NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Wide receiver A.J. Brown walked off the field with his head down, in shock, as the Cincinnati Bengals celebrated their 19-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs last season.
It was the last time Brown would leave Nissan Stadium as a member of the Titans. Brown’s departure to the Philadelphia Eagles via a trade Thursday is something not many would have predicted at season’s end.
Not general manager Jon Robinson. Not coach Mike Vrabel.
On draft night, the Titans moved Brown for the 18th and 101st overall picks. They eventually used the 18th pick on Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks.
How did a player Vrabel said "wouldn't be traded as long as he was the head coach" go from franchise cornerstone to Philadelphia?
Like many breakups, the split between Brown and the Titans is complicated. Things started to unravel when Brown refused to take part in voluntary offseason activities and said he wasn't going to set foot on a field until he had a contract extension.
There are always two sides to a story.
Brown was entering the final year of his rookie contract, which was set to pay him around $4 million. Even though his 869 receiving yards last season were a career low, they accounted for 23% of the Titans' receiving yards.
Brown watched the receiver market explode this offseason.
- Brown's agent, Tory Dandy, got things started by negotiating a three-year deal worth $60 million, with $40 million guaranteed, for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin and a three-year, $60 million contract extension for Los Angeles Chargers receiver Mike Williams.
- The Jacksonville Jaguars signed former Arizona Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal with $37 million guaranteed.
- D.J. Moore and the Carolina Panthers settled on a three-year, $61.884 million extension that included $41.61 million guaranteed.
- Receiver Davante Adams orchestrated a trade from the Green Bay Packers to the Las Vegas Raiders and signed a five-year, $141.25 million contract.
- The Kansas City Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, who promptly signed him to a four-year, $120 million extension making him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
- The Buffalo Bills followed suit and signed All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs to a four-year, $104 million contract extension with $70 million guaranteed.
Brown saw the action and wanted to be paid like one of the top receivers in the NFL.
"I wanted my work to be appreciated. That's pretty much it," Brown said when he was introduced as an Eagle. "I'm one of the top guys in the league. I'm confident in how I play and what I bring to the table."
Brown told ESPN the deal the Titans offered him averaged $16 million per season with incentives that would have pushed the annual average to $20 million.
"This wasn't my fault," Brown told ESPN. "I wanted to stay, but the deal they offered was a low offer. The deal they offered wasn't even $20 million a year. I would have stayed if they offered me $22 million"
Brown added he doesn't have "any bad blood" with the Titans and thanked them for drafting him to get his career started.
The Titans and Brown's camp had started preliminary contract negotiations on an extension at the combine in early March. Robinson revealed a timeline at the owner's meetings later in the month.
"Right now, we are just trying to get through this free-agency period, seeing where we've landed cap-wise," Robinson said.
Robinson gushed about Brown's work ethic and said the fourth-year receiver is "about what they're about." Vrabel complimented Brown for developing as a person and a father.
Negotiations were going well -- according to sources in Brown's camp and within the Titans. The likely sweet spot was going to be in the $20 million per season range.
Then, starting with Kirk, the market exploded. Brown's camp made it clear a new deal was the only way he'd be on the field for offseason activities.
I'm a diva and a bad teammate all of sudden, lol ok. Do what you have to do then and so will I— AJ Brown (@1kalwaysopen_) April 18, 2022
The demand motivated the Titans to expedite their process, according to a team source. The Titans offered Brown an extension that averaged $20 million per season without incentives, a team source said.
The team believed it was fair because it had a higher average salary than Kirk and was in line with Moore, Godwin and Williams at $20 million annually. The counteroffer from Brown's team was an average higher than $25 million and $80 million in guarantees.
"I dealt with the representatives there," Robinson said after the first day of the draft. "Went back and forth really over the last two to three weeks and just realized that the gap was really too far for us to bridge."
Brown requested a trade and cut off all contact with the Titans -- including his wide receiver coach and others on the staff -- three weeks before the draft, according to a team source. The Eagles had been monitoring the situation and saw their opportunity.
"There were a couple [of] teams that called, and I would say they showed the most interest," Robinson said of draft day. "The trade thing kind of manifested itself from them and really started working on that probably in the last 18, 20 hours and came together pretty quickly this afternoon."
Brown got the deal he wanted, agreeing to a four year, $100 million contract with $57.2 million in guarantees.
Eagles GM weighs in
On draft day, the trade was contingent upon Brown agreeing to a contract extension. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman called his quarterback, Jalen Hurts, to ask if he could put a good word in to help seal the deal and speed up the process.
The two have a friendship, and Hurts tried to recruit Brown out of high school to join him at Alabama before Brown ended up staying in-state at Ole Miss.
Brown said in his news conference that he and Hurts talked earlier in the day, but Brown went quiet as the decision got closer because he was trying to keep emotions out of it.
“We were just kind of trying to balance finishing that, and if we didn't finish that, making sure we also got the right players," Roseman said. "For us, A.J. Brown was somebody that we had studied coming out and spent a lot of time on, and we had a lot of love for A.J. Brown in that draft.”
The deal came down to the wire. Roseman and Brown’s camp struck a deal during pick 15. It needed to get done by pick 18 when the Eagles were on the clock. Roseman was seen coming in and out of the draft room leading up to the pick, ducking into a private room down the hall, clearly working on a deal.
“The hardest part was trying to balance it all and the timing that was going on and trying to be fair to the Titans as well," Roseman said. "Obviously, they had to make a pick and get on the clock if we were going to make this trade.
“A lot of credit to A.J. and his agents for getting this deal done as well because this wasn't like we had weeks to do. It really kind of came about quickly here.”
What it means for Tannehill
Losing Brown means quarterback Ryan Tannehill is now without his No. 1 target since taking over as the starting quarterback in Week 7 of the 2019 season.
In two of their three seasons together, Brown had at least 1,000 receiving yards, and he led the Titans in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
"Professionally, it hurt," Tannehill said of Brown. "He's a top target, heck of a football player that made big plays for us consistently over the last three years. Personally, it hurt. A.J. is a good friend. Not being able to see him on a daily basis is going to be hard. I'm happy to see him get what he wanted."
It’s no surprise the Titans drafted Burks, who is the same kind of sturdy, yards-after-catch receiver as Brown.
"The more we spent time with Treylon and watched the film and dug into it, we felt that he did a lot of things physically that we like and for that position," Robinson said.
At the combine, Burks said he studied and applied a lot of aspects from Brown's game to his own. Burks will now get the opportunity to show what he's learned against Brown.
The Titans travel to Lincoln Financial Field to face the Eagles this season. Although they won't be on the field at the same time, Burks can show why he's a player the Titans are counting on to help continue their physical passing game, while Brown will look to show Tennessee what they lost by trading him.
ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter Tim McManus contributed to this report.