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 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
It’s hard to overstate just how special A.J. Brown was as a rookie. The Titans’ second-round WR absolutely balled out over the course of the 2019 regular season, carrying the league’s most-efficient passing game with Ryan Tannehill under center.
That’s right: Tannehill was a legit top-five QB in a variety of metrics last season:
- Adjusted net yards per attempt: 8.52 (No. 1 among 33 qualified QBs)
- Net yards per attempt: 7.98 (No. 1)
- Adjusted yards per attempt: 10.2 (No. 1)
- Yards per completion: 13.6 (No. 1)
- Touchdown rate: 7.7% (No. 2)
- Completion rate: 70.3% (No. 3)
- QB Rating: 117.5 (No. 1)
- QBR: 65.4 (No. 8)
The problem with expecting a repeat performance from both parties in 2020 is 1) The potential for Tannehill to regress to the guy we saw from 2012-2018 and 2) Brown achieved most of his success on limited volume.
The gang's back together for another (hopeful) playoff run in 2020. What follows is a breakdown on Brown’s enormous talents and the rest of the Titans’ passing game.
Brown was one of the most-efficient rookies the WR position has ever seen
168 rookie WRs have had more than 50 targets in the Randy Moss era (1998-2019). Just 10 managed to average double-digit yards per target:
- Brown (12.5)
- JuJu Smith-Schuster (11.6)
- Lee Evans (11.4)
- Anthony Gonzalez (11.3)
- Hakeem Nicks (10.7)
- Moss (10.6)
- Mike Wallace (10.5)
- Anthony Armstrong (10.1)
- Julio Jones (10.1)
- Odell Beckham (10)
Brown’s ability to rack up yards after the catch was the root of his dominance. NFL's Next-Gen Stats calculates both a receiver's yards after the catch per reception *and* expected yards after the catch per reception. This allows us to see which receivers are under- or over-performing relative to expectations with the ball in their hands. Brown (+4.9) easily posted the single-highest mark in their database (2016-2019) as a rookie. 2018 George Kittle (+3.4) and 2018 D.J. Moore (+3.2) were the only other receivers to finish with a mark above three.
Per PFF, Brown joined Kareem Hunt, Deebo Samuel, Josh Allen, Diontae Johnson, Jonathan Williams and Lamar Jackson as the only players to break at least 0.3 tackles per touch. His average of 8.9 yards after the catch per reception is the highest since 2010 and only challenged by 2012 Percy Harvin (8.7).
Not a stat person? Fine. Even someone that has never watched football before would be able to identify Brown as one of the better players on the field more weeks than not.
The good news in expecting a repeat campaign from Brown is that this should be a similar offense compared to last season.
Don’t expect this passing game to look much different in 2020
The entire Titans offense is essentially filled with the same folks we saw last season.
Both Adam Humphries and Corey Davis are back to join Brown inside of three-WR sets. Both complementary receivers were hampered by injuries last season. I'm #out on Hump functioning as a consistent fantasy option in this offense, but perhaps Davis could be looking at a late-career DeVante Parker-esque breakout. After all, Davis and Parker are the exact same size at 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, both are talented former first-round picks with proven ability, and each has managed to terrorize the NFL's best CB Stephon Gilmore over the years. Exactly zero of Davis' 11 deep ball targets (thrown 20-plus yards downfield) were deemed catchable by PFF in 2020. This offense will undoubtedly flow through Derrick Henry and Brown, but Tannehill might be capable of enabling two somewhat-consistent fantasy WRs if this offense throws the ball just a bit more often in 2020.
Jonnu Smith finished 2019 ranked among the league's top-eight TEs in yards per target (No. 2), yards per route run (No. 8) and yards after the catch per reception (No. 2). The problem is 1) Anthony Firkser steals snaps and targets alike and 2) Smith is this run-first offense's No. 3 (at best) pass-game option. Smith has caught at least five passes in just 4-of-50 career games. Luckily, he's being priced as a low-end TE2 at the moment. Ultimately, Smith is the type of talent that can make the most out of a small workload and a prime example of just how deep this year's fantasy class of TEs truly is.
Derrick Henry was the position's triple-crown winner in 2019, leading the league in rush attempts (303), rush yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16). He had at least 16 touches in every single contest despite at times losing snaps to Dion Lewis in negative game script situations. The Big Dog managed to finish the season as the PPR RB5 with this role and enters 2020 in pretty much the exact offensive situation. Henry won't be confused with Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara as a receiver anytime soon, although only Austin Ekeler (8.6), Kyle Juszczyk (8.2), Miles Sanders (8.1) and Kareem Hunt (7.9) have averaged more yards per target than Henry (7.5) among 69 RBs with at least 50 targets since 2017. He's my clear-cut fantasy RB6.
The offensive line is replacing RT Jack Conklin with incumbent backup OT Dennis Kelly. It *should* be an upgrade in terms of pass protection, although PFF graded the former player as the league's No. 5 overall tackle in run blocking. Luckily, Henry has already proven more than capable of enabling a lackluster front. The Titans boasted the league's ninth-worst offense in yards before contact per rush ... but were the class of the NFL when it came to yards after contact per rush. Tannehill was one of just eight QBs to be pressured on fewer than 30% of their dropbacks last season.
Add it all together and ...
Brown is the type of freaky talent worth betting on
Brown is presently going in the PPR WR13-15 in best-ball formats, but closer to the WR16-18 range in re-draft leagues. Obviously if you can get him in the latter range that's great, but he's worthy of this borderline WR1 hype either way. Most believe Brown to truly be an elite talent, and the likes of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham and D.J. Moore arguably have more questions to be answered in terms of performance and continuity under center.
Of course, the reason to avoid Brown is simple: volume. Brown somehow had just nine combined targets in three playoff games, and he finished with fewer than five catches in all but three regular season affairs. His 84 targets ranked 61st in the league.
The reason for hope is what Brown managed to accomplish after Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota in Week 7. His 16-game split with Tannehill during the regular season amounts to a sizzling 61-1,245-10 receiving line on 98 targets, while it only drops to a still-great 53-1,036-7.4 projection on 87 targets if we include Brown's lackluster postseason into the equation.
Only the Ravens (56%), 49ers (49%) and Vikings (49%) boasted a higher run-play rate than the Titans (47%) last season. Those offenses also have some question marks in terms of pass-game volume, but we certainly aren't too concerned about Mark Andrews, George Kittle or Adam Thielen (at least I'm not).
Brown is the unquestioned No. 1 pass-game target fresh off a season that he put up truly-elite efficiency figures. A repeat in volume wouldn’t be great for his chances at smashing last season’s PPR WR21 production. Still, the potential for enhanced targets on a team that, again, didn’t add anyone could lead to a massive year-two boom.
The Titans are a trendy pick to regress in 2020. Maybe they will … and then they’ll have to pass more in less ideal game-script situations. Brown isn’t a screaming value as the ~WR15, but he’s certainly still worth betting on as a rising baller that has overall WR1 production in his range of outcomes if he manages to get the types of targets that he deserves.