As we get ready to watch the greatest quarterback of all time defend his Super Bowl title against a fellow signal-caller who has rerouted his career trajectory in just 10 games this season, there’s yet another intriguing positional battle that’s worth keeping an eye on. A battle that not only has a major bearing in the outcome of tonight’s Tennessee Titans vs. New England Patriots Wild Card game, but one that has significant implications on the futures of each franchise.
AJ Brown Has the Makings of An Elite WR
In the latter part of this season, Tennessee Titans pass-catcher AJ Brown has emerged as one of the most promising young players at his position in all the NFL. His blend of size, quickness, route-running abilities, and body control gives him the potential to one day find himself amongst the upper-echelon of NFL wide receivers.
Brown was the only rookie wideout from the 2019 draft class to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving barrier this season. He also tied with Giants’ Darius Slayton to lead the way amongst first-year receivers with eight receiving touchdowns.
Brown is developing directly in front of our eyes and at a rapid pace. The former Ole Miss Rebel has found the end zone five times over his last six games while registering 114+ receiving yards in four of those contests.
Going back and re-breaking down his Ole Miss film, it’s clear Brown should have heard his name called on Day 1 of the 2019 draft. However, he was knocked down draft boards due to the perceived assumption that he could only operate as a slot receiver, something he did predominately during his college tenure. He was also overlooked by mainstream media and fans, being pegged as the “other receiver” at a school that he led in receiving in both 2017 and 2018, all due to the fact that his biceps were just slightly smaller than his then teammate’s.
Yet, it’s clear that as we stand here today, there was no better wide receiver to come out of this past season’s draft. He’ll look to show his talents against Stephon Gilmore today, as well as to a team that could have benefited greatly from his services.
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N’Keal Harry Has Lots to Prove, But the Talent is There
N’Keal Harry was the first, first-round receiver ever selected in the Bill Belichick-Patriots era. However, his career in New England has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, to say the least.
After reports that Harry was outplayed during training camp by undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, the former Arizona State Sun Devil was placed on IR with the designation to return prior to the kick off of the regular season.
Since then, Harry has returned to the Patriots lineup, seeing his first game action in Week 11 of the regular season. Harry was certainly behind the eight-ball, and fighting to earn quarterback Tom Brady’s trust. However, with an essentially talent-deprived receiving corps behind Julian Edelman in New England, Harry has quietly begun to emerge.
After playing just 2% of his team’s offensive snaps in Week 14, he’s played an average of 55% of the snaps over the past three weeks. His rapport has seemingly grown with Brady, as he’s fresh off of a seven-target game, the most in his short NFL career. His abilities jump off the screen, and New England is trying as many creative ways as possible to get the ball in his hands. Harry has even carried the ball five times over his last three games.
Did the Patriots Make a Mistake Selecting Harry Over Brown?
It’s easy to point the finger now and say New England was wrong in drafting Harry over Brown. Yet, it’s simply too early to give a guaranteed answer either way. In fact, Harry hasn’t even played a half of a season’s worth of games yet.
When it comes down to it, the Patriots were not the only team to pass on Brown in the first round. Concerns over long speed, along with his ability to get off of man coverage, made many NFL teams peg Brown as a slot-only receiver. New England employs more situation football schematics than any team in football and was looking specifically for a big-bodied outside receiver who could win on the boundary to help compliment Edelman. The Pats believe they’ve found that in Harry, yet only time will tell.
However, Harry has a great chance of closing the perceived gap between the two rookie wideouts with a breakout game against Brown’s Titans on Saturday night.