For any NFL player, a standout rookie season always equals higher expectations. That is true for the next year and for the rest of that player’s career.
Those expectations, however, can also be a curse. The term ‘sophomore slump’ exists for a reason, and a player gets labeled with such when he falls short of expectations or disappoints in one or more ways.
A.J. Brown trended upward throughout his first year in the NFL. The wide receiver led the Tennessee Titans in every major receiving category, registering 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns. Among all rookie wide receivers, the 2019 second-round selection was first in receiving yards and total touchdowns (nine) and tied with Darius Slayton of the New York Giants for the most receiving touchdowns.
Afterward, Brown adopted a get-better-at-everything approach to the offseason and said the possibility of a slump never occurred to him. Six games into his second season, there has been no sign of one either.
“Each and every day I come out here and try to be better than I was yesterday,” he said in August. “I don’t really look at all that [sophomore slump]. I really don’t care about it. People are going to say whatever they want to say. That doesn’t really phase me. It is what it is.”
While the 6-foot-1, 226-pound wide receiver has missed two games this season with a knee injury, he has not missed a beat with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who targeted Brown more than any other receiver after taking over as starter in Week 6 of last season. Brown currently leads the Titans with 23 catches for 332 yards. His four touchdown receptions are second to tight end Jonnu Smith (five).
In three games since he returned from the injury, Tannehill has connected with Brown 18 times on 24 targets for 293 yards and four touchdowns.
In the Titans’ 27-24 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, Brown caught six passes on eight targets for 153 yards -- the most yards by an opposing running back against the Steelers’ defense this season. Only seven players across the league have had more receiving yards in a game.
With the Titans training 27-7 in the third quarter and in need of a spark, Tannehill connected with Brown on a slant pattern over the middle of the field for a 73-yard touchdown (pictured). The score, which was Tennessee’s longest passing play of the season, was also the longest play Pittsburgh’s defense has given up this season.
Brown reached 21.52 miles per hour en route to the endzone -- the fastest speed by a wide receiver this season, according to Next Gen Stats.
“He’s got really good play strength,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said on Monday. “He's got really good play speed out on the field, in pads, equipment, with the ball in his hands. That's something that you've seen from … (Brown), to be able to take those short gains or a run that you may not think it's going to go as far as it does, and they've been able to break them.”
Among wide receivers in the 2019 draft class this season, Brown is sixth in catches, fourth in receiving yards and second in touchdowns, trailing only D.K. Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks (5 touchdowns). Additionally, he ranks second in the group with an average of 83 yards per-game and third with 19 catches for first downs. His 73-yard catch-and-run to the end zone on Sunday is the longest play by any receiver drafted in 2019 so far this season.
Brown’s numbers would be higher now if he had not been sidelined for two games, but it’s the same story regardless: he is building off his rookie season not regressing.
Many had lofty expectations for Brown in the offseason. Six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson predicted the 23-year-old would have a 1,500-yard season, while others chimed in with bold prophecies of their own.
There’s no telling if Brown will reach any of those expectations this season. Presumably, he could care less if he did. But at the very least, he already has solidified himself as the Titans’ No. 1 wide receiver, and one of the best, if not the best wide receiver from the 2019 draft class.