Another reason the A.J. Brown acquisition could be a home run for the Eagles

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When the Philadelphia Eagles executed a draft-night trade for wide receiver A.J. Brown, many analysts were quick to highlight how the move could be a home run for the Eagles and their offense. As our own Laurie Fitzpatrick noted recently, the move allows Philadelphia to slide Brown into the “alpha” role in their receiving room.

But as an analyst for Pro Football Focus found, there is another aspect to his game that — when applied to the Eagles’ offense — makes this another reason the trade could be a wild success.

PFF’s Conor McQuiston is studying how NFL receivers fare against press coverage, and as he found, Brown produces at a level almost off the charts:

As you can see from this chart, Brown posted the best “Yards Per Route When Pressed” among NFL wide receivers last season, edging out both Tyler Lockett and Justin Jefferson. Brown was also targeted the most often among NFL receivers when pressed, again edging out Jefferson.

Why might this matter for the Eagles? Try and find their other receivers from last season. For example, both Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor are in the bottom left quadrant of the chart, meaning they were below league average in both categories. Rookie DeVonta Smith, the Eagles’ first-round selection, was above average in targets, but below average in yards per route.

This is something that you could see on film, particularly when studying the rookie. While Smith produced at a great level for a rookie last season, catching 64 passes (on 104 targets) for 916 yards and five touchdowns, he did struggle when he was pressed.

For example, on this snap from Philadelphia’s loss on Wild-Card Weekend to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith aligns on the line of scrimmage and to the left side of the offense, working against Jamel Dean. Smith tries to release vertically, but Dean is able to get a jam on him and pin him towards the boundary, forcing Jalen Hurts to go elsewhere with the football:

However, when you study Smith’s explosive plays from last season, you’ll note that the majority came with him either working against off coverage, or operating with a freer release off the line, whether due to working out of the slot, in a bunch or in a stack.

For example, on this play against the Denver Broncos, Smith aligns as a “Z” receiver in a bunch to the right, and runs an out-and-up against fellow rookie — and former teammate — Patrick Surtain II. Given the benefit of a free release, Smith gets into his route quickly, and works free for the touchdown:

Here against the Chargers, Smith starts out of the slot and runs a deep post route against man coverage, and once more with the benefit of a free release, he works himself open for a big play in the fourth quarter:

Brown’s ability to operate against press should have a trickle-down impact on Smith’s ability to produce next season. Not only will Brown slide into the “alpha” role in the Philadelphia offense as noted by Laurie Fitzpatrick earlier this summer, but he can slide into the traditional “X” receiver role for the Eagles. That frees up Smith to operate more out of the slot, or in other formations where he can have an easier release off the line.

According to charting data, Smith aligned wide on 877 of his 1,003 snaps last year, in stark contrast to the 97 plays where he lined up in the slot. Using Smith out of the slot more will give him better opportunities in the passing game, and when paired with Brown’s ability against press, that should be a huge boost for the Eagles’ passing attack.