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Is there a rookie wide receiver with great talent but stuck in a bad situation? The bad situation could be anything from a bad coaching staff to being behind an entrenched starter to having subpar surrounding talent.
There are quite a few, unfortunately. Hakeem Butler -- my top-rated rookie before the NFL draft -- fell too far and went to a Cardinals team that plans on spreading the ball around. They also drafted Andy Isabella ahead of Butler, so he'll have to earn his role. A.J. Brown ended up in Tennessee, which means he'll have to suffer through the wildly inconsistent play of Marcus Mariota. Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin both have future WR1 talent but ended up together in Baltimore, playing in an offense that plans on running its quarterback 150-200 times.
Many have said that A.J. Brown has fallen into a bad situation after being taken by the Titans. That’s true if you believe there’s no room for improvement in the offense. Folks don’t typically understand the adversity level that this team experienced in 2018.
The offensive line that was built under Mike Mularkey to largely run power concepts was struggling mightily to adjust to the more zone-oriented schemes. Key injuries to Marcus Mariota and Delanie Walker coupled with starting slot receiver Rishard Matthews quitting the team three games into the season left the offense sputtering. Despite catastrophic circumstances, this team managed to come within a game of making the playoffs.
With the addition of one of the best slot receivers in football in Adam Humphries, the gelling of the offensive line, the emergence of Derrick Henry in the run game, the on-schedule recoveries of Walker and Mariota, and the insurance policy of having Ryan Tannehill on the roster, there’s real hope that the offense can finally be one that will be appealing for fantasy purposes.
Flanker A.J. Brown only adds to that. He is the best receiver in this class. He excels particularly at the catch point. His hands are regularly plucking the ball out of the air before turning upfield. Additionally, his footwork is extremely quick and fluid for being as big as he is. The work Brown does to advance the ball after the catch is special. Add that to the skills Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, and Delanie Walker bring to the table and you now have one of the best receiving groups in the NFL. This seems like a vastly improving situation which recency bias is going to cause a lot of fantasy general managers to avoid. However, you can’t profit in fantasy football unless you are willing to deviate from groupthink and consider that dynamics might be different from a year ago, for better or for worse.
Daniel makes an admirable case for A.J. Brown rising above a perceived poor landing spot in Tennessee, but I can't get on board. The Titans finished 3-1 in their final four games in 2018 while feeding Derrick Henry the ball 87 times. Mike Vrabel is on record stating he'd like to ride Henry from the start this season, making it doubtful there will be enough volume available to support more than one wide receiver for fantasy purposes.
Without much meat on the bone in Tennessee's passing game to start with, the addition of Humphries and Walker's healthy return are death knells for Brown's year-one opportunity. There is little doubt he's one of the top receivers in this rookie class, maybe even the best, but Brown is easy to avoid in fantasy for 2019.
That would be A.J. Brown. Quite simply, if Marcus Mariota can't foster consistent production from Corey Davis, how can we expect Brown - who is one of the best rookie receivers outside of structure, where Mariota isn't a plus - to flourish.
A.J. Brown was my favorite receiver in the pre-draft process. He is big, fast, tough, and has great hands. He has the talent to be a volume receiver and PPR stud if he was in a high-flying pass offense. Tennessee threw the ball just 27.3 times per game last season. Unless those passing numbers go up or Brown captures a massive share of the targets, he is going to have a hard time making a fantasy impact.
A.J. Brown certainly qualifies, landing on the same depth chart as Corey Davis and on a low-upside (to-date) Tennessee passing game. Andy Isabella qualifies from the standpoint of Larry Fitzgerald being there (for now), Christian Kirk being a quality option, and Hakeem Butler having some appeal within the same draft class. Kyler Murray can raise the tide of the entire Arizona offense, but there are plenty of mouths to feed.
A.J. Brown is the common pick, but the first receiver taken in Marquise Brown is the guy I have the greatest fears for. Lamar Jackson has promise as a quarterback, but will the coaches trust him enough to let him pass to exploit the advantage that Brown gives.
Baltimore has been a horrible fantasy situation for wide receivers for a decade now. There are only three teams who have not produced a fantasy WR1 over the last decade: Washington, San Francisco, and Baltimore. In this timeframe, Baltimore barely squeaks into the WR2 territory with Torrey Smith finishing between 19th and 23rd four years in a row, five years ago. Same head coach, same run-first philosophy which works great at the NFL level, but is horrible for fantasy receivers. Maybe Harbaugh is good enough to evolve with the talent at his disposal, but I need to see it to believe it.
I think A.J. Brown may be in for a long couple of years. Marcus Mariota shows us more every week that he's not tooled to be a prolific NFL passer. In fact, as our Devin Knotts is fond of telling us, he may not even have much time left as a startable one. The Titans won't throw much in 2019, and there's a strong chance they'll be seeking out another franchise passer in 2020. Brown may find himself starving for targets and consistency to open his career.