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A.J. Brown was better than D.K. Metcalf in college. Will that continue?

The Ole Miss teammates are among the two top WRs in the draft, and the guy without the numbers has gotten most of the hype.

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Images: USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images.

Somewhere during the run-up to the draft, D.K. Metcalf’s 6’3, 225-pound frame and massive potential overtook his former teammate, A.J. Brown. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you show up to the NFL Combine looking like this (Metcalf’s on the left and Brown’s on the right):

That was the first time many had seen Metcalf since a neck injury cut his final season in Oxford short.

Now Metcalf is near the top of plenty of mock draft boards despite the fact Brown’s been one of the most productive receivers in college football for the last two seasons. Brown is Ole Miss’ all-time leading receiver in yards and 100-yard games and the only Rebs WR ever with at least 60 receptions in back-to-back seasons.

Both are considered to be among the five best receivers in the class. They’ll probably be compared to each other for a long time.

But a closer look shows why direct comparison is tricky.

In Metcalf, a team is getting a raw prospect and hoping they can turn him into a complete receiver.

When Metcalf is at his best, he’s using physicality in press situations and blowing right by DBs with straight-line speed.

On vertical routes, if you let him get your hands on you, things get dangerous. He gets DBs flipped way out of position, and no DB is able to turn around to chase 4.3 speed. He uses his strong hands to limit DBs as they transition through contact. And if you can’t turn quickly enough to run with him, it’s over.

In the play above (bottom of the screen), he swats Saivion Smith’s arm away and runs a 75-yard dash to the end zone on the first play of the game. Metcalf pushes Smith’s body where it’s already going (hips to the sideline, perpendicular to Metcalf’s).

You can see that a little bit here too.

Here against Texas Tech, he jab steps with his left foot, gets the DB’s hips to the sidelines, uses his hands, and buh-bye.

What’s proved effective against him is showing press and then not actually pressing. Keep your hands off, make him declare, and just run with him. He’s fast, but he’s not that much faster than a talented DB.

Like this play here (bottom of the screen). The DB waits for Metcalf, and the QB has to look elsewhere.

Top of the screen here against Texas Tech shows the same thing:

Metcalf doesn’t release effectively enough to get natural separation without manhandling DBs. Having a head of steam is great, but he’s gotta actually get it first.

LSU’s Greedy Williams wrote the book on shutting Metcalf down (bottom of the screen).

Matched up against the future NFL corner, Metcalf was targeted 10 times. Five were on short curl routes. He caught three of those and dropped the other two. On Metcalf’s vertical routes, there was a lot of this (bottom of the screen) ...

... and this (also bottom of the screen).

But what about his non-vertical routes? Fine, let’s talk about that combine performance.

The 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill are the clearest combine measures of agility. And they may explain Metcalf’s poor releases and why he struggles to run routes that ask him to change direction. There are some productive NFL players who had similar agility drills, but his performance in those drills was still flat-out bad.

If your team wants a more polished wideout, just look at the other side of Ole Miss’ formation.

There is no question Brown was the far more efficient WR in college. From SB Nation’s own Bill Connelly’s statistical breakdown of the whole 2019 WR class:

Metcalf was absolutely, positively awful on blitz downs.

Let me rephrase that: on the downs in which the offense needed its playmakers to most step up, Metcalf was not only mediocre — he was horrid. He caught one of four blitz-down passes and generally went nowhere with them. His battery mate DaMarkus Lodge didn’t do much either.

No, when Ole Miss quarterbacks needed a completion, they knew to go to A.J. Brown. He not only provided pretty easy pitch-and-catch opportunities out of the slot, he also actually did something with those catches.

One of our resident former NFL players, Stephen White, broke down Brown’s capabilities.

One thing I really liked about Brown’s film is that I was able to see him working from both out wide and in the slot. I don’t have to guess whether or not he could fit at either spot because I have seen him do it now, and thus I have no doubt that he has the ability line up and play well wherever a team wants to put him.

Oh, what Brown can do for you.

Ole Miss calls that route “storm,” and his QB, Jordan Ta’amu, told SB Nation how Brown makes it work.

“They’re [the outside receivers] taking the outside release to take away the safeties and take away the corners,” Ta’amu said as he drew up the play. “A.J. Brown has all this room to find space — we call that a Storm route.

“He has all this room, so he can zig-zag however, but he needs to get out there fast because I only have a certain amount of time. He usually breaks out, breaks back in, and runs back over the top. He’s just so fast. A.J. is always going to be open.”

Brown’s quick in and out of breaks, like you want from a slot receiver, and his route running is technically sound. You can see how that Auburn DB doesn’t have time to react.

He is reliable and had a 72 percent catch rate (the national average is 62.6) and 80 catches in 2018. He’s also a yards-after-catch monster. On the list of SEC receivers who have forced the most missed tackles since 2014, three Brown seasons appear in the top 10.

See here how he finds the hole in the zone, sits, catches the ball, and gets what he can:

YAC is about more than just athletic ability. Smart receivers can create it:

Brown is more complete now, but will he actually end up being better?

That depends.

Metcalf is faster, and he definitely looks better with his shirt off than almost anyone else. That overlooks Brown’s different kind of athleticism — he was an MLB draft pick out of high school and has demonstrated far superior agility on tape.

Beyond physical ability, they’re just different wide receivers:

  • Brown spent roughly half of his career playing from the slot. Metcalf never lines up there.
  • Brown is a versatile threat, but not much of a home run threat like Metcalf. He’s more likely to nail shallow routes. If he takes it to the house, it’s due to his ability with the ball in his hands.

Brown has the stats that speak for themselves, and Pro Football Focus graded him at 79.0 in 2018 while Metcalf was at 70.8. When they were both sophomores in 2017, Brown had an 80 percent catch rate on 94 targets, while Metcalf was at 52.7 percent on 74 targets. Brown nearly doubled Metcalf’s yardage, 1,252-646.

But Metcalf did improve his overall catch rate as a junior to 63.4 percent, but it was still behind Brown’s (72 percent), even before the injury. Metcalf’s catch rate also gets worse in the red zone, where you’d think a big-bodied receiver like him could have an edge. His catch rate was 43.2 percent (29th out of the top 30 WRs in this class). Brown’s was fourth (69.1).

A lower catch rate can be excusable given the nature of his game as a deep threats. Metcalf had 21.9 yards per catch before getting hurt (that’s a lot). But other receivers in that neighborhood (at least 17 yards per catch) with way more targets had higher catch rates:

  • Oklahoma’s Hollywood Brown: 70.8 percent
  • Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb: 73 percent
  • West Virginia’s Gary Jennings Jr.: 74 percent
  • Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy: 70.1

Was Metcalf’s limited route tree a product of an air raid offense that confined receivers to narrow roles, or did his coaches understand his capabilities? That’s the great unknown about his skills. He has so much potential, but needs work in order to unlock it. If you’re pro-Metcalf, you believe your coaches can do this.

If you want a home run threat, go get Metcalf and hope you can round out his rough edges. If you need a WR who’s going to be more efficient and likely productive sooner, then Brown’s your guy.