A.J. Brown changed the game. It's one thing for Russell Wilson or Matthew Stafford to gently orchestrate trades to greener pastures before free agency; they were established quarterbacks a decade into their careers, with as much leverage as an NFL player can possess. It's another paradigm entirely for a fourth-year receiver like Brown to pull it off over the course of a few weeks in April.
When the Brown trade chatter bubbled up a month ago, Titans fans and decision makers rallied quickly to shoot down the story. Mike Vrabel said his No. 1 receiver wouldn't be on the trade block "as long as I'm the coach." Cut to a grumpy Vrabel a few weeks later on Thursday night, hearing his comments read back to him, now the face of those in the league unhappy that they are losing control.
The Titans could have kept Brown if they wanted. They just couldn't have kept the 24-year-old on his rookie contract or the ridiculously below-market offer of $16 million per season that Brown said the team offered him before trading him to the Eagles. For comparison, Titans receiver Robert Woods signed a contract with the Rams for a similar average yearly salary two years ago, at the age of 28, before the Rams essentially dumped that contract on the Titans this offseason.
Yes, the Titans are tight to the salary cap. Yes, they would have had to pay a lot of guaranteed money and reached the upper tier of cash spending for the 2022 season. But they could have found a way to make it work if they valued Brown enough and were willing to shell out enough cash up front. As it stands now, it looks like they were either too cheap or didn't plan well enough (or both).
I can't blame them for apparently being caught flat-footed. This is all new. Big veteran contracts for players on their rookie deals don't usually get done until the summer. But Brown's agent -- who also represents Deebo Samuel, attempting to arrange his own path out of San Francisco -- appears to have realized the draft represents a huge turning point for leverage. Players and agents are playing by different rules now.
Brown was able to scare up a big enough trade market and a big enough contract offer elsewhere -- his $100 million deal with the Eagles was announced within minutes of the trade -- by letting the league know over the last month he was available, whether the Titans liked it or not. The Titans swallowed and accepted a first-round pick from the Eagles, which they used to draft Treylon Burks, in exchange for avoiding a messy future with Brown.
Not every power play will work as seamlessly. Samuel remains with the 49ers. Kyler Murray is staying in Arizona, where the Cardinals brought in one of his closest friends, Marquise Brown, seemingly as a peace offering. Perhaps Marquise's journey is as instructive as A.J. Brown's this offseason. Marquise Brown, who doesn't have nearly the leverage or talent of the NFL's top receivers, quietly requested a trade from the Ravens months ago. General manager Eric DeCosta said he "anguished" about the situation but ultimately found great value for Baltimore in a deal, just like when the Ravens traded tackle Orlando Brown to the Chiefs a year ago.
The lesson? Smart teams like the Ravens proactively will find ways to recoup value for good players whom they don't want to sign to a fair-market second contract. A.J. Brown is different. His talent and value to the Titans is so immense that the team should have budgeted to sign him to a big extension this offseason, just as NFL teams are beginning to fully recognize the value of a top receiver relative to other positions.
Instead, the Titans were seemingly caught unprepared. Players are not waiting patiently for their money or their franchise tag like previous generations. They aren't even waiting for the summer. If the team that drafts them isn't ready to pay them their worth, they will find another team that is.
Here's a look at some risers and fallers coming out of the 2022 NFL Draft:
The Jets' watchability: This draft was the culmination of Joe Douglas' Jets rebuilding project. The team patiently accumulated picks over the years for the chance to come away with a haul like this: cornerback Sauce Gardner, receiver Garrett Wilson, pass rusher Jermaine Johnson and running back Breece Hall were all added within the first 36 overall choices. This class will make or break the Douglas era, along with QB Zach Wilson's development. There's no question that the Jets' starting depth chart is exponentially more interesting already than it was to end last season.
Desmond Ridder's chances to start as a rookie: On one hand, the quarterback had a disappointing draft fall to No. 74 overall, where he landed with the rebuilding Falcons. Then again, Ridder may have an even clearer path to snaps as a rookie than No. 20 overall pick Kenny Pickett in Pittsburgh.
"As with any position, the best guy is going to play," Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. "With Marcus (Mariota) being the veteran, that's the way it'll go for now."
It's hard to imagine the Falcons still seeing Mariota as the best guy if they have a losing record in the second half of this season.
