NASHVILLE – In three years with the Tennessee Titans, wide receiver A.J. Brown turned into one of the NFL’s top receivers. In so doing, he clearly outperformed his rookie contract.
The question that led to Brown’s trade on Thursday: Just what was his worth when it came time to signing a new deal?
In an offseason that’s seen teams throw huge money at wide receivers time and time again – whether through free agency or trades with extensions – the Titans chose to draw the line with Brown.
We don’t know what the exact terms Brown sought from the Titans, but we do know he was overheard on a recent social-media post saying the Titans wouldn’t go over $20 million per year.
Combine that tidbit with the size of Brown’s new contract with Philadelphia – a reported four years worth up to $100 million – and you start to get an idea of the size of the difference between the Titans and their budding young star.
“There was a lot of circumstances that went into it,” general manager Jon Robinson said. “A lot of thought, a lot of different things we had to work through. We have compensated players that are on our team, guys in free agency. We have done that.
“Again, I just come back to the gap we were going to have to bridge there. It just seemed really too far for us to really make any progress, and that the return currently for this draft, what we were able to require, was good value for us.”
What Brown’s value was at the start of the offseason was likely much different than it became in recent weeks.
That’s because the wide-receiver market has gone through the roof, a trend illustrated perfectly by the Jacksonville Jaguars signing Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal last month. In four years, Kirk had never topped 1,000 yards, only once catching as many as 70 passes. In comparison, Brown topped 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons – totaling 24 touchdown catches and earning one trip to the Pro Bowl during that stretch.
Kirk’s deal skewed the receiver market as much as any, but consider some of these other eye-popping deals that were struck over the last couple months: Green Bay’s Davante Adams (five years, worth up to $140 million); Miami’s Tyreek Hill (four years, worth up to $120 million); Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs (five years, worth up to $72 million); Carolina’s D.J. Moore (three years, worth up to $61.9 million); Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin (three years, worth up to $60 million); and the L.A. Chargers’ Mike Williams (three years, worth up to $60 million).
Another way of looking at it: In 2021, only one wide receiver -- Amari Cooper -- had a cap value of $20 million or more. In 2023, the number of wide receivers with a cap value of $20 million or more is now up to 15, including Brown.
Brown, like other standout receivers from his draft class – such as San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf and Washington’s Terry McLaurin – were clearly ready to taste some of that money, even if they hadn’t played as many years as their counterparts.
Did all those new deals play a part in negotiations?
“I think it did,” Robinson said. “When these guys started to come in, contractually, there was kind of a new bar. The bar had kind of been raised on that position. We were trying to work through that and find some common ground. But in the end, (we) just felt like it was at a spot we weren’t going to be able to get to.”
Added coach Mike Vrabel: “I know what the gap we had to bridge was. This wasn’t easy.”
The Titans did consider other options, such as placing a franchise tag on Brown after the 2022 season. But in the end, Robinson sounded like someone who wanted a long-term deal, but did not see it happening. When that scenario became reality for Robinson, it was time to get as much value as possible for Brown, which is why the Titans traded him to the Eagles for the 18th and 101st picks in the draft.
A few picks later, the Titans sent the 26th overall pick – and the newly acquired 101st pick – to the New York Jets in exchange for a second-round pick (35th overall), a third-round pick (69th overall) and a fifth-round pick (163rd overall).
The Titans did not have a second-round pick at the start of the draft.
“Unfortunately we understand that if we’re going to be here a while, we’re not going to be able to keep every single player that we draft and develop,” Vrabel said. “This is where we’re at. We’re excited to be able to be picking players (Friday).”