Following AC Leonard, the sixth player featured in this series is also the first rookie wide receiver. The Arizona Cardinals used the 91st overall pick to select former Pittsburgh State (PSU) receiver John Brown in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Though many had Brown graded as a day three draft pick (between rounds four and seven), the fact Head Coach Bruce Arians and the Cardinals spent a valuable third round pick on him speaks volumes about what they believe about the young wide receiver’s potential in the NFL.
Starting his collegiate career at Mars Hill in 2008, Brown caught 27 passes for 619 yards and seven touchdowns, while also displaying electric open field abilities in the return game. He did not play in 2009 and redshirted at Coffeyville Community College in 2010 to get academic issues under control, then re-emerged with PSU in 2011. Returning a kickoff for an 84-yard touchdown on his first play with PSU set the tone for an excellent career for the Gorillas.
In his first year with the team, Brown caught 61 passes for 1,216 yards and 12 touchdowns while he contributed out of the backfield and on special teams on his way to 2,293 all-purpose yards. 2012 brought even more accolades as he broke the PSU record for receptions by the end of his second season. He rounded out his collegiate years with a third consecutive selection as an All-American. When all was said and done, Brown’s three seasons with PSU included 185 receptions for 3,380 yards and 32 touchdowns (all school records), which accounted for only 54% of his 6,244 all-purpose yards and 71% of his 45 total touchdowns. Brown put himself on the map for NFL teams after leading his team in receptions and as a three-year captain.
Perhaps known best for his 4.34 40 yard dash at the Combine (which was second only to Brandin Cooks’ 4.33), Brown has much more to offer the Cardinals than speed. The 5’10”, 179 pound receiver accelerates well off the line to gain immediate separation and is excellent at starting and stopping on a dime. He’s a strong route runner with good hands, which has allowed him to excel as a deep threat, in the slot and as both kickoff and punt returner. Despite the academic eligibility issues prior to his time at PSU, Brown has a reputation of having a very high football IQ and is a well-respected leader with a strong work ethic.
A lean frame is the root cause for concerns about Brown. He is not a strong blocker, struggles to break tackles and defenders can break his rhythm by pushing him off his routes. Small hands and short arms limit his ability to overcome the bullying he takes on the field and created too much of a tendency for drops, an issue when his playing style may limit the number of targets he receives to begin with. Detractors also point to a lack of strong competition and age (Brown will be 24) as additional negatives associated with the rookie.
Considering which team and head coach drafted Brown, however, I am confident the offensive scheme will be designed to deemphasize these deficiencies as much as possible. Remember that Arians was key in selecting and developing both Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis – John Brown is cut from the same mold as an undersized but electric receiver with versatility. He is also in a great position to step in as the third wide receiver behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, a role left vacant with the departure of Andre Roberts, with only first-round bust Ted Ginn, Jr. and undrafted free agent Jaron Brown as competition for the spot. Referred to by his Arizona coaches as “fearless over the middle,” he is likely to play both in the slot and outside depending on where Fitzgerald lines up in three-wide sets.
News out of training camp has been nothing but impressive. Starting off with a bang by catching an 80-yard touchdown pass in his first padded practice, he’s fast off the line to quickly create separation, is gaining solid yardage after the catch against his teammates in the secondary and has generally displayed a strong understanding of the offense. Putting in extra time with Carson Palmer has certainly helped Brown to get off on the right foot.
In dynasty, while it is high praise to compare John Brown to Antonio Brown of the Steelers, the two are almost exactly the same size with similar concerns coming out of college. The primary differences are likely connected and both in the rookie’s favor, with John having a faster 40 yard dash (4.34 to 4.56) and a much higher draft selection (third round to sixth round). Clearly, this NFL comparison is an optimistic projection for a player who has yet to play a down in the NFL, but if the rookie can prove durable when taking hits from NFL competition and his collegiate skills translate well to the NFL he has a high ceiling. Until Fitzgerald departs, however, Brown’s upside is capped as no better than the team’s third receiving option (and as of now fourth behind Andre Ellington as well).
In July mock drafts, Brown’s stock was consistent throughout the six leagues, averaging as the last pick in the sixteenth round (168th) and was between #162 and #178 in each draft. Among rookies, DLF rankers have him as the #23 wide receiver and #43 overall, putting him as a mid-fourth round pick. This valuation is consistent with my experience in rookie drafts over the past three months, though his stock has crept up to the mid-third round in my final rookie mock in late July (look out for Jacob Feldman’s article on this draft soon in DLF Premium). With the reports out of Arizona’s training camp and the further research (including game tape) completed for this article, I am absolutely buying Brown at the price of a third or fourth round rookie pick.