A.J. Brown Analysis
Credit: USA Today
With the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft on April 30, the Philadelphia Eagles most definitely came out of the draft as a much-improved football team in several key areas that were lacking in years past, and a large part of this is due to the acquisition of former Titans star wideout A.J. Brown. Coming into the NFL Draft just one year ago, the Eagles had a depleted receiver room headlined by Travis Fulgham and Jalen Reagor. With the additions of former Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown, who are only just 23 and 24 years of age, the Eagles have rejuvenated their receiving corps and will be fielding one of the best duos at wideout in the entire NFL (that feels weird saying). Philly and Brown were able to come to an agreement on a 4-year $100 million dollar contract extension that includes $57 million in guaranteed money, tying both A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith to Philadelphia for at least the next four seasons. Brown is one of the best wideouts in the entire NFL, but he provides much more to this Eagles offense than what is just on the surface.
Eagles 2021 Offense
To understand what Brown brings to the Eagles, we need to first look at the Eagles offense in 2021. Under first year head coach Nick Sirianni, it took the Eagles some time to get going, but once they hit their stride, they were one of the best offenses in the NFL.
The Eagles ran a unique run-pass-option (RPO) offense that allows Hurts to read the defense and essentially have three different options: a quick pass, hand-off to the running back, or QB keeper. Philly also ran a west coast zone rushing offense. The Eagles led the NFL explosive plays, and they were also the top rushing offense in the league. This started to happen when Sirianni moved away from the RPO and allowed Hurts to have traditional passing plays, but he still incorporated the RPO into the offense to maximize Hurts' unique skill set.
With as successful as Philadelphia was on the ground, their passing attack was quite the opposite. The biggest problem with the Eagles was that they had no viable weapons outside of Dallas Goedert and DeVonta Smith, as teams would double or press both of these receivers at the line of scrimmage (LOS) to take them out of Hurts’ progression. The Eagles specifically struggled to get production over the middle of the field, as Hurts only threw a whopping14 balls inside the hashes in 15 different starts (that needs to change). The entirety of the passing attack was either extensions of the running game on screens and checkdowns or passes to the sideline. Hurts was extremely efficient when passing to the right sideline, but this made it easy for teams to take away the passing game by funneling everything to the inside of the field. In the Eagles Wildcard game, the Buccaneers took full advantage of this as Hurts was only 11/31 on passes past the line of scrimmage.
To sum things up and tie it in a neat little bow, the Eagles offense had a historic ground attack in 2021, but they were far from good through the air and struggled to get anything going over the middle of the field due to the inability the receivers not named DeVonta Smith had when trying to create separation.
While a good part of the blame can be given to the receiving core, Jalen Hurts does need to become more comfortable as a pocket passer and win with his decisiveness and footwork in the pocket, which he did not do for the majority of last year. As Sirianni transitioned away from the RPO offense and let Hurts stand in the pocket and make reads, we saw flashes of what Hurts can be, but he did not do it on a consistent basis.
What A.J. Brown Brings to Philadelphia
When you look at A.J. Brown, he does so many things well, and the best place to start is his release off the LOS. Brown is a big dude at 6'0" 226, and he has legit 4.49 speed matched with amazing technique and nuance in his routes. Press corners have a difficult time getting their hands on Brown due to quick release off the line, but he can also fight through contact at the attack point when corners get their hands on him due to his physical build.
When Brown gets off the LOS, he is a matchup nightmare for defensive backs because he is one of the few receivers that can win at all three levels of the field. Let’s first take a look at Brown's short yardage prowess and yards after catch (YAC) ability.
Through his first three years in the NFL, Brown has become a YAC monster and is a threat to score the ball on any play. Through his first two years in the league, Brown averaged 8.9 and 6.2 YAC per-reception and led the NFL in forced missed tackles on receptions throughout that same timespan, which is absolutely unbelievable. Brown took a dip is his YAC production in his third year in the league, but he was playing through an injured calf and a with chest injury for the majority of the year. Even with the nagging injuries throughout the entire, year Brown was still one of the top receivers when he was on the field.
If you thought Brown's YAC ability was all that he brought to the table, you're mistaken. Brown is at his best working over the middle third of the field on crossers, digs, slants, and other in-breaking routes. This was the biggest weakness in the Eagles’ offense in 2021.
Brown is also elite on out-breaking routes to the sideline. He understands leverage with defensive backs and threatens them with his ability to effortlessly separate over the middle of the field, then he finishes it off by coming back to the football. Oh, and don't forget he's always a threat to take it to the house on any one of these plays.
This next play is one of my favorites. Brown sees the single-high safety, so he sells the crosser extremely well before making a vicious cut to the outside and making an amazing catch in traffic.
Ok, you must be thinking that Brown must not be a good deep route runner, and that's not true. Brown might not be your stereotypical "burner" but don't let that fool you because he is one of the top deep threats in the entire NFL. Coming into this season A.J. Brown led the NFL in 40 and 50-yard receptions since 2019, and he was second in 30 yard touchdown receptions in that same time span.
Brown wins deep with his quick release off the LOS and underrated deep speed. He is as good as anybody in the league when it comes to tracking the football along with going up and making miraculous circus catches, which he makes look routine.
Again, Brown took a dip in those numbers this past season due to missing four games and playing through injury for the majority of the year. Don't let that take away from what Brown did, as he had over 130 yards on three separate occasions and was the best player on the top seed in the AFC. Brown was also PFF's fifth highest graded receiver in 2021 after being second in 2020 when he was healthy for the majority of the year.
How Brown Changes the Eagles Offense
As I mentioned earlier, the Eagles struggled to have a receiver that could consistently separate in the middle third of the field. Brown comes in and automatically changes that as he is one of the top receivers when it comes to creating separation inside the numbers. Brown also opens things up for DeVonta Smith, allowing the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to take over as the Z receiver and get free releases off the LOS.
Smith is really good at separating against press coverage, but he is even better when getting free releases off the line. In his phenomenal rookie campaign, Smith rarely got free releases, but when he does, he is extremely hard to stick with due to his extremely polished route running skills and nuance in his cuts. When corners do not get their hands on DeVonta, he was nearly ungradable as a rookie.
There are a lot of questions still unanswered with Hurts, but if he is going to be successful in the NFL, he needs to be given the weapons to do that. With the addition of the 24-year-old Pro Bowl receiver who is nowhere near his ceiling, Hurts now has somebody that he can consistently rely on over the middle of the field. With DeVonta Smith now getting free releases and Dallas Goedert having nickels or linebackers on him instead of corners or safeties, Jalen Hurts now has three legitimate Pro Bowl caliber weapons that all are super young and complement each other. Match this with the best offensive line and run game in football, and the Eagles could be one of the NFL’s top offenses for years to come.
It will all come back to Jalen Hurts and his ability to win with his eyes, footwork, and decisiveness in the pocket. If Jalen can do these things, he could be very well on his way to becoming the long-term answer at QB in Philadelphia.