After a placid start to the 2022 NFL draft on Thursday night, cell phones around the league suddenly sprung to life. Just as we saw a series of trades involving picks, two of the eight wide receivers from the vaunted Class of 2019 were dealt away in a matter of minutes.
First, Baltimore’s Marquise Brown was sent to the Cardinals in a deal involving Arizona’s first-round pick. Shortly after, the Eagles sent the 18th pick to the Titans as part of a deal for A.J. Brown. Tennessee used that pick to draft a replacement for Brown in Treylon Burks, while the Ravens traded down and eventually nabbed center Tyler Linderbaum.
While most of us thought there could be a trade involving a prominent fourth-year wide receiver during Thursday’s draft, the guy who was supposed to be on the move was 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel. Instead, two of Samuel’s classmates were unexpectedly shipped off. What happened? Let’s get a sense of why each of the four teams involved in Thursday night’s big deals made its move:
Why did the Titans trade A.J. Brown?
We’ll start with the most stunning decision of the bunch. There had been some friction between the Titans and their star wideout, with Brown himself implying in a livestream that he had been offered only $20 million per year on an extension. Unlike the Samuel situation, though, Brown hadn’t requested a trade. Earlier in April, Mike Vrabel had said that Brown would not be on the trade block “as long as I’m the head coach.”
To our knowledge, Vrabel’s still Tennessee’s coach, but Brown isn’t his wide receiver. By sending Brown to the Eagles for Picks 18 and 101, the Titans added the equivalent of the No. 16 pick in a typical draft by the Jimmy Johnson chart. Why would the Titans make this sort of dramatic subtraction from a team that finished as the No. 1 seed in the AFC?
1. It doesn’t look like they were willing to go where the Eagles went financially. Philly followed this trade by immediately giving Brown a four-year, $100 million extension, which tells you that these two teams had a deal in place before the draft began. With Brown hinting that the Titans weren’t willing to offer more than $20 million per season on a new deal, the gap between what Tennessee might have offered and what the Eagles gave him amounts to $5 million in average annual salary per season.
2. The Titans have been squeezed by their existing contracts. While they could have managed to get a Brown deal done if they wanted to hit that $25 million mark, it’s fair to say that they’re in a difficult situation at the moment. Ryan Tannehill‘s cap hit for 2022 is $38.6 million, the largest of any player in the league. The Titans would have to eat $18.8 million if they cut Tannehill before 2023, let alone what it would cost to get another quarterback in the process.
In addition, they have Derrick Henry and Taylor Lewan on large deals on the offensive side of the ball. They paid Bud Dupree a ton in free agency and just brought back Harold Landry on a five-year, $87.5 million deal, giving Tennessee arguably the most expensive edge duo in football. General manager Jon Robinson also traded for Robert Woods, giving the Titans a receiver who profiles as a borderline top option but who also added salary to the team’s cap.
3. Tennessee was realistic about its offense. With Henry under contract as the focal point of this attack, the Titans are going to be a run-first offense. Henry was injured and much less effective in 2021, which would concern me if I were Robinson or Vrabel, but that philosophy isn’t going away anytime soon. Brown himself was already playing a much smaller share of the offensive snaps than most typical No. 1 wide receivers, as he has played about 73% of the time when active as a pro.
If those things were going to remain true, it’s tough for the Titans to justify paying their quarterback nearly $30 million per season, another wideout more than $14 million per year, and Brown something like $25 million per campaign. It’s investing too much in the passing attack for a team that wants to run the ball and create big throws off play-action. It reminds me quite a bit of the Seahawks facing the dilemma of paying Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf when Pete Carroll just wants to run the ball for 3 yards on offense most of the time. I don’t necessarily agree with that logic, but teams should align their spending with their desired identity.
4. The Titans believed they could replace Brown with a similar player on a much cheaper contract at No. 18. Even if the first three things were true, though, I doubt they would have made this move if Burks was off the board. One of the more popular pre-draft pro comparisons for Burks was Brown, the wide receiver he’s now set to replace in Tennessee.
Robinson is replacing a 6-foot-1, 226-pound wide receiver out of the SEC with a 6-foot-3, 225-pound wide receiver out of the SEC. As a 20-year-old, Brown caught 75 passes for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns at Ole Miss. As a 21-year-old, Burks just caught 66 passes for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns at Arkansas. Brown then had another great season as a junior, while Burks’ great season came as a junior.
Field Yates reads the news that the Titans are planning to trade A.J. Brown to the Eagles, and his reaction is priceless.
