A.J. Brown listened to the ovation throughout pregame warmups of his first NFL sport. The Titans have been enjoying the Browns to open the 2019 season, and Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry ran onto the sphere for Beckham’s anticipated Cleveland debut.
Brown, a rookie who had been drafted within the second spherical that yr, didn’t gawk on the high-profile receivers drawing the applause. He made a pledge to himself.
“They’re coming to see me, not them,” Brown remembered pondering throughout a dialog with The Athletic final week.
That might sound audacious in opposition to a pair of receivers with seven Pro Bowls between them at that time, however in case you suppose it’s daring, you additionally don’t know a lot about Brown.
The participant who had essentially the most receiving yards that day? It wasn’t Beckham. It wasn’t Landry. It was the rookie making his NFL debut.
“And it went from there,” Brown mentioned.
There are some gamers who see a highlight and scurry within the different course. And then there’s Brown, who doesn’t merely embrace the massive stage. It’s a giant stage as a result of he’s on it.
Brown will play in opposition to his former group Sunday when the Titans go to Philadelphia. He was traded in a draft-night deal that was removed from the popular final result for the Titans or Brown. Stalled contract negotiations prompted Tennessee to commerce the now-25-year-old, regardless that he mentioned he needed to retire with the Titans. Mike Vrabel mentioned Brown would stay with the group so long as he was the coach.
The Eagles surrendered a first- and third-round decide and signed the 2020 Pro Bowler to a $100 million contract.
There have been days after the commerce when Brown acknowledged he had “mixed emotions.” He’s since discovered peace with the transaction. He’s change into one of many foundational gamers on a 10-1 group. He’s prime 10 within the NFL in receiving yards and has twice as many landing receptions as all of Tennessee’s vast receivers mixed. He’s additionally catching passes from certainly one of his closest pals — Jalen Hurts is his daughter’s godfather — and has positioned his household for generational wealth.
“For me, personally, I feel like I’ve won,” Brown mentioned. “I’ve changed my family’s life forever. That’s the goal. Especially growing up where I’m from. Of course, I want to do great and accomplish all the great things. But that’s the reason why we play the game.”
Based on contract, manufacturing and standing, Brown is now within the dialog among the many NFL’s prime receivers. He sat by his locker final week and nodded to T-shirts that mentioned “Unguardable.” He pointed to an indication hanging above his locker that reads “Always Open.”
“The sign is bold, very bold,” Brown mentioned. “But you gotta believe it.”
It’s the character of somebody who can see established Pro Bowlers on the opposite sideline and inform himself the followers are there to observe him. It’s somebody who’s keen to go to his city’s rival faculty, to finagle a commerce to change into one of many NFL’s highest-paid receivers, and who has by no means discovered a stage he doesn’t suppose he can deal with.
“I don’t think he thinks he’s the guy — he knows he’s the guy,” Eagles vast receivers coach Aaron Moorehead mentioned. “That’s the difference.”
Brown had a request for Eagles followers earlier this season. He saved listening to comparisons to Terrell Owens, whose physique kind and enjoying model is just like Brown’s and who the Eagles famously acquired in 2004. It was arduous to observe Brown in coaching camp this summer season and never consider Owens.
“I’m A.J., and that’s T.O.,” Brown mentioned. “I’m not trying to believe my own hype. T.O. is in the Hall of Fame. I’m in my fourth year. I have a long way to go … it would be nice if fans quieted that down.”
Through 11 video games, Brown has 831 receiving yards. He wants 169 extra to change into the primary Eagles vast receiver to achieve 1,000 yards since Jeremy Maclin in 2014 (Zach Ertz, a good finish, extra not too long ago eclipsed that mark in 2018). Brown’s on a 17-game tempo to complete with 1,284 receiving yards, a mark that may surpass Owens’ unforgettable 2004 marketing campaign.
“If I don’t get 1,000, it’s not a good year,” Brown mentioned of the benchmark that’s been elusive to Eagles vast receivers. “That’s not the goal for me.”
It wouldn’t be a shock if he outpaces these projections and shatters any of his 2022 marks within the coming years. Before the commerce was consummated, the franchise’s decision-makers gathered to assessment movie of Brown. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni stood after a number of performs and instructed these round him, “I’m good.” The previous seven months solely fortified the affirmation.
“First of all … we just got a top-notch person,” Sirianni mentioned. “I can’t say enough about A.J. the person. … Then you get him out here and there are obviously things that you think to yourself, he can do that, too, and that’s going to be a nice addition to this offense. So, yeah, everything we imagined, as advertised and then some.”
Moorehead observed from the spring how significantly Brown takes his craft and the way keen he gave the impression to be coached. That’s not a given — significantly at vast receiver — and particularly with the profile of a participant Moorehead considers “big, physical and fast, and catching the ball as good as anybody I’ve ever coached.”
Moorehead famous that in walk-throughs, you will discover Brown engaged on his breaks. Brown research different vast receivers to attempt to discover morsels of their repertories that he can add to his. He approached Sirianni throughout coaching camp with a route he noticed on Instagram that he needed to be put in within the Eagles’ offense.
There are elements of Brown’s ability set that one can chalk as much as measurement and athleticism, though a lot of what he does has nothing to do with genetics.
“Route running,” Moorehead mentioned. “The top of his routes, understanding where people are around him, he’s got a feel.”
“That comes from watching Julio (Jones),” Brown mentioned. “Bigger guys that can get in and out of breaks, that’s what makes them special. Athleticism speaks for itself, but running routes like a smaller guy is tough to defend.”
