Saturday night, the Patriots defense has to deal with A.J. Brown. The Titans wideout was one of the most explosive players in the league down the stretch, with more than 100 yards receiving in four of Tennessee’s final six games.
He finished the year with 52 catches for 1,051 yards, had eight touchdowns, averaged more than 20 yards per reception and caught 61.9 percent of the balls sent his way.
On Tuesday, Bill Belichick talked about Brown’s eye-opening rookie season.
“He’s really tough,” Belichick said. “Yeah, hard guy to tackle. He’s fast, strong, he’s quick in the open field. They get him the ball in space, and he takes those 10-yarders and turns them into 60-yard touchdowns. Yeah, he’s really good.”
A few moments later, there was more.
“They had a real explosive group and he was a big part of it,” Belichick added. “He was impressive; he’s obviously done well. When we practiced against him, I think that was about the first time he was getting on the field, I don’t think he had done a lot before that, and then we saw him out there those couple days of practice and gradually, through the course of the year, it’s hard not to notice somebody who’s made so many explosive and big plays.
“He’s a tough guy to handle. He’s big and he’s fast, good with the ball in his hands, smart kid. They move him around. He does a lot of different things. He has an extensive route tree and it looks like obviously there’s a great chemistry between him and [Ryan] Tannehill. They’ve been very productive together.”
In an alternate universe, that might have been a good time to mention to say, “BILL! HE WAS RIGHT FRIGGIN’ THERE FOR YOU GUYS TO DRAFT!!! YOU BLEW IT!!!”
In that alternate universe, Belichick might say, “I know! Man, we have a tough time drafting that spot!”
Neither of those things happened and if Belichick had a scintilla of buyer’s remorse with Brown, he didn’t show it. Maybe, by now, he’s numb to it.
Since 2010, the Patriots have spent draft picks on just nine wide receivers. The nine players COMBINED for 114 catches and 1,423 yards in their entire careers. Going through the parade of wideouts that came into the league the past decade and flourished is pointless.
For most of the past 10 years, the Patriots were pretty well-stocked with pass-catchers even if they weren’t wideouts.
But the supply started running low the past few years and the Patriots only effort to address it in the draft was with injury-prone Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 2016), little Braxton Berrios (sixth round, 2018) and N’Keal Harry (first round, 32nd overall, 2019).
The point of this isn’t to rip on Harry. Before he got hurt in the Patriots' first preseason game, he made a slew of acrobatic catches in camp. And since he came back off IR and got out of his own head, he’s been somewhat productive with 12 catches on 24 targets, a few dynamic runs and some drawn penalties. He has potential and maybe it will be realized.
But it’s impossible to see Brown, the 51st player taken in the draft, and not wonder, “What if the Patriots didn’t break with tradition and use a first-round pick on Harry and waited to take Brown in the second round themselves (the Patriots took corner Joejuan Williams at 45).
Would Brown be flourishing here? Or would we be focused more on how much further he had to go to earn Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels’ trust?
It’s a question I put to Matt Cassel on my podcast this week.
“That’s something that has puzzled me for a while as well, that they haven’t had a lot of success in developing rookie wide receivers quickly and having them come in and be contributors,” Cassel agreed. “I can’t put my finger on one thing. I know it’s a complex system. But at the same time, Josh McDaniels has been there forever and that coaching staff and they do such a great job of bringing the Wes Welkers into the world.”
Cassel went on to point out that the Patriots have had a few outlier successes with drafted receivers but that most of the contributions at wideout have been from players they picked up in free agency or via trades.
We’ve all ticked off the myriad reasons drafted receivers haven’t panned out. There’s injury [Mitchell], lack of high draft capital spent, Brady’s wariness of throwing to novices and the Patriots clearly having a hard time handicapping who can make the transition to the NFL from college.
It’s no one thing, said Cassel, but he settled on the pressure of the position when playing it in New England.
“I don’t know if it’s an intimidation factor in terms of who they’re playing with,” Cassel offered. “There’s a high standard and it takes a little bit of time to get used to the culture, the environment, the demanding nature of being in that building and sometimes that can lead to people second-guessing themselves. As a receiver, the biggest thing that you can do to hinder you from having success is to play slow and second-guessing what you’re doing. And I think maybe part of it is the intimidating culture and what it creates is guys, instead of going out and playing free, they just don’t want to mess up. They want to be accountable to Brady and they’re worried about that, they want to be accountable to Belichick. But that’s across the board, every player’s like that. It’s just interesting how they haven’t had a ton of success.”
It’s hard to play loose when the greatest quarterback of all-time is a precision taskmaster. This season’s game in Houston was a prime example of how hard it can be. Harry, who clearly knows how to run an under-route, executed a sloppy one which led to an interception in the red zone. Later, on the sidelines, cameras caught Brady imploring Harry and undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers to be “faster, quicker, more explosive.” It’s hard to dance at breakneck pace when you don’t know all the steps.
Whatever the disconnect is, it certainly has made Harry’s NFL orientation a tough one. Even projecting his output to a 16-game season, it’s paltry. Brown wasn’t the only rookie wideout drafted after Harry this year to make a measurable impact. Nine rookie wideouts taken after Harry had at least 30 catches or 500 yards. Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf, Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin, Hunter Renfrow and Darius Slayton all had 48 catches or more and more than 600 yards.
Renfrow, who looked like a layup Patriots-type player – had 49 catches for 605 yards in 13 games for the Raiders. He was a fifth-rounder taken after the Patriots selected players like Damien Harris, Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt.
Maybe the Harris-Cajuste-Froholdt picks turn into home runs down the road. But the more pressing need in 2019 that was obvious in April just as much as it is now was wideout or tight end.
And as the matchup with Tennessee looms, it’s hard not to covet thy neighbor’s rookie wideout.