Of course, if picking between a player who has proven himself to be a star in the pros and a player who has yet to take a snap for NFL money, you’d pick the established guy in Brown. The difference here is price. Brown is now signed for five years and just under $104 million after his deal with the Eagles. Burks will make about $14.4 million total over the next four years, plus a possible fifth-year option in 2026. If the Titans think Burks can approximate Brown’s production, this would be a no-brainer, given that they can now use those savings to address other spots on their roster.
Is that a wise bet? It’s too early to say, but Brown is a truly special player, and I would have probably preferred to find the extra few million dollars over 2022-24 to get his deal done. The risk/reward on this decision for Tennessee is enormous, and this will either look like a genius move or a major mistake three years from now.
Why did the Eagles acquire A.J. Brown?
1. The Eagles are enjoying a clean cap after making a switch at quarterback. One of the benefits of having a quarterback on a rookie deal is having both the cap space and the cash to surround him with talent. We saw Philadelphia do this several years ago for Carson Wentz when it signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in the same offseason before later trading for Golden Tate.
With Wentz gone and his dead money off the cap, the Eagles have the flexibility to add significant money on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of tight end Dallas Goedert, their top targets on offense before Thursday were all on rookie deals or making close to the veterans minimum. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is in the middle of a four-year, $6 million contract. If any team could afford this sort of investment in a wide receiver entering his prime, it’s Philadelphia.
2. The Eagles have put themselves in position to make this deal without having to sell out their draft. “Investment” means both financial and draft capital in that prior sentence. In addition to having the cap space to get this deal done in years to come, they also have extra draft picks after trading away Wentz in 2021 and moving down from No. 6 in last year’s draft. General manager Howie Roseman would be foolish to treat those acquired picks as less valuable — former Eagles president Joe Banner has a saying I like about how “house money isn’t house money once it’s in your pocket” — but the team was still able to hold on to its other first-rounder in 2022 and its extra first-rounder in 2023 while making this deal.
If the Eagles move on from Hurts after this season, they still have the flexibility to make a deal for a new quarterback next offseason. And whether they add a rookie or a veteran at that time, having Brown on the roster is going to make that quarterback’s life easier. As I wrote last week, he’s the most likely wide receiver from this class to have a stellar season over the next several years. If the Eagles expand his workload and snap count, that’s only more true.
3. The Eagles haven’t been good at drafting wide receivers. The long-term plan for this team was pretty clearly to invest in free-agent receivers and higher-priced options while Wentz was on a cheap contract before transitioning to less expensive draft picks as Wentz’s contract got more expensive. Roseman & Co. likely didn’t expect to trade Wentz in 2021 until the disaster of 2020 happened, but even before then, they had used first- and second-round picks on wide receivers, and then used another first-rounder on a wideout last season.
Diana Russini gives the details behind the Titans’ decision to trade A.J. Brown to the Eagles on draft night.
Grades for those moves would range from incomplete to disastrous. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round pick in 2019 who was drafted just before Metcalf and Diontae Johnson, has 290 receiving yards in three seasons. Jalen Reagor, a first-rounder in 2020, averaged fewer than 18 receiving yards per game in his sophomore campaign. DeVonta Smith, a first-rounder last year, was much better than either player in his debut campaign, but the Eagles were still popularly linked to first-round wide receivers to play alongside him.
Given that they were at best 1-for-3 (and that’s without considering 2015 first-rounder Nelson Agholor), does it really make sense for the Eagles to dip back into the well and take a shot on another highly drafted receiver? I’m always skeptical of the value when a team trades a first-round pick for a player and gives the player a top-of-the-line deal, but I can understand why Philly would prefer certainty after a few iffy picks.
4. The Eagles aren’t acquiring Brown off a peak season. As I wrote about in the Titans section, there’s a good chance the Eagles could get more out of Brown than the Titans simply by using him more frequently. Philadelphia also adopted a run-first offense as the season went on with Hurts under center, but adding Brown gives it a difference-maker in the passing game to play alongside Smith and Goedert. I would expect the Eagles to be more balanced in 2022, and that should open up more targets for Brown. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has his most productive season.
5. There are no excuses in evaluating Hurts. By trading for a star wide receiver, the Eagles have everything a young quarterback could want. Few teams have a more exciting offensive infrastructure, at least on paper, when you consider the quality of the receivers and Philadelphia’s offensive line. As the Eagles decide whether Hurts is their quarterback of the future, there shouldn’t be anything missing to make the former Alabama and Oklahoma star’s life easier. If Hurts excels, the Eagles have their man. If not, they know to move on.
Why did the Cardinals trade for Marquise Brown?
