Is John Brown Set to Become T.Y. Hilton Version 2.0?

T.Y. Hilton found success as a rookie under Bruce Arians, but will John Brown be able to do the same?

“Now this kid is tiny, but he’s explosive.”

That’s how NFL Network’s Mike Mayock described Cardinals’ third-round pick John Brown. At 5’10” and 175 pounds, Brown may not actually seem so small by normal standards. However, when comparing his hand size (8.5”) and arm length (30.5”) to that of fellow NFL players like rookie Kelvin Benjamin (10.25” and 35”), it’s easy to see why “tiny” is an appropriate description.

For those of you unfamiliar with Brown, he originally played at Division II Mars Hill University before moving to fellow Division II school Pittsburg State University. He had a pretty productive college career, often flashing big-play ability thanks to his game-changing speed. Brown has experience as a kick returner and punt returner from his college days, and is expected to serve as the backup kick returner behind Tedd Ginn Jr. for Arizona this season.

So why has there been growing hype surrounding Brown as we get closer and closer to the season? A big part of the reason has been his strong play in the preseason and the abundance of compliments he’s received from the coaching staff of the Cardinals. Notably, head coach Bruce Arians stated that Brown could play on 60 percent of offensive snaps in 2014, and general manager Steve Keim said Brown has the potential to put up Anquan Boldin-esque production in his rookie season. For reference, Boldin had 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight scores as a first-year pass-catcher.

While Keim is highly optimistic at best and completely delusional at worst, Brown is still an interesting case to dive into. Will he be valuable in redraft leagues this season? Let’s start by looking at the player he is most commonly compared to.

John and T.Y.

Brown’s measurements are an almost identical match to those of T.Y. Hilton. Their hands are both 8.5”, they’re both about 5’10” flat, and they weigh within four pounds of each other. Beyond their size comparables, Hilton played in an Arians-offense his rookie season, much like Brown will this year. Both Hilton and Brown attended schools that are far from football powerhouses, and both possess elite speed in the 4.3-4.4 second 40-yard-dash range. Additionally, they were drafted at almost the exact same spot, as Brown went 91st overall and Hilton 92nd. Are we sure Brown isn’t literally T.Y. Hilton? I’m not convinced.

Conveniently, Hilton played just a hair over 57% of offensive snaps for the Colts in his 2012 rookie season, right around the 60% mark Arians set for Brown. The following table is how Hilton performed in various Net Expected Points (NEP) categories in 2012, including his overall finishes compared to every other NFL receiver that season:

Reception NEPTarget NEPReception NEP/Target
82.46 (26th)44.49 (19th)0.92 (3rd)

Reception NEP per target ranking is among receivers with greater than or equal to 75 targets

Hilton clearly was a strong performer in his rookie season. And in 2012, he had the third-most snaps amongst Colts wideouts. He saw 682 total snaps to Reggie Wayne’s 1,099 and Donnie Avery’s 1,044. While the combo of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, the receivers above Brown on the depth chart, is likely a stronger one than what was in front of Hilton in 2012, the third receiver in an Arians offense can absolutely see enough snaps to be fantasy-relevant.

In fact, last season, Arians’ first as the head coach of the Cardinals, Andre Roberts saw 622 snaps as the third receiver in Arizona - only 60 receivers saw more snaps than Roberts last year. In other words, as the third receiver for the Cardinals, Roberts played as much as many snaps as what would be a lightly-used second receiver. Obviously, injuries and roster shuffles that occurred last year skew that figure, but it’s clear Arians likes to get a third receiver on the field. If Brown claims sole possession of the third receiving job over Ginn, which he is well expected to do, then he should have ample opportunity to put up strong numbers.

Quarterback play certainly is an element that shouldn’t be ignored when comparing Hilton’s rookie season to Brown’s. In 2012, the Colts’ team Adjusted Passing NEP (adjusted for strength of schedule) was 35.76, 16th best in the league. In other words, it wasn’t like the offense Hilton played in was an aerial showcase. After all, Andrew Luck was just a rookie that year.

Meanwhile, last year, the Cardinals team Adjusted Passing NEP was 26.51, 19th highest in the league. Carson Palmer performed far better later in the season than he had earlier, and with the blossoming of Floyd and running back Andre Ellington, the passing game in Arizona in 2014 could easily be better than the passing attack the Colts had in 2012. So, should Brown see the roughly 60% of offensive snaps that Hilton saw in 2012, he could certainly produce at a relatively high level.

All Upside

Despite the pretty optimistic perspective I’m giving on Brown’s 2014 outlook, there are some caveats. Namely, there's no way to truly know if Brown will see as many snaps as Arians claims he will. Further, while Hilton managed to successfully adjust to facing NFL-caliber talent, it remains to be seen if Brown will be as successful. They’re extremely similar players, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Brown will pan-out simply because Hilton did.

That all being said, there's no reason to worry about Brown in 2014. Why? Because he costs you absolutely nothing.

For ESPN drafts, he’s being selected as the 81st wide receiver on average. In other words, he’s being selected as a sixth receiver for a 14-team league. Even on MyFantasyLeague, which tends to have a lot of savvy, experienced drafters, Brown’s being selected as the 253rd player overall.

The reasons to doubt that Brown can perform at a fantasy-relevant level in 2014 are there, but none of his upside is currently tied into his average draft position. He’s essentially a free player, a guy you could pick up in almost any league. Given his explosiveness and potentially large role in the Cardinals’ offense, he’s absolutely worth considering.