Josh Allen's completion percentage: Few teams got worse play on passing downs out of their running backs than the Bills. Enter second-round pick James Cook. I believe the NFL overthought the evaluation of Dalvin's brother. Yes, James is smaller. Yes, he moves differently than almost any NFL running back, with the exception of ... three-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook. The lateral quickness, vision, hands and route-running will translate. Taken No. 63 overall, don't be shocked if James Cook winds up catching more than 63 passes as a rookie.
The Chiefs defense: In cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis, the Chiefs drafted two of the easier NFL projections in the first round. Maybe they don't have superstar upside, but both players look like immediate starters and upgrades for a defense that needs some fresh blood.
Baker Mayfield's options: Carolina GM Scott Fitterer seemingly closed the door on Mayfield verbally after drafting Matt Corral in the third round, although it's possible that was a negotiating ploy. Seattle appears to be the only landing spot left, but Pete Carroll indicated on NFL Network that the Seahawks have no plans to add any veteran any time soon. This is all making it tougher for the Browns to get compensation for the 2018 No. 1 overall pick. Cleveland may have to pay a good portion of Mayfield's salary or wait for a training camp injury to get rid of him.
Aaron Rodgers' pass attempts: The Packers are going to rely more on their defense and running game than usual. Second-round pick Christian Watson could be a project, so Allen Lazard (!) remains Rodgers' top wideout in a group that also includes veterans Sammy Watkins, Amari Rodgers, Randall Cobb and rookie fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs.
Mitchell Trubisky's breathing room in Pittsburgh: It's not just that the Steelers drafted their next starter. It's that they drafted an older prospect in Kenny Pickett (he turns 24 in June) with a similar skill set, someone whom Mike Tomlin talked up Saturday as having "ready-made" anticipation and accuracy. Trubisky is no lock to be the guy in Week 1.
An incredibly early prediction of the rookie WR yardage rankings in 2022
Olave was the easiest wide receiver in this class to project. Watch him go from Gear 3 to 0 on a stop route, and even a fake scout can see that Olave's skill set transfers to the NFL. He's a perfect No. 2 behind Michael Thomas without a lot of competition for targets elsewhere on the roster. I don't know if he'll have the best career out of this wideout draft class, but I love his chances of getting out of the gates the fastest.
No one has a clearer path to 100 targets. London joins the Falcons as their most talented wide receiver, unless you count tight end Kyle Pitts, who played most of his snaps in the slot as a rookie. That's also where London figures to line up plenty. I love London's ability to make plays after the catch for his size, and coach Arthur Smith knows how to maximize big receivers -- but London will also learn NFL cornerbacks are harder to physically dominate on contested catches than their collegiate counterparts.
The Commanders could have taken Olave at No. 11, but they preferred to move back five spots to add a pair of middle-round picks. The Saints ended up taking Olave at that spot, while Washington grabbed Dotson at No. 16. The Penn State product should be a high-volume slot receiver from the jump, even if I worry that he's not quite explosive enough to be a big playmaker or win on the outside regularly.
Don't be surprised if Moore develops a fast chemistry with Patrick Mahomes, getting open quickly, then trying to make plays after the catch on underneath routes. With Marquez Valdes-Scantling taking some of Tyreek Hill's role on the deep stuff, Moore will help replace Hill's role closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Jets figure to have three quality receivers in Wilson, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis, all of whom could threaten to crack 1,000 yards in a thriving offense. Wilson only ranks lower on this list because there will be a lot of mouths to feed in New York, and Zach Wilson's rough rookie play raises serious questions about whether this can be even an average passing attack.
OK, maybe Burks has a clearer path to 100 targets than Drake London if all goes well. I rank him lower on this list, however, because Burks has so much to learn as an NFL receiver. The Arkansas offense manufactured 10-12 targets every week for him, but I don't think Burks has the skill set to handle that kind of workload at this level yet while he learns the nuances of the position.
The Lions traded up from No. 32 to No. 12 to take my favorite wideout in this class, and they didn't even have to give up that much to get him. I couldn't love the decision more, especially for a franchise that knows it's not competing for a title yet in 2022. Coming off a torn ACL, Williams may not play until November and may not be his best self until the 2023 season.
I love Pickens' chances of being the next Steelers receiver to prove to be a steal in the second round. This year figures to be more about splash plays for an erratic passing attack than dominating off the jump.
You can't teach speed, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' coaching staff will need to show Watson how to use that speed during his big transition from North Dakota State.