1. To make Kyler Murray happy. Given the public back and forth between the Cardinals and their franchise quarterback, I have to believe there’s at least some effort being made within Arizona’s building to appease Murray. A new extension will go a long way in solving any frustration, but it doesn’t hurt to add one of his best receivers from college. At Oklahoma in 2018, Brown caught 75 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Brown has said Murray did the most of any of his quarterbacks to help make him a better receiver, which is impressive when you consider that his other two quarterbacks have also been Heisman Trophy winners in Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.
2. The Cardinals (still) needed speed. Arizona’s offense stalled in the second half of 2020, and as I wrote about at the time, a lack of speed at receiver was one of the key problems to blame. They were relying on replacement-level wideout KeeSean Johnson as a deep route runner after 2019 second-rounder Andy Isabella (also taken before Metcalf) failed to earn a significant role in the offense.
The Cardinals seemingly addressed this problem last offseason by using a second-round pick on Purdue dynamo Rondale Moore, but coach Kliff Kingsbury seemed to prefer using the 21-year-old on screens. Moore averaged just 8.1 yards per reception and ran a total of only 24 deep routes all season. Christian Kirk was the primary deep threat a year ago, but he left in free agency for a massive deal with the Jaguars. With DeAndre Hopkins, Zach Ertz and A.J. Green as the team’s primary remaining receivers, Arizona is built for size, not speed.
Brown does not lack for speed, although he caught only five of the 29 deep targets thrown in his direction a year ago. His minus-13.2% catch rate over expectation (CROE) on those throws was one of the worst marks in the league, although he actually caught a higher percentage of his deep targets than expected between 2019 and 2020, suggesting 2021 was an outlier. With Arizona possessing targets across the field, Brown is going to see plenty of one-on-one matchups in an offense that will both play much faster and throw the ball far more often than the Ravens have in years past.
3. Brown is better than you think. I wrote at length last week about Brown’s production within the constraints of Baltimore’s offense, but any examination of his raw numbers is going to grossly underrate what he is capable of doing. While he got to play with a good quarterback in Baltimore, the Ravens were one of the league’s most run-heavy offenses during Brown’s time there. They played at a slow pace. The Cardinals played at the seventh-fastest pace a year ago and threw at the league’s fourth-highest rate in neutral situations. Brown is moving from one of the hardest offenses in which to rack up big receiving yards to one of the easiest.
Admittedly, Brown isn’t going to see the ball as often as he did in Baltimore, where he was targeted on nearly 26% of his routes. He’ll trade some of that per-route volume for additional routes. And while I would be concerned about him leaving an offense for which opposing safeties were occupied with the threat of a running quarterback in Jackson, he’ll be joining an offense with another devastating runner in Murray.
4. The Cardinals get distracted by shiny things. At the same time, as much as the Cardinals need speed at receiver and as much as Brown is underrated, I’m not sure this is the right move at the right time for the right team. Arizona has already committed significant money to Hopkins after using a second-round pick to acquire the star wideout. It just used a second-rounder on Moore, re-signed Ertz to a three-year, $31.7 million contract and brought back running back James Conner on a three-year, $21 million deal. Murray is due for a massive extension and has already hinted at a holdout if one doesn’t come this summer.
Did the Cardinals really need to devote a first-round pick to adding another wide receiver when they have clear needs on defense at edge rusher and cornerback? Would it have been easier to find a speedy second or third receiver in free agency, like Will Fuller or even DeSean Jackson? Brown is on relatively cheap contract for the next couple of seasons, over which he’s owed a combined $15.5 million, but are the Cardinals going to give their new acquisition a significant contract next offseason? If they do, can they afford to repair the other parts of their roster?
I thought Brown would be a great fit for the Chiefs or Packers, but I’m not sure I love the fit with Arizona.
1. General manager Eric DeCosta is more likely to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. One year ago, facing a possible holdout from frustrated contract-year right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens bit the bullet and traded him to the Chiefs for a package of picks, most notably the No. 31 selection. The Ravens could have kept Orlando Brown for 2021 and worked the franchise-tag game, but facing an eventual reality of moving on from the massive tackle, DeCosta opted to add a premium pick from his conference rivals. Brown wanted to be a left tackle, and the Ravens had already committed significant resources on the left side to Ronnie Stanley.