Moorehead, who as soon as coached faculty vast receivers, was requested what he would present from Brown in an tutorial video to his former pupils. He mentioned the way in which Brown doesn’t lose pace out and in of his routes, with a capability to “run through the football,” whereas different gamers have the tendency to sluggish or cease. The identical query was posed to Sirianni, a longtime vast receivers coach who has an affinity for instructing tapes.
“Just the ability off the line of scrimmage and at the top of the route for a big man,” Sirianni mentioned. “The explosion off that, just how he plays with physical presence. And that happens right at the line of scrimmage and at the top of the route, whether it’s a little flipper at the top or how he gets the guy’s hand off him at the beginning and is able to lean on him and break both ways off that.”
Brown, because the signal above his locker suggests, believes he’s at all times open due to the way in which he can work on the prime of his routes. He tells quarterbacks to belief that even when he doesn’t win early, he can win late. And as a result of he runs by way of the catch, Brown is a menace for a giant play every time he touches the ball. He leads all NFL receivers in catches of 50-plus yards since he entered the league with 11, and his 6.1 yards after the catch per reception are essentially the most among the many prime 20 in receiving yards throughout that span.
“I really think any time the ball is in my hands, it can be an explosive play,” Brown mentioned. “Whenever I got the ball in my hands, how can I turn this play into 10 extra yards? … And if I actually get 10, I can make it go 30 — or however long.”
The Titans sport is coming at an essential time in Brown’s season. He set a regular-season profession excessive with 156 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a Week 8 win over the Steelers. He’s solely had 172 yards whole within the 4 video games since. That included an ankle harm in opposition to Washington and misplaced fumbles in the course of the previous two weeks. He had misplaced a fumble simply as soon as earlier than in his profession.
Brown missed most of observe final week (and any Thanksgiving festivities) with a abdomen sickness that left him bedridden, down seven kilos and vomiting so intensely that he popped a blood vessel in his eye. He’s feeling higher this week, though his eye continues to be bloodshot.
“The focus this week is being consistent,” Brown mentioned. “Ankle is something I can’t control. Me protecting the football is something I can control.”
Achieving that consistency and the usual at which he usually performs is extra of an goal than avenging the group that traded him. But when his observe report in large video games, one can borrow an Owens expression: get your popcorn prepared.
As a prime recruit in Starkville, Miss., Brown went to highschool two miles from Mississippi State’s stadium. Leading to his faculty announcement, there was anticipation that he would select his hometown college. When he put an Ole Miss cap on, a local reporter reportedly stormed out of the room while classmates booed. This can be akin to the most effective participant Philadelphia has produced in years deciding to signal with the Cowboys as an alternative if the draft didn’t exist.
For Brown, the choice defined one thing about him. It goes again to how he was raised, with a father who preached to fret much less about what others suppose and extra about his personal convictions. He was right down to Ole Miss and Alabama, and he needed to go to a spot the place he may attempt to beat the Crimson Tide. So he selected the Rebels.
Brown performed one sport in Starkville. As a sophomore, within the extremely anticipated return (one with much more suspense than Sunday’s sport in opposition to the Titans), Brown had six catches for 167 yards and a landing in an upset of his hometown group. It was, as he referred to as it, his “perfect game.”
“It was one of those games, you realize you’re not even getting tired because you’re so locked in,” Brown mentioned. “You’re stuck in the moment and you try to stay locked in so you don’t lose it.”
Brown mentioned he’s been chasing that prime ever since. There have been different big-stage moments to match. His first NFL sport. His first sport with the Eagles, when he completed with 155 yards in opposition to Detroit. He set his profession mark for receptions with 11 in opposition to San Francisco in prime time final December. He additionally had a five-catch, 142-yard efficiency within the playoffs final season.
A.J. Brown’s record-setting Eagles debut is good sign he’s ‘always open’
“To me, it’s no pressure,” mentioned Brown. “Maybe the pressure is on me from the outside. It’s, to me, just having fun, just trying to dominate the person across from me.”
There’s part of Brown that views it as if he’s again in Starkville enjoying basketball with the older youngsters from uptown each day till the summer season. Just competing all day, whether or not it’s Starkville or the NFL.
But there’s one other a part of Brown, one which he acknowledges, that doesn’t lock away his feelings. “If something’s wrong with me,” he mentioned, “you’re going to know it.”
Brown wasn’t robotic in the course of the contract negotiations with Tennessee, and he mentioned Sunday’s sport “means a lot, but I’ve got to keep my emotions down.” He expressed it’s not private. He is aware of there are followers who nonetheless love him and others “who hate my guts.”
“I think when you go through things in this league, you learn it’s a business,” Brown mentioned. “Of course, I wanted to try to finish my career as a Titan. I stated that. But I learned it’s a business and you’ve got to do what’s best because they’re going to do what’s best for them. And you grow up.”
Even if he grew from previous experiences, Brown emphasised in a separate dialog that he nonetheless has development forward of him on the sphere. He’s solely now getting into the prime of his profession — one that would put him within the class of gamers equivalent to Owens if he continues on this path.
Moorehead performed in Indianapolis with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, providing a singular perception into these top-of-the-league receivers. A participant should have sure conditions, expertise and pure skills to suit into that class. But Moorehead additionally observed a character trait. They believed they have been that type of participant. Brown nods his head when discussing this, pointing to the T-shirts and the check in his locker stall. He chases being totally different.
“It’s just a mindset,” Brown mentioned. “First of all, you’ve got to believe it. Then you’ve got to put in the work.”
The stage can be Brown’s on Sunday. And when he takes the sphere, there can be little query about which receiver is incomes the ovation. They’re coming to see him.
(Top photograph: Kyle Ross / Icon Sportswire through Getty Images)