Fantasy Football: John Brown Is Poised to Break Out

After battling injuries in 2016, the slick Arizona Cardinals receiver is healthy and ready to contribute.

Next time you're lying in bed, nursing a cold, and feeling sorry for yourself, think about John Brown.

In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals speedy wide receiver surpassed the 1000-yard milestone, but 2016 was an injury-filled nightmare. A concussion suffered in the offseason set him back prior to the first game even being played, and it was later learned that the team was trying to manage his sickle-cell trait, which wasn’t discovered until midway through the season. If that wasn’t enough, Cards head coach Bruce Arians revealed that Brown played the majority of the season with a cyst on his spine.

Brown comes into camp at 100%, but can we expect a return to form?

Discounted Talent

It doesn’t take a doctor to recognize that Brown was severely limited when he took the field last season. However, Brown, who lived with Palmer this summer, is supposedly flashing the pre-injury form that led him to a top-24 finish in PPR leagues two years ago.

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Reception NEP/Target Reception NEP/Target Pos. Avg.
2014 16 102 48 696 5 0.60 0.66
2015 15 101 65 1003 7 0.84 0.67
2016 15 73 39 517 2 0.69 0.66

Brown's career got off to a great start. In 2014, he tallied nearly 700 yards and five touchdowns with a combination of Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton under center, and followed that performance as the 22nd best wide receiver in PPR formats in 2015.

In fact, in 2015, Brown was one of just three wideouts -- Sammy Watkins and Doug Baldwin being the other two -- to finish in the top-24 in PPR leagues with fewer than 105 targets, all while sharing targets with Michael Floyd and ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald.

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

In 2014, Brown was just below the league average in Reception NEP/Target, demonstrating that he was slightly less efficient than the average wide receiver -- understandable, given his low catch rate and high usage downfield. However, his 2015 season saw a rebound in this area, and even his disappointing 2016 season was slightly above average from an efficiency standpoint. On the downside, for the first time in Brown’s career, he failed to see 100 targets.

Floyd was cut before the end of last season, and Fitzgerald is almost 34 years old. So what does this mean?

Historical Trends

For much of the 2016 season, David Johnson operated as the second option in the pass game because of a lack of alternatives (although he also happens to be pretty good at this sport). Here’s a look at how the Cardinals targets were distributed last year:

Player Targets Market Share
Larry Fitzgerald 150 23.20%
David Johnson 120 18.60%
J.J. Nelson 74 11.50%
John Brown 73 11.30%
Michael Floyd 70 10.80%
Jermaine Gresham 61 9.40%

Diving into Arizona’s historical trends over the past seasons, it’s clear that Brown’s limitations handcuffed the entire offense.

Role 2014 2015 2016
RB 1 11.29% 10.12% 18.52%
TE 1 9.70% 5.68% 9.41%
WR 1 18.34% 25.75% 23.15%
WR 2 18.17% 17.94% 11.42%
WR 3 17.46% 15.81% 11.11%
Other 25.04% 24.69% 26.39%

Assuming Brown’s healthy again, he figures to slide right back into the number two role behind the aging, yet imposing Fitzgerald. Outside of Fitz and Johnson, the entire passing offense is unsettled, and Brown should be a lock to see nearly 100 targets, if not more.

In 2014 and 2015, the Cardinals targeted their WR2 18.2 and 17.9 percent of the time, respectively. In 2016, that number dropped to 11.4 percent amidst Michael Floyd’s immense struggles and Brown’s health issues. J.J. Nelson -- a diminutive player who profiles best as a deep threat -- was moonlighting as the number two receiver for much of the second half of the season, particularly after Floyd was cut.

Averaging the market shares for Arizona's second receiver in 2014 and 2015 gives us an 18.05% target share. Even if the Cardinals pass just 600 times in 2017 (88 fewer attempts than last year, and more in line with the two years prior), Brown arrives at 108 targets. However, there's reason to believe last year's pass-heavy trend may continue.

Opportunity Abounds

The Cardinals were viewed as Super Bowl contenders last offseason before taking a step back in 2016. The team's collective struggles forced them to pass more, as a result of facing negative game scripts more often.

YearRecordP/R RatioP/R League RatePASS PlaysRUSH PlaysPlays

Arizona’s offense won’t look particularly different than it did at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Despite possessing arguably the NFL’s best running back, the Cardinals operated the league’s sixth pass-heaviest offense, often leaning on Johnson through the air as an extension of their run game.

There are 88 vacated targets (17 percent) from last year available for the taking this season, and the only notable addition to the offense is third-round rookie Chad Williams, who is a long shot to contribute much statistically in his first pro season.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that 24 percent of the air yards from last year are available, and Brown has long been a successful downfield receiver. A return to health should be a massive boon to his fantasy value.

At a PPR average draft position (ADP) of WR43 -- 105th overall -- according to Fantasy Football Calculator, his downside is already priced into his ADP. His upside in PPR leagues places him inside the top-24 at his position. An explosive, downfield receiver that compares physically to T.Y. Hilton is healthy and stepping into more opportunity than he’s ever seen.

What’s not to like?