Here, while the Ravens weren’t dealing with a publicly disgruntled player — Marquise Brown had reportedly privately requested a trade at the end of last season — they faced another looming financial constraint. Baltimore already committed significant resources to tight end Mark Andrews on an extension. DeCosta used a 2021 first-round pick on wideout Rashod Bateman. Brown was about to get a raise from $2.1 million in 2022 to $13.4 million in 2023, and the wideout market is only going to get more expensive with time. Were the Ravens ever really going to commit $25 million per year to Brown on a new deal when they’ve invested so much elsewhere and have Jackson about to start what appears to be a series of franchise tags?
If not, it became only a matter of time before they moved on from Brown. Unless Brown broke out in 2022, this was going to be the best trade offer they were likely to see for the 24-year-old, given that he is still two years away from unrestricted free agency. The Ravens likely preferred getting a first-rounder for him now as opposed to two years of him and a possible compensatory pick in the fourth round in 2025.
Matthew Berry explains how the Marquise Brown trade will affect the WR corps in Arizona and Baltimore.
Unlike the Titans, the Ravens didn’t directly add a replacement receiver in the first round of the draft. Baltimore could draft that player on Day 2, although it wouldn’t shock me if it’s negotiating with someone such as Fuller, who could approximate Brown’s speed in this offense. The Ravens have a habit of waiting until after the June 1 compensatory pick deadline to make free-agent signings, and signing Fuller after that point would mean that the former Texans standout wouldn’t count against the compensatory formula.
2. This aligns with their offensive identity. As I mentioned with the Titans, the Ravens are always going to be a run-first team as long as they’re built around this core on offense. We saw them invest more and more at receiver over the past few years, most notably by using first-round picks on Brown and then Bateman. They went from being the league’s most run-heavy team in neutral situations between 2019 and 2020 to an offense that actually threw the ball more often than league average in neutral situations a year ago, and I don’t think the offense was better for doing so. (Those numbers exclude the weeks Jackson missed at the end of the season with his ankle injury.)
This offense was at its best when it was dominating on the interior and running the ball down the throats of opposing defenses. I would expect the Ravens to get back toward more of a run-heavy approach on early downs next year, especially if blocking dynamo Nick Boyle is closer to 100% after missing most of 2021 because of a knee injury.
With that in mind, swapping out Brown for a center in Linderbaum makes sense. The Ravens have typically been one of the league’s best teams at developing interior linemen, but they had trouble finding a reliable center in 2020, and while 2021 starter Patrick Mekari was retained, they could use the versatile Mekari as a swing lineman in 2022.
3. The Ravens believe that their culture and winning will overcome April frustrations. As much as this move might have pleased Murray, it’s plain to see that it upset Brown’s former quarterback. Jackson wasn’t happy with me when I suggested that the Ravens could trade Brown last month, and his immediate response to the trade was retweeting someone who was clearly upset about the move. If it were up to Jackson, the Ravens clearly would not have made this move.
There are teams that wouldn’t consider making this sort of move if it meant upsetting their quarterback in the process. It’s one thing to make this deal when your quarterback is signed up for years and doesn’t have any leverage, but Jackson has been stalling on a long-term contract. He’s playing out his fifth-year option at $23 million in 2022, but the Ravens will likely need to start franchise tagging him next year. Trading away his favorite receiver isn’t likely to make those negotiations any easier.
The Ravens clearly believe they can move past losing a star player and succeed. They’ve let players such as Kelechi Osemele and C.J. Mosley leave in free agency in years past when their contract demands were past what the Ravens thought appropriate. They traded away Orlando Brown a year ago. They let franchise icon Ed Reed leave in free agency after winning a Super Bowl. Things aren’t always perfect, but the Ravens usually find themselves competing for a division title even after those changes.
From that perspective, they might remind you of other teams that are comfortable making uncomfortable moves each spring. The Patriots were usually more aggressive than the rest of the league when it came to trading veterans for draft picks during the Tom Brady era, but the example that comes to mind for me is in Green Bay. The Packers famously drafted quarterback Jordan Love in 2020 and trusted that it wouldn’t prevent them from winning football games with Aaron Rodgers. You can quibble with not adding a wide receiver elsewhere, and their seasons have come to a stop in the NFC Championship Game, but they have won 13 games in consecutive seasons and Rodgers has won back-to-back MVPs.
Jackson is not going to be happy, but winning generally cures all. If the Ravens struggle to throw the ball or hit deep shots next season while Brown breaks out with more opportunities in Arizona, we’re going to wonder why Baltimore crossed its franchise quarterback. More likely, regardless of what Brown does with the Cardinals, we’re going to see the Ravens competing in a crowded AFC North for yet another division title. If Linderbaum is leading the way for Jackson to challenge for another MVP award as the league’s most devastating dual threat, the star passer probably won’t be worried about what he was feeling in April.