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Fantasy War of Words: A.J. Brown (2020 Fantasy Football)

Jun 17, 2020

Welcome to our Fantasy War of Words series, in which two of our analysts go head-to-head via email to defend their rankings position on a notable player ahead of the 2020 fantasy football season. In this edition, Dan Harris and Mike Tagliere lock horns over their respective rankings of Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (Dan has him as the WR10 in 1/2 PPR scoring, while Tags lists him as the WR19.)

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Dan Harris: Well, I usually like to save our debates for “What’s your problem, man,” but I think we can kick things off a little early with some A.J. Brown discussions. I’ll get the obvious out of the way – your ranking of Brown in 1/2 PPR (19th) is closer to FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking (16) than is my ranking (10). But still, 19th, Tags? The fact that Brown was the first receiver – not rookie receiver, but receiver – to put up 1,000 receiving yards in a season on fewer than 90 targets means nothing to you?

As a guy who at one time was a staunch defender of Corey Davis‘s fantasy value, why are you telling the fantasy community to avoid A.J. Brown at all costs and that he’s going to be a total disaster from a fantasy perspective and that you should draft even retired receivers over him? I think that’s a fair interpretation of your ranking.

Mike Tagliere: Look here, Harris. Take it from your Draftathlon champion, you’re going to lose this argument. Did you know that outside of Brown, there were ZERO wide receivers who finished inside the top-36 with fewer than 54 receptions in the full PPR format? The fact that Brown finished as the No. 21 wide receiver despite catching just 52 passes screams regression. Can we anticipate a larger role? Sure. Can we project them to change their offensive philosophy? No. This is mind-blowing. The Titans in 2018: 58.8 plays per game, 432 pass attempts. The Titans in 2019: 58.8 plays per game, 448 pass attempts. There is simply not enough volume for him to get a large bump in targets.

He also averaged 8.9 yards AFTER THE CATCH in 2019, a number that is impossible to sustain. Among receivers with at least 85 targets, none of them averaged more than 6.7 yards after the catch. Even removing only 2.2 yards per reception, Brown would’ve been the No. 28 wide receiver instead of the No. 21, and we haven’t even gotten into the fact that he’s due for touchdown regression. C’mon, Harris. You’re better than this as a projections guy.

Yards After Catch/Reception Leaders (WR/TE)*

1 A.J. Brown (TEN) 52 465 8.9
2 Deebo Samuel (SF) 57 473 8.3
3 Noah Fant (DEN) 40 330 8.3

* Minimum 40 receptions

DH: First of all, don’t tell me what I’m better than, ok? I’m better than nothing! Second of all, you’re right, I am a projections guy, so let’s clarify a few things. Brown had 52 receptions on 84 targets last year. But if you extrapolate out his stats with Ryan Tannehill under center, that goes to 58 receptions on 95 targets. Oh, and his receiving yards go from 1,051 to 1,165, which would have been the seventh-most EVER for a rookie. Oh, not good enough for you? Well what about the fact that Brown didn’t play at least 65% of the snaps until Week 9 last year. From that point on, during which he played at least 69.4% of the snaps in each game, he had 30 catches for 704 yards and five touchdowns. That’s a 60-catch, 1,408-yard, 10-touchdown pace (#math). He was also on pace to see 100 targets over that eight-game stretch.

You want to talk about regression in yards after the catch or touchdowns, fine. But even you must admit he’s going to tally 15-20 more receptions to balance that out?

MT: That’s where my issue begins, Woody. Even when he played more than that 65 percent of snaps benchmark, he was targeted five or less times in 6-of-11 games. He had exactly one catch in four of those games. He legitimately disappeared, even if it’s not all his fault. That’s how things work in the Titans offense. Over his final 10 games of the season, in half PPR, there were point totals of 2.2, 6.0, 3.9, 0.9, 1.4, and 6.6. That’s 60 percent of games that’d be considered useless to fantasy owners. I won’t say that there’ll be natural progression to his game – there will be. However, your projections are expecting him to average 23.5 yards per reception? I’m knocking him down to 14.5 yards per reception and have him catching 70 passes for 1,010 yards and seven touchdowns.

That came in at No. 21 in my projections, though that doesn’t build in the upside potential that I know he has, so I bumped him to the No. 19 wide receiver. I can even make the case for 17-18, but having him WR10 is #notgood. That would mean he needs to be drafted at the end of the second-round/beginning of the third-round as your WR1. Knowing the points I just made, he’s not WR1 material. Well, not in the current offense, anyway. You can’t have your WR1 disappearing half the time. He’s an upside WR2 that comes with plenty of risk. Don’t worry, I still love you.

