ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- After an intense two-hour practice on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Amon-Ra St. Brown still had some unfinished business.
With equipment intern Casey Edwards loading the footballs, St. Brown, the Lions’ third-year receiver, caught exactly 202 balls on the Jugs machine – continuing a post-practice routine that began all the way back in middle school.
Even if he’s held up late after training sessions, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, St. Brown finishes his day the same way. The ritual has made him one of the most sure-handed receivers in football, and also provides a glimpse into the dedication, consistency and desire to be great that has teammates and coaches predicting another huge year for the former fourth-round pick in 2023.
Last season, St. Brown built off his record-breaking rookie year with a 106-catch, 1,161-yard season that resulted in his first Pro Bowl selection. And Lions coach Dan Campbell sees no reason why his ascension will stop this season.
“You see him prepractice, you see him postpractice, he doesn’t change one thing. When you do that, there’s no way he’s not going to have a big year. There’s no way,” Campbell said. “Because he’s not changed one thing.”
Since entering the league in 2021, St. Brown has a 1% drop rate. His three dropped passes in 265 targets is the lowest among all players with 200-plus targets in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and his 74% reception rate is the fourth-highest.
St. Brown credits the Jugs routine for helping him haul in even the most difficult catches. And his father, John Brown, says his work on the machine is just one example of his son’s ambition.
“The Jugs machine is a window into his mentality. The Jugs machine is just a small part of what he’s doing,” Brown said. “I called him on a Saturday night recently because we were at a friend’s graduation, so we figured we just call Amon-Ra, and he was getting ready to go to bed.
“It must’ve been around 7:30, 8 p.m. [in Michigan], and I bet you all the other athletes on Saturdays were ready to go out,” he added. “He’s in that house over there by himself. He don’t got no roommates, he’s going to bed. They don’t understand that part of him and how focused he is when it comes to that.”
St. Brown’s Jugs routine is detailed.
Positioned 7 yards away, Edwards fires balls to St. Brown, who typically catches 170-180 passes aimed straight at him with both hands, then mixes it up from different angles before having Edwards slow the machine and aim higher. From there, St. Brown catches 15 more passes while turning to his right and concluding with 15 more turning to the left.
“There’s certain things you’ve got to know on that Jugs, like if I drop one you’ve got to wait because if I’m not dropping them you’ve got to keep shooting,” St. Brown said. “You don’t have to look at me, but you’ve got to kind of see out of your peripheral that if I do drop one, don’t shoot because you’ll hit me in the face.”
If St. Brown catches all 202 balls, Edwards must do 20 pushups. Each drop, however, means 10 pushups for St. Brown. Any slip-up in the operation comes with consequences.
“I catch, [then] shoot. I’ve got to flip the ball as quick as I can to get the laces up and then if I shoot it wrong, he also makes me do pushups. And if I get it in a little loose, he won’t even try, he’ll just let it pass and then he’ll be like, ‘that’s 10,’” Edwards said.
The routine started when St. Brown was in middle school. While on the 7-on-7 circuits as a kid in Southern California, his father noticed another kid’s elite catching ability and approached the player’s father for pointers. He learned the other kid honed his skill by catching 200 passes on the Jugs machine, so St. Brown and his dad added two more catches to outwork him.
St. Brown and his older brothers, Osiris and Equanimeous, would get their catches in at least four to five times a week, either in the family’s garage or at a local park.
“We didn’t tell nobody,” Brown said. “It was our family secret.”
St. Brown said he keeps that original Jugs machine – which cost his father an estimated $4,500 – at his home in Hollywood for use when he’s not at the Lions practice facility.
“It was money well spent,” Brown said of the investment.
‘St. Brown, huge year’
A short text message arrived on Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s phone this summer.
It was Lions quarterback Jared Goff updating him after a private throwing session with St. Brown in California.
“St. Brown, huge year,” the text read.
Although brief, that exchange was meaningful.
“I’ve got as much trust in him as anyone I’ve ever played with,” Goff said of St. Brown. “I know where he’s going to be. I know he’s going to be on time. I know he’s got great hands, he’s going to catch the ball. I know he’s tough as hell, he’ll go over the middle, he’ll block. He’ll do everything.”
St. Brown spent the offseason working with longtime trainer Jeff Johnson of Elite Athletes in Los Angeles, meeting three times a week to focus on position-specific training which included a lot of one-on-one reps with defensive backs.
“He’s a perfectionist. And his perfection is a little bit different than others. When he learns something, he wants to learn the whats, the whens, and the whys. The three Ws,” Johnson said. “That way he can’t get it wrong. That’s pretty much what he’s perfecting, and he does that in everything from running to how he stems to how many steps [he takes], how he comes back to the ball.”
For Campbell, St. Brown sets an example he hopes all of his younger players follow.
“I know this,” Campbell said, “if I’m a young guy, I’m watching him every play. I would be, they should be, so he’s unbelievable, he really is. And my biggest fear is that I don’t ever want to take him for granted because sometimes you just [think] he's going to always be there. He’s always going to make a play and I appreciate that about him, so he’s something else.”
‘Man on a mission’
Immediately after Day 2 of the 2021 draft, St. Brown was back on the Jugs machine. He hadn’t heard his name called in the first three rounds and went to work.
In all, 16 receivers were drafted before the Lions took St. Brown in the fourth round with the 112th overall pick.
“He wakes up pissed without that. He’s been like that since he was a baby. Newsflash, he’s using that as an excuse to get even more pissed, but he don’t need that,” Brown said. “He’s always been that. He’s just looking for stuff just to be pissed for when he gets on that field.
“People think he’s a nice guy, and off the field he’s a sweetheart, but on that field, he ain’t nothing nice. He’s a really mean and violent [player] on that field who is trying to rip your head off.”
Lions receiver Kalif Raymond says anyone will be “hard-pressed” to find another player in the league that works as hard as St. Brown, who’s been an inspiration to the receiver room.
“You can see he’s a man on a mission with how he works,” Lions receiver Josh Reynolds said. “He’s coming for something this year.”
In addition to the Jugs routine, St. Brown runs five “gasser” sprints from sideline to sideline with different teammates after practice.
Oftentimes, receiver Maurice Alexander will join him for his workouts -- or else he'll hear about it.
“He’s one of those people that wants to advise you to be great and push you to be great and if you ain’t trying to be great, you will feel uncomfortable being around him,” Alexander said. “So, I always was getting on the Jugs and stuff, and I always wanted to catch 100, but when I seen him catch 200, so that made me want to catch 200.”
St. Brown says he’s chasing greatness and the goal behind all his hard work is to be even better than the year before.
“I’m not going to force anyone to do any of my workouts, but if you come and ask me, then I’m going to hold you to that,” St. Brown said. “If you say you want to do it, then you’ve got to do 200 catches after practice. If I see you not do it after practice, you’re bulls---ing. You don’t want it. Don’t tell me you want to work with me and you’re not doing it.”