.
  • Geoff Swaim: The sort of block-first TE who will inevitably infuriate Firkser fantasy investors by soaking up snaps and vulturing the occasional goal-line TD.

I swear I didn’t make a single one of those names up.

Some in the fantasy community are concerned with the potential for Brown to see too much attention from opposing defenses to make good use of his likely gargantuan workload. We simply haven’t seen this occur often in the NFL when coupled with a good QB.

Look, 150 targets is a fairly arbitrary number, but it’s also a 16-game pace floor for what we’re expecting from Brown moving forward as the continued target hog of this offense. Overall, 65 WRs have received at least 150 targets in a season since 2010 — their average finish has been as the PPR WR6. Fifty-nine of the 65 WRs (91%) finished as a top-12 PPR WR. Only 2012 Larry Fitzgerald, 2016 Hopkins and 2016 Allen Robinson II failed to post top-24 production. It's a good thing Diggs won’t be catching passes from John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage or Blake Bortles.

Brown finished 2020 as the WR6 in PPR points per game and WR12 overall; his ability to post WR1 numbers already in an offense with far more target competition AND a 2,000-yard rusher should calm any concerns that he won’t cash in with a far bigger workload in 2021.

Add it all together and …

Elite talent meeting elite opportunity: The story of 2021 AJB

There’s a strong argument that Brown deserves to be the overall WR1 entering the 2021 season if Aaron Rodgers winds up being traded away or sits out the season. For now, AJB comes in as my WR2 behind only Davante Adams. They aren’t alone at the top; Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins also fall into my “huge target projections for grade-a ballers” Tier 1.

Note that this is just for 2021 re-draft consideration. The ceiling is truly the roof for Brown in dynasty land; I think that argument for the overall WR1 in that format falls between only AJB and Justin Jefferson.

One concern that folks have is what will become of Brown if the Falcons decide to trade Julio Jones to the Titans. Take it from AJB himself that this shouldn’t be much of an issue.

It’s actually scary how similar the numbers are that Jones and Davis put up last season. Adding another top option like Julio would undoubtedly knock Brown a few spots down the ranks, but it’s not like he’d be close to falling out of the top-12 WRs.

As much as the Titans want to run the damn ball, their awfully mediocre defense could (again) prevent them from truly limiting Tannehill’s pass attempts. And even if they don’t: we already know AJB is plenty capable of putting up big numbers with limited opportunity. I don’t think there’s too much value in this WR room other than Brown, although Firkser is a worthy late-round TE option to chase and falls in my “you could imagine how a TE1 finish comes to fruition” Tier 4.

For my money’s worth: AJB has the proven talent and projected volume to be *the* WR1 in 2021 and beyond.

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