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DH: Just because my skinny arms flail around as if independent from my body does not mean you get to call me Woody all the time. Well, fine, but I’m calling you Buzz Lightyear. I admit that Brown was not, and probably will not be, the most consistent receiver in the game. But let’s stop manipulating the data here – three of the games you’re talking about were playoff games, two of which were against two of the top teams in defensive DVOA against the pass where the Titans were ahead for pretty much the entire game. In the eight games I was talking about – you know, the ones that ACTUALLY count for fantasy purposes – Brown’s 0.5 PPR point totals were 10.1, 2.2, 23.5, 6.0, 31.1, 21.4, 14.8, and 22.4. You want to quibble with that? Be my guest, Buzz.

And yes, Brown was incredible after the catch, but it wasn’t exactly like he was targeted near the line of scrimmage and had to consistently break tackles just to gain yards. He had a 13.2 aDOT, 20th in the league among receivers with at least 60 targets. And let me ask, do you think his incredible performance after the catch last year is a total fluke? He was the best in the league in yards per contact after the catch and second in missed tackles forced per reception among receivers with at least 50 targets. Even if he regresses a bit after the catch, don’t you think he’ll still be one of the best in the league?

MT: I noticed you conveniently left out the Week 16 game during the fantasy championship where he caught precisely one ball for 34 scoreless yards, leaving his fantasy owners out to dry. Look, I had Brown as the 1B receiver to D.K. Metcalf‘s 1A in last year’s draft class, so I’m not going to argue that he’s not talented. As for the yards after the catch, here’s the stats to back up why his 13.4-yard average depth of target is actually a detriment to his YAC numbers. He was the only receiver (wide receiver or tight end) inside the top five in YAC who averaged more than 7.8 air yards per target.

To simplify that, receivers who play in the slot and see a shorter average depth of target are almost always the YAC monsters. He lined up in the slot a measly 10.4 percent of the time in 2019. If he has the same efficiency (he won’t), yards after the catch (he won’t), and touchdown rate (he won’t) with a bump in targets… sure, he can get to WR10. The bump in targets will offset his regression, which is why he should finish in that middling WR2 range, which is not worth a top-25 pick in fantasy drafts. To me, he’s a fourth-round pick where you’re accepting risk in order to gain potential upside.

Contested Catch Success Rate (out of 34 eligible WRs)*

32 Chris Conley (JAX) 33.3%
33 Deebo Samuel (SF) 30.0%
34 A.J. Brown (TEN) 29.3%

*minimum 20 contested catches; source: Pro Football Focus

DH: I understand that you don’t want to credit Brown for his 49-yard touchdown run in Week 16 that topped off his fantastic playoff performances for his fantasy managers, but it happened, and it all counts, man. Look, yards per route run is one of the most predictive measures in football, and Brown was THIRD among wide receivers with at least 50 targets last year at 2.67. He was second in passer rating when targeted and first in yards per target among that group, too. As. A. Rookie. But we’ve beaten this one up pretty good, so I’ll close shop with this.

You’re right, Brown is going to see regression in his efficiency, and his targets are going to hit a ceiling based on Tennessee’s offensive philosophy. But over his last eight games (so once he finally topped 65% of the snaps as I said earlier), he saw 24% of the targets – that would be a pace of 107 targets even if the Titans remained at their ridiculously low 448 pass attempts. And although the Titans will continue to be a run-first team, I think the pass attempts could and should easily continue to increase. The offensive line is worse without Jack Conklin and Derrick Henry had over 400 touches including the playoffs last year, so they’ll likely need to dial back the running plays somewhat. And remember, Ryan Tannehill was hyper-efficient, leading to fewer plays overall. There will be regression in his efficiency, but given that Brown is so physically gifted and was so good as a rookie, I think there’s little risk and plenty of upside. Have your last word, my friend.

MT: Oh, Daniel-san… there are times you make my life easier. You just said 107 targets with a 24 percent target share. Even if we give the Titans a ridiculous bump up to 500 pass attempts (very unlikely), we’d be looking at 120 targets (with a 24 percent target share). Do you know how many receivers have finished top-10 over the last five years with 120 or less targets? Six. That’s it. Again, you can bet on Brown being an outlier, but WR10 seems like the absolute best-case scenario. You shouldn’t gamble with a pick inside the top-30. But I’m glad we had this talk, because I want you to be the best you can be. *wink*

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