A.J. Brown knew what he was talking about before the rest of the football world was on board. In February 2019, Brown posted a photo of he and DK Metcalf, college teammates at Ole Miss, posing shirtless. The caption read, in part: “This about to [be] bigger than Odell and Jarvis Landry when they entered the draft [from LSU].”
NFL executives should’ve taken more notice. The duo of receivers that played on some mediocre Ole Miss teams have turned into two of the NFL’s rising stars at the wide receiver position in their second year in the league. Metcalf makes a “SportsCenter” Top 10-worthy play seemingly weekly for the Seahawks, while Brown is the no-questions-asked No. 1 receiver for the Titans. The pair have yet to match up in the NFL, but while mostly starring on opposite sides of the country, Brown and Metcalf are making a strong case that Brown’s photo caption before the 2019 NFL Draft was correct.
With both Metcalf and Brown making waves in the NFL, we’ve taken a look back at their time in college, along with how they turned strong NFL Combines into solid landing spots to become two of the game’s brightest young stars.
DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown at Ole Miss
Metcalf and Brown each spent three years in Starkville, Mississippi. They were both recruited by Hugh Freeze, but his final season with the Rebels was 2016, the freshman season for each of Metcalf and Brown. That first year ended in a 5-7 record for Ole Miss despite also including future NFL tight end Evan Engram, and Metcalf and Brown were both only bit pieces in that offense.
The 2017 season was slightly better, as Mississippi went 6-6. Brown emerged as a sophomore, catching 75 passes for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ole Miss also included future NFL players Van Jefferson, Dawson Knox, Jordan Wilkins and Jordan Ta’amu in its offense that year, and Metcalf was well off Brown’s pace, catching 39 passes for 646 yards and seven TDs.
Metcalf hurt his neck as a junior and was limited, but Brown again shone, catching 85 passes for 1,320 yards. With Metcalf missing five games, though, the Rebels went 5-7 again.
It wasn’t Brown or Metcalf’s fault that Ole Miss wasn’t a winning team during their time on campus. The Rebels’ defense couldn’t stop anyone, ranking in the bottom 30 of the country at scoring defense in all three seasons Metcalf and Brown spent in town. Playing in the highly competitive SEC, a bad defense was never going to work out.
The SEC stage also allowed Brown and Metcalf to put together good highlight reels, though, playing against other future NFL talents, and that meant both could safely enter the draft after three seasons in college and expect to do well. As it turned out, draft-day slides for both sent them to better winners than they’d ever played for in college.
DK Metcalf at the NFL Combine: 40-yard dash and bench press
It’s fair to call Metcalf’s performance at the 2019 NFL Combine historic.
Metcalf ran the fastest-ever 40-yard dash for a player weighing 225 pounds or more (Metcalf was weighed at 228 pounds at the Combine). He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, fourth among WRs that year overall.
Coupled with that 40 time, Metcalf led all wide receivers in the bench press, completing 27 reps of 225 pounds. He also had a vertical leap of 40.5 inches, third among receivers, and a broad jump of 134.0 inches, fifth among receivers.
A.J. Brown at the NFL Combine: 40-yard dash and bench press
Brown wasn’t quite the combine freak that Metcalf was, but he still displayed a tantalizing mix of size and speed that went with a resume showing more collegiate production than Metcalf.
At 6-0 but 226 pounds, Brown’s Combine measurables showed a wide receiver with some serious strength. He backed it up on the bench press, ranking seventh among all WRs with 19 reps of 225 pounds. And when Brown ran his 40-yard dash, he broke 4.5, finishing in 4.49 seconds. Only three receivers weighing at least Brown’s weight ran faster than him — Metcalf, Jazz Ferguson and Hakeem Butler.
Brown didn’t blow any minds in the vertical leap or broad jump, but he was solid in both of those as well, leaping 36.5 inches in the air and 120 inches in the broad jump.
How DK Metcalf became a star with the Seahawks
Metcalf’s biggest question mark was always going to be on the football field, in pads, playing in games. That’s where he’d been least productive in college. No one questioned his size or strength or speed — they wondered whether he could be productive. It’s those doubts that led 63 players to be taken ahead of Metcalf in the 2019 NFL Draft.
In a draft night video, after Metcalf waited through basically two whole rounds (which meant two nights), Metcalf can be seen asking the Seahawks through the phone, “Why y’all wait this long, man?” Health was a large reason. He broke a bone in his neck as a sophomore at Mississippi. He also had a foot injury as a freshman, putting a couple red flags by the name of a player who seemingly had underproduced in college as is.
Ole Miss hadn’t asked Metcalf to do a lot. According to The Washington Post, the Rebels basically asked Metcalf to run go routes. It might’ve made sense for them, but it limited what NFL teams could see Metcalf being capable of. Some wondered in that same story from The Washington Post whether past Combine stars who had been busts scared people away from Metcalf, in a way overthinking everything.
But Metcalf was a good football player all along, maybe not always healthy and maybe not always utilized dynamically in college, but a good football player and a physical freak nonetheless. A pairing with Russell Wilson let the rookie wideout work with one of the league’s best QBs, rather than with someone inexperienced or underwhelming that may have been the case if Metcalf was drafted higher.
Metcalf could serve as a reminder to teams that sometimes, physical freaks pan out. It’s happened with Patrick Mahomes’ magical arm, and it’s happening with Josh Allen’s immense arm strength in Buffalo. Sometimes (as with Brown), college production is a huge indicator of future success. But sometimes, there’s more there, and in Metcalf’s case, a lot more. He hasn’t needed to change much as a player to shine in Seattle, just work hard and build a rapport with Wilson that’s already turned Metcalf into one of the league’s best wideouts.
How A.J. Brown became a star with the Titans
Brown was the dominant college player that Metcalf wasn’t. His back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on shaky Ole Miss teams proved that Brown could turn solid physical skills into production.
Unlike Metcalf, Brown almost felt like a finished product. WalterFootball.com gave Brown a number of high praises in its draft profile, including calling him a good route runner with strong hands who was dangerous after the catch. But WalterFootball also wrote that Brown isn’t a “burner” and is lacking in deep speed that could help him get separation in the NFL.
So that became NFL teams’ conundrum: Take the productive college player who might lack upside, or the physical freak who oozes potential. As it turns out, both Brown and Metcalf went in the second round, but Brown’s quick NFL blossoming came by becoming the big-play threat that some wondered if he could be.
As a rookie, Brown averaged 20.2 yards per catch, second in the NFL to Mike Williams. He benefited at times from Tennessee’s strong play-action game, with Ryan Tannehill faking to Derrick Henry before finding Brown down the field. But Brown’s powerful running with the ball in his hands also played well — his 204 yards after the catch as a rookie ranked top-30 in the NFL.
Brown tailed off in the second half of 2019 after a blistering start, but in his second year, he’s fallen back on some of the things that made him such a productive all-around receiver at Ole Miss. Rather than being a one-trick, big-play pony like in 2019, Brown has embraced being a possession receiver who moves the chains when the Titans need it. That role still allows him to break big plays when they’re available.
On Oct. 25 against the Steelers, Brown ran a slant route from the left flank, and Tannehill connected with him short of the sticks. Brown put on the afterburners and outran everyone down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown. At the time, his peak run speed tied for the fastest by a WR carrying the ball in the NFL in 2020. As it turned out, Brown too could be one of the NFL’s top receivers by putting together immense athletic talent with real wide receiver skills. It’s the latter that showed up more for Brown in college, while Metcalf was more of the former. But they both had the right combination all along.