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Can Cardinals WR John Brown Be the Next Larry Fitzgerald?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJune 14, 2015

Nov 30, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown (12) prepares for a game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all been tempted by the glowing lights of fast food. They seem to beckon with outstretched hands and whisper sweet nothings about delicious comfort. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown is all too familiar with the siren song of chicken nuggets.

He’s one of us, or at least he was until that part of him evaporated. It’s since been replaced with muscle.

Brown ditched fast food earlier this offseason. He didn’t need a registered nutritionist to tell him that indulging in the short-term pleasure of grease-filled goodness just might be the cause of his frequent heartburn.

“It was hard to give up because I used to eat it every day,” he told Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

“Once I went to practice without fast food [in my stomach], I felt so much better. I don’t even look at restaurants anymore. I’ve put on a lot of muscle.”

There it is: Your NFL offseason eye-roll trigger.

Brown has added 10 pounds of muscle so far this offseason, pushing his playing weight to 183 pounds. Weight fluctuation is a common fuel for optimism during OTAs and minicamps. There are no opponents, and it’s only the player against his scale.

More bulk should, in theory, lead to more durability and more strength to toss aside would-be tacklers. And less bulk should, in theory, provide an extra dose of speed. Those are basic, mind-numbingly simple connected dots at any position, though most often we hear about the weight knob getting cranked in either direction with running backs and wide receivers.

But this time it truly and honestly feels like we should buy the Brown hype. A year ago the same buzz followed him, and Brown promptly justified Arizona’s giddiness during his rookie season.

History is on his side then, and he’s being pushed by another source of motivation. Added strength could be all that separates the 25-year-old from developing into the Cardinals’ next Larry Fitzgerald. Per the team's official Twitter feed, Jerraud Powers shared his thoughts on Brown's physical condition:

Arizona Cardinals @AZCardinals

#AZCardinals CB Jerraud Powers on WR John Brown -> "He looks like he could run for the US Olympic Track Team." http://t.co/Uws9glowwW

I mean that in the production sense, of course, and not the physical sense. Brown can add all the pounds he wants, but until the scientific community finds a way to stretch the human body without turning people into Dhalsim from Street Fighter, he’s not getting taller.

He’ll always be a diminutive receiver at 5’10”, while Fitzgerald stands 6’3” and tips the scales at 218 pounds. That greater size allows Fitzgerald to take a different approach, often using his length to leap and win battles for contested balls and, more recently, playing with a greater physical presence after the catch.

But although process and usage certainly matter, the ultimate barometer for any franchise-defining wide receiver lies in the box score. Can you consistently produce at a high level? If the answer is yes, then generally wins follow.

Fitzgerald is fading now, and after restructuring his contract earlier this offseason, the soon-to-be 32-year-old is almost definitely in his final two years with the Cardinals. Technically speaking, his new $22 million deal is four years long, per Spotrac, but 2017 and 2018 void five days after the 2016 Super Bowl.

That means the Cardinals have two years to figure out how they intend to replace the third-best receiver of his era.

WRs with most receiving yards since 2004
ReceiverReceptionsYards
Andre Johnson94612,621
Reggie Wayne92612,446
Larry Fitzgerald90912,151
Steve Smith76311,126
Anquan Boldin83911,029
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

With Fitzgerald still hanging around, Brown’s targets will remain somewhat limited over the next two seasons. During his rookie year he saw 99 targets (including playoffs), but was only on the field for 62.9 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

But what he did with that limited time as the No. 3 receiver is where the breakout optimism lies.

Of Brown’s 94 regular-season targets 27.7 percent came on throws traveling 20-plus yards, per PFF. That was the 11th-highest rate among 35 receivers who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps.

When Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians’ vertical-based scheming created a mismatch for Brown he consistently capitalized. Speed has that effect, and Brown’s 4.34 time in the 40-yard dash makes him the ideal home run swinger in an Arians offense.

Brown scored five touchdowns during his rookie season. Of those, four came on 20-plus yard heaves, tying him with the Cincinnati BengalsA.J. Green and the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson in that category, per PFF. His longest provides a fine illustration of what happens when two elements combine in perfect harmony: Arians’ play design to isolate a speed threat and Brown's deceptive route running.

During Week 8 of the 2014 season, Arizona was trailing the Philadelphia Eagles 20-17. Only 1:33 remained in the fourth quarter, and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer lined up with an empty backfield on 3rd-and-5 from his own 25-yard line.

Arians trotted out four receivers, placing two on both sides of Palmer.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Brown was lined up in the left slot and flanked by running back Andre Ellington. At the snap Ellington ran a slant underneath and was picked up by Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who then couldn't get a hand on Brown to restrict his downfield release even slightly.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

But that only led to a tiny opening, as Brown still faced double coverage deep. He needed to rely on quick footwork to create more space for himself.

That is when Brown showed why he’s so dangerous in an Arians offense. He was given a morsel of space and then turned it into a 75-yard touchdown with his blend of speed and intricate route running.

First he sprinted hard before abruptly breaking off the route about eight yards downfield. So he was running a post route then?

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Eagles safety Nate Allen had to ask that question, process the information in front of him and make a decision. A whole lot of information was flowing fast: It was a third down, mid-range yardage was needed and an uber-fast receiver was crossing the field.

All of that added up to Allen biting for just a fleeting nanosecond, which is roughly the equivalent of an hour with Brown’s speed. With Allen now flatfooted and leaning forward, Brown cut once more, completing the double move and turning the defensive back around.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Then Brown was quickly two steps ahead of Allen, and he scored a game-winning touchdown.

That was a slice of why Arians and Brown will likely have a blissful receiver-head coach marriage ahead once Fitzgerald finally gallops off toward the sunset. Even with limited work Brown served up those slices repeatedly over the first half of 2014 and a little beyond. Prior to Week 14 he logged four games with an average of 20-plus yards per reception and recorded 569 total receiving yards.

At first that seems like a modest pace over 12 games, but it was plenty from the third option at wide receiver behind Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Then suddenly Brown's season came to a grinding halt, with little jolliness and good tidings once the calendar flipped to December.

“He hit the wall around Dec. 1,” Arians told Somers. “Like most rookies do.”

Brown’s season at that point resembled the early football-helmet testing in which one man launched himself into a wall, and three others laughed/winced. Over the final five games including playoffs, he recorded only 157 receiving yards.

However, injuries to both Palmer and backup quarterback Drew Stanton didn’t exactly help his cause. Predictably a receiver who thrives on deep targets was delivered the highest number of uncatchable footballs, as Apex Fantasy League's Mike Braude noted:

Mike Braude @BraudeM

The highest % of uncatchable targets: 1. John Brown 45.7% 2. Vincent Jackson 44.2% 3. Michael Floyd 44.1% 4. Sammy Watkins 43.5%

A healthy Palmer will boost Brown’s growth, and the 10 pounds of muscle should make him a more well-rounded receiver. He’ll be able to power through contact, fighting off opposing cornerbacks who jam him at the line of scrimmage.

He has the tools to ascend and one day match Fitzgerald’s production under Arians’ watch. Palmer told Alex Flanagan of NFL Network he expects “huge things” from Brown in 2015.

He’s not alone.

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