Against All Odds: Why John Brown Will Emerge in Arizona
Throughout his entire life, John Brown has heard everyone tell him what he couldn't do.
When he was in high school, people told him he would never make it to varsity. In college, he was told he would never start. And even after a successful career at Pittsburg State, he was still told he would never play in the NFL.
And throughout his entire life, John Brown has fought to prove everyone wrong.
At Pittsburg State, Brown was not only a starter for the Gorillas but also became the school's all-time leader in receptions (185), receiving yards (3,380) and receiving touchdowns (34). And when the Arizona Cardinals selected Brown with the 91st overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, he once again quieted his biggest critics to fulfill a promise he made years ago to his brother on his death bed.
So now as Brown enters his second year with the Cardinals and doubts begin to set in regarding whether or not his small frame can handle the demands of an entire NFL season and whether he can compete with teammates Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd for opportunities on this offense, it's all just business as usual.
A Promising Start
In his rookie year, John Brown accumulated a modest but respectable stat line of 48 receptions for 696 yards and 5 touchdowns. Not bad for the third receiver in the Cardinals crowded offense. But is this it for the receiver out of Pittsburg State? Has the young wideout already reached his peak?
If you look strictly at Brown's profile, you'll wonder how such an undersized receiver with such a small catch radius could ever find success in the NFL beyond these figures.
But one does not simply collect the type of numbers Brown amassed at the collegiate level without having a few tricks up his sleeve.
And indeed -- as I'll go into further detail a little bit later in this analysis -- it's Brown's smooth, explosive breaks that affords him just enough separation from his defender to get himself open. With this athletic ability at Brown's disposal it becomes evident that he doesn't need a large window to win possession of the ball.
But what he does need is an accurate quarterback.
Given his size limitations, Brown relies on having a quarterback with the anticipation to predict where he will break off from his defender and the accuracy to deliver the ball to him in precisely the right location, as illustrated by this play.
This dependence on quarterback play was evident in his rookie season, when the Cardinals starting signal caller Carson Palmer missed more than half the season due to injury.
Carson Palmer has easily proven himself to be the Cardinals' best option at quarterback and the only player capable of fully taking advantage of Brown's skill set. His Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play of 0.18 and completion rate of 62.9% from last year far surpassed the numbers held by backups Drew Stanton (.03 and 55.0%), Ryan Lindley (-0.12 and 48.4%), and Logan Thomas (-0.21 and 11.1%).
NEP is our signature football metric. It quantifies a player's on-field production and compares it to league average -- or expectation-level -- production.
So, as one would expect, once Palmer went down to injury, Brown's rookie season production suffered from the inferior play of Arizona's backup quarterbacks. While his catches and targets remained roughly the same, Brown experienced a drop in receiving yards, yards per catch, and touchdowns on a per-game basis in Palmer's absence.
On this note, if we project Brown's rookie numbers with Palmer under center over an entire 16-game season, we see that his totals would have been far more impressive last year.
But while these numbers are nothing to sneeze at, we'll soon see that Brown's potential in the NFL still goes well beyond these simple projections.
The Next T.Y. Hilton?
When trying to predict Brown's potential in the league, one name that often comes up due to their similarities both on paper and in the film room is Indianapolis Colts leading receiver T.Y. Hilton. Indeed, when looking at their NFL Combine numbers, their resemblance to each other is uncanny.
|Hght||Wght||Arms||Hands||40 yd||Bnch||Vert||Broad||3Cone||20 ss|
|John Brown||5' 10"||179||30½"||8½"||4.34||8||36½"||119"||6.91||4.12|
|T.Y. Hilton||5' 10"||183||32"||8½"||4.34||7||35½"||119"||7.03||4.36|
And just like these nearly identical measurables between Brown and Hilton, their playing styles on the field also mirror each other. As seen with Hilton on this play and with Brown on this one, both receivers use their explosive change-of-direction ability to dance around defenders in pursuit. Both wideouts can also turn on the jets and use their world-class speed to blow by defenders as seen here for Hilton and here for Brown.
Indeed, based on the projections above, it's reasonable to think that had Palmer stayed healthy all last season, Brown could have easily matched the 50 receptions, 861 yards, and 7 touchdowns T.Y. Hilton accumulated in his rookie year.
Perhaps even more impressively, when pressed for his opinion on which player Brown most reminded him of, head coach Bruce Arians actually had another former Colts wideout in mind: Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison. And just one look at the film reveals why Arians would make such a comparison. Both Harrison and Brown demonstrate an ability to use subtle moves and superb footwork to get a defender's hips turned to then break away from his coverage as seen here for Harrison and here for Brown.
All in all, it's easy to see that when it comes to John Brown's comparisons to other pros in the league -- both former and present -- Brown finds himself in quite impressive company.
Climbing the Ladder
On the surface, it looks as though Brown will again be the third or fourth option in the passing game behind Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and Andre Ellington. But on closer inspection we see that there just might be enough of a window for Brown to emerge as the top receiving option on this team by the end of the 2015 season.
Larry Fitzgerald finds his career on the decline as age catches up to the All-Pro wideout. At 31 years of age, his Reception NEP of 67.1 marks his least productive season from the past eight years. For Michael Floyd, despite his superior physical metrics, even when Palmer was at the helm last season he still failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him at the beginning of last year.
Of course, these circumstances do not guarantee on-field success for Brown, but just as he has shown us time and time again on the field, if you give this guy an inch, he's liable to take a mile.
And with strong comparisons to other successful, undersized wideouts like T.Y. Hilton and Marvin Harrison, it's reasonable to believe that Brown can take advantage of even the smallest of opportunities to put his career on the same trajectory as these two Pro Bowl receivers. For the 2015 season it's particularly enticing to believe that Brown can make the same large leap his sophomore season that T.Y. Hilton took back in 2013.
But as I've discussed earlier, regardless of his potential and physical abilities, Brown is not quarterback-proof. Ultimately -- just like Harrison with Peyton Manning and Hilton with Andrew Luck -- a lot of John Brown's success may also depend on the person standing under center for the Cardinals. But if Carson Palmer can stay healthy for this upcoming season and return to the top-10 quarterback form he enjoyed earlier in his career, Brown could once again prove his doubters wrong and find himself in the midst of a breakout season for the Cardinals in 2015.