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Jalen Hurts attempted a pass to A.J. Brown two weeks ago, except for a moment, he didn’t think Brown was the intended receiver. He imagined it was Julio Jones.
“Swear to God, on my Mama, when I looked at A.J., bro, I saw you, bro,” Hurts told Jones when they reached the sideline. “No cap, with that No. 11.”
Hurts found Brown on the bench and delivered a similar message.
“When I saw you running, swear to God I saw Julio Jones,” Hurts said. “I saw the No. 11, I saw you driving your knees. Bro, you look so tall.”
This was a light-hearted moment caught by the microphone Hurts wore for the Eagles-Dolphins game, but it was also revealing.
Because without Jones, Brown would not be the sensation that he’s become.
“You don’t get the way I play if Julio Jones doesn’t lace up his cleats,” Brown said.
When Brown was a teenager in Starkville, Miss., football was not his first passion. He was a standout baseball player drafted by the San Diego Padres. He filled summer days playing basketball with older kids from uptown Starkville. Even with his natural gifts, he admitted he was “scared” of football.
Brown was in eighth grade when the Atlanta Falcons drafted Jones with the No. 6 overall pick out of Alabama. As a freshman in high school, Brown watched Jones catch 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns and make the Pro Bowl. Jones was 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and combined fluidity and strength. This was the template for Brown.
“Watching him play the position made me think, ‘I could do that’,” Brown said. “He inspired me.”
It didn’t take long for the inspiration to make Brown one of the best football players in the country. Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson worked at nearby Mississippi State while Brown was in high school. He tried recruiting Brown, who lived a few minutes from campus. Brown came to their summer camp and it reached a point where the coaches told him Brown no longer needed to run one-on-ones. The cornerbacks were overmatched.
He’s making the NFL look like Mississippi State’s football camp. With the way Brown’s playing nearly a decade later, he’ll one day be discussed the way he discussed Jones. Brown became the first NFL receiver to reach at least 125 yards in six consecutive games and the first player since Jones in 2018 to reach at least 100 yards in six consecutive games. He was named NFC offensive player of the month on Thursday after leading the NFL with 700 receiving yards in October.
To put that in perspective, the Eagles went the entire 2019 and 2020 seasons without a wide receiver reaching 700 yards.
“The things he’s doing right now have never been done before,” Hurts said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Brown downplayed the dominance, suggesting that he should focus only on the next game because the defenders in front of him are trying to stop him. Nobody has found an answer yet. Defenses have presented different coverages, but Brown is finding ways to beat who’s in front of him or win contested catches.
“I think he’s taking the definition of a 50-50 ball and he’s tilted the percentage significantly higher to himself,” said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, who added the Eagles’ running game also creates one-on-one opportunities for Brown.
McCarthy might have made a similar statement about Jones a decade ago when preparing to play Atlanta. This is the second time Brown and Jones have played together, and Jones considers Brown like a “little brother.”
The comparisons between the two are not based on what Brown learned from speaking with Jones. They’re based on what Brown learned when he first watched Jones.
“Before I started talking to Julio, Julio taught me everything he knew without even talking to him,” Brown said. “That’s how much I studied his game.”
When Jones discussed Brown, he called Brown the “total package.” He noted Brown’s “big frame,” “broad shoulders,” and ability to make “amazing contested catches.” And he also pointed out Brown’s consistency, which is a high compliment from Jones. The future Hall of Famer topped 1,300 yards in six consecutive seasons from 2014 to 2019. Brown is trying to reach that mark for the second time in his career. When Brown offered his list of the top five receivers in league history, he put Jones at No. 2. (Jerry Rice, a fellow Mississippi native, was No. 1.)
Jones is viewed with reverence throughout the locker room, which was evident with the way teammates celebrated Jones’ touchdown last week. When Hurts was asked how much of Jones he sees in Brown, he considered it difficult to answer because of Jones’ longevity. But that didn’t stop Hurts from thinking he saw Jones when he threw to Brown.
“I definitely caught a flash in that moment,” Hurts said. “When you think Julio Jones is on your team, you think No. 11. So when I saw No. 11, that’s who I saw. …In many ways, he has molded him.”
Asked about this encounter, Brown didn’t totally buy it.
“I think Jalen was just fan-boying,” Brown said with a laugh. “He knew that was me.”
Brown knows what that is like. After all, Jones made him want to play the position.
“The way I play the game of football,” Brown said, “is from him.”