In a 2019 wide receiver class that churned out a stunning array of productive rookies—Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf—it can be easy to forget who was first off the board on draft day: none of the above. Baltimore Ravens rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was the 25th overall pick in a class that many believed lacked a true top talent at wideout, and while Brown was far from a disappointment in his rookie year, he did produce at a lower level than those later picks, failing to stand out beyond other rookie speedsters like Darius Slayton and Mecole Hardman.
Expectations were high for Brown, and he didn’t fail to reach them—it’s just that he can do so much more. And with his work this past offseason, it seems likely that he will.
It’s worth remembering that Brown, an elite athlete without question, was not so because of careful development. The kid was just fast, hitting a 10.9s 100-meter dash and 21.94s 200-meter dash in high school, at roughly 140 pounds. Brown didn’t receive a Division 1 offer for football out of the Florida high school machine because his size was a prohibitive red flag to big college interest. So he went to the College of the Canyons, a top JUCO school across the country in California, and burned up the competition—again, at 140 pounds.
That’s what Brown was when he famously ran a 4.33 40-yard dash and drew the Division 1 offers for which he was also hunting: USC, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Oregon. Brown landed in the Lincoln Riley offense with the Sooners and never looked back, putting up two 1,000-yard seasons, breaking the single-game receiving yard record, and receiving the moniker that would follow him to the NFL: Hollywood, after his hometown in Florida.
At Oklahoma, Brown met the weight room for the first time—nutritionists too, as he had eaten his way through the frozen food section during his year in California when trying to make ends meet. As Brown told Matt Hayes for Bleacher Report: "My mom worked so hard for us, and she was fortunate enough to just get us dinner. In the morning, we'd probably have some cereal, and then you don't eat again until dinner. Then I got to junior college, and I was only eating from the dollar store. I get [to Oklahoma], and I'm eating like a king. I didn't even have to think. 'Here's what you eat. Here's when you eat it. Here's when you lift weights.' Next thing you know, my body is changing."
Brown’s body did change, as he tipped the scales in Indianapolis at 166 pounds—still the lightest receiver in the 2019 NFL Draft class, but far more palatable than 140 pounds. The problem was that Brown didn’t have an opportunity to continue adding weight after his final season in Oklahoma: surgery on a Lisfranc put him up in early February, preventing him from training for either the NFL Scouting Combine or his pro day.
As Brown admitted following his rookie year with the Ravens, the issues with his foot never really went away, and accordingly, Brown’s ability to hold mass was also put in jeopardy. He dropped as low as 157 pounds, and while he was still plenty fast, he wasn’t reaching the same speeds he once did with the Sooners. Brown wasn’t dropping weight to get faster; he was getting weaker by dropping weight. As such, Brown’s offseason has been filled with extensive rehabilitation and strength work, with his progress meticulously cataloged on Instagram, the comments bubbling with excitement from the Baltimore faithful. Brown is now up to 180 pounds, but more importantly, he’s a stronger and faster player.
Ludicrous workout videos and expected preseason hype aside, Brown gaining weight matters for both his short- and long-term outlooks. The list of receivers with long-term career success under 180 pounds is frighteningly short over the last two decades. Only five players have produced 1,000-yard seasons under that weight line: DeSean Jackson has been the preeminent threat, with five such seasons to his name; then come Emmanuel Sanders (3), John Brown (2), Brian Hartline (2), and one explosive year from Steve Breaston.
The mold of a productive receiver—Jackson, Sanders, Brown—is encouraging to Hollywood, as all three were 4.4s or better 40-yard dashers and come in under 5-foot-11 (Hollywood is 5’9 ⅜”). Jackson and Brown are the two particular players Hollywood will most look to emulate as preeminent field stretchers with the ability to turn short targets into big YAC gains with their burst and long speed. But Brown needs to have enough functional strength and density to survive glancing contact and withstand the attrition of a full NFL season—mass is critical in that effort.
Assuming Brown retains his elite speed at his new weight—a reasonable assumption, given the focus of his training to this point—both his full recovery from a terrible injury and his additional bulk spell a strong second season for Brown. Critically, a 180-pound Brown neatly slides into the mold of devastating undersized speedsters that have succeeded before him, completing a stunning five-year turnaround from underfed and underdeveloped JUCO track star to NFL-sized WR1.