The thought first crept into my head during many thorough viewings of Ole Miss' 2017 game tapes, but I pushed it aside. Pouring over snap-after-snap of five pass catchers that would all play in the NFL someday, it was clear that the common premise surrounding the cast of receivers was well off the mark.
"A.J. Brown is considered the best receiver on this team?"
The rhetorical question ran through my mind frequently as I studied the tape, noting the bevy of highlight reel plays made by a seemingly more athletic duo of D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge on the outside. Brown's production consistently came against the weakest competition, and very rarely did he free himself up from press man coverage in his slot-heavy role in the Rebels offense.
It was easy to fall in love with Metcalf despite the rawness of his game in 2017. His physical traits are extremely rare, and he looks like an athletic unicorn at the position. Lodge was clearly the most polished of the group and no slouch as an athlete himself, but drops and a lack of consistent finishing in contested catch spots kept it close between he and Brown. I wanted to put Lodge over Brown in my preseason receiver rankings, but the common perception of the Rebels big slot receiver gave me temporary pause to see what 2018 revealed.
In 2018, scouting the NWO became a much simpler task, as Van Jefferson transferred to Florida, Metcalf suffered a season-ending neck injury and it became clear that getting Dawson Knox the ball wasn't a priority for the Rebels offense. Instead, Brown and Lodge became the focal points of the offense, with the former forced to work more from the outside instead of in his normal spot in the slot.
Before, it may not have made sense to compare Lodge and Brown, but now it does. At some point, we have to start talking about the limitations to Brown's game that will make him a risky pick, and how important the Combine will be to his evaluation. At some point, we need to discuss the minimal number of concerns with Lodge's pro-ready game, and how dynamic he may be able to be as a playmaker at the next level. And at some point, we need to face an inconvenient truth that will shatter the narrative sports media has been building in our minds for too long now:
DaMarkus Lodge is a better wide receiver prospect than A.J. Brown.
It's not a hot take. I've watched almost every game, almost every snap of the two players over the past two seasons. Consider this the end of Brown's reign as undisputed WR1 at Ole Miss, and the beginning of the hype Lodge has long since deserved. This does NOT mean that Brown is a bad prospect; he isn't. But he's being overrated by the national media at this point, while Lodge's name is barely on their radar.
Lodge is a better receiver than Brown, and to show you what I mean, I broke the duo down trait-by-trait to see who has the advantage:
This one is basically a push. Brown shows good burst out of his breaks, and I love how he throttles down at the top of his route before exploding away from coverage. His ability to alter pace and lull corners to sleep is one of my favorite traits of his.
At the same time, Brown isn't a particularly dynamic athlete, and Lodge is certainly better at creating separation with a second gear in the vertical portions of the field. Lodge doesn't run a lot of in and out-breaking routes, but he's a more explosive athlete than Brown, and few do a better job of creating separation with a vertical push before dropping hips and breaking back to the ball for underneath catches.
This is a category most would give to Brown, but I don't know why. The vast majority of Brown's career catches have not required special ball skills, as he often makes grabs facing the quarterback with his back to the defense on underneath routes. He does show strong hands and high point ability down the field, but he's a limited leaper without a massive radius.
Lodge's biggest concern are drops, something that has plagued him during his career at Ole Miss. Brown has also dropped a lot of passes this season however, so that can hardly be considered a distinguishing factor. Lodge is unquestionably better in the air in my opinion, and his ability to contort his frame for highlight reel grabs is superior to Brown's. He gets the slight edge.
Even Brown's fiercest advocates give this one to Lodge. Brown's biggest concern might be his speed and overall athleticism, easily some of Lodge's clearest strengths. Lodge has made a living operating along a linear plane in Ole Miss' offense, creating separation over the top of defenders even when they know what is coming. His combination of burst, long speed and second gear to detach with the ball in the air is outstanding.
Brown needs to run well in Indy, as he's struggled to get on top of corners as an outside receiver since Metcalf went down. He's been glued to corners on vertical routes, which has forced him to make a lot of contested catches down the field, some of which he hasn't been able to complete.
Ok, slight edge to Brown here. Lodge may have more potential, but Ole Miss' offense has limited his route tree a lot, which means that reading coverages when working a more expanded number of patterns will be a work-in-progress for Lodge. He simply isn't tasked with doing that very often at this point, although he is a great route runner for what Ole Miss asks of him.
Brown is consistently working zones, finding soft spots and sitting down to show the quarterback his numbers. He's able to separate from man coverage with good attention to detail, although his approach needs to be more consistent as a route runner.
Lodge is the better receiver in the air, Brown is the better receiver with a defender coming over his back. This one is close to a push, but I have to get a slight edge to Lodge's ability to get up, reel in a tough grab through contact and somehow still get both feet down in bounds. He's got Brandon Lloyd-like hangtime and catch radius in the air, but contact will bother him at times.
This is an underrated part of Lodge's game. He isn't given the same opportunities as Brown post-catch because of his route tree, but when Lodge does get a chance to turn and face the defense, he can be deadly in the open field.
Both players are fearless with the ball in their hands, but Brown is so shifty in space and has a terrific sense of where space is and how to work to it. He's not overly explosive, but he still manages to be exceptionally elusive and hard to bring down 1v1. He gets the edge here.
Again, even Brown's biggest fans have no choice but to surrender this one handily to Lodge. The man is a release master, capable of combining any number of moves to force corners into mistakes off the line of scrimmage. He's as pro-ready as any receiver in the draft in this regard.
Brown's size and quickness project well to improvement in his releases, but as a slot receiver, he rarely has to break down press coverage early in the rep. Lots of clean releases made it difficult to judge how he'd fare as an outside receiver in the NFL, until Brown's increased reps there over the past few games. So far, he's struggled to get separation off the line of scrimmage.
Brown is a solid blocker, but Lodge is arguable the best blocking receiver in the class (Georgia receivers all give me the side-eye). Not only is he physical and feisty, he also shows better attention to detail and is far more consistent than Brown in this role. It may not seem like much, but it'll be something that helps get him on the field earlier as a rookie.
At the end of the day, I just don't see Brown as considerably better than Lodge in any area, while Lodge is clearly faster, more athletic, better in the air, more adept at getting off press coverage and a superior blocker. I'll give Brown slight edges as a route runner and post-catch threat, but even in both of those areas I think Lodge could be equal to him with more varied usage by Ole Miss.
Brown has been getting more hype than Lodge and Metcalf for years, but although he might be ahead in the box score due to the heavy number of targets he gets at Ole Miss, he ain't ahead on the football field. I've had Metcalf over him since before the season began, but it's time to make the next move and give Lodge the recognition his game deserves.