Where there's 'Smoke': John Brown bringing fire to Bills' offense

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The AFC's leading receiver walked into the Buffalo Bills' locker room after a midweek practice. It wasn't Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins or Tyreek Hill; it's 2019 free-agent signee John Brown, who is playing for his third team in as many years.

One of the lesser-known members of a 2014 draft class that produced Beckham, Mike Evans, Davante Adams and Jarvis Landry, Brown is having his best season in Year 6 -- not a typical "breakout year" for wide receivers.

So why, in Buffalo, has he finally able to showcase his skills?

"They're letting me be a receiver here," Brown said.

The Pittsburg State product has been the team's top receiving option and is producing like a No. 1 wideout with 61 receptions for 882 yards and six total touchdowns (one passing). A legitimate No. 1 receiver is something Bills quarterback Josh Allen didn't have during a trying rookie season.

General manager Brandon Beane drafted a pair of tight ends but no receiver in 2019, opting instead to address the need in free agency. He and his staff landed on Brown, a 5-foot-10 speedster who has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards just once.

He had been on their watch list since the 2018 offseason; turns out, there was a reason the Bills were willing to come calling again one year later.

Second time's the charm

Buffalo wanted to sign Brown when the Arizona Cardinals let the 2014 third-round pick enter free agency in 2018, but Brown opted for a more stable quarterback situation with the Baltimore Ravens and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco.

Through the first seven weeks of last season, it was hard to fault Brown's decision. He ranked third in the league in yards per catch and 15th in receiving yards with 558 on 28 catches -- including 44 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo in Week 1.

But his production quickly tapered off. He finished with 157 receiving yards through the final nine weeks of the season as the Ravens turned to rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 11. Brown entered free agency at season's end and was greeted by underwhelming interest.

But the Bills were back on his doorstep. They saw through Brown's statistical drop-off and recognized the receiver they had coveted.

"I remember before he even signed with Baltimore, the year before, we really liked him," Bills wide receivers coach Chad Hall said. "He has natural, natural hands for a guy his size -- and his hand size was the smallest at the combine, which is ironic for having as natural hands as he has. He can just pluck everything out the air. He's got great speed, which you can't coach or teach, but watching him on film, I liked the control -- he was always in control on the field and he really didn't have many indicators.

"When you're running routes, any indicators you give, [defensive backs] break on them. He's so smooth with his route running, he keeps everything so tight that you really don't know where he's going or what he's doing. They also have to respect his speed, so he's very hard to defend."

Even though the Bills were "basically the only offer on the table," Brown said he did his research before moving to western New York.

He signed a three-year, $27 million deal -- mainly on the strength of Allen's potential and the Bills' culture.

"I knew that I could come in and help," Brown said. "Before I made a decision, I watched film on Josh Allen -- because he didn't play when we played in Baltimore. Watching him, he can throw the deep ball like Joe Flacco and he's a real good learner and he's ready to work.

"I felt like it'd be a great connection for me to come here, plus I heard a lot of great things about this organization."

Brown's chemistry with Allen flashed during training camp, then became obvious to the rest of the world when he caught seven passes for 123 yards and the game-winning touchdown against the Jets in Week 1. He would rattle off a streak of nine straight games with at least 50 receiving yards that ended during Buffalo's past two games.

His success has come as little surprise to Bills coach Sean McDermott, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Beane and Hall.

"We knew he could do everything we wanted in our scheme," Hall said. "You get opportunities to make plays in this league and if you make them, you're going to get more -- and he's made the plays. ... he got in a situation where we're like, 'let's go, we're gonna ride you.'"

A complete receiver

Brown's success is also no surprise to those who understand his true skill set.

If Year 6 seems like an odd time for a breakout, it's because this isn't a breakout season; Brown has been able to do this for a while now.

"I saw that from the very first practice and OTAs," Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "He has an innate ability to not only be extremely fast, but also quick out of the top of his break. He's got really good ball skills and he's got a big-game mentality about him. He wants to make the play, he wants to be in position to help the team."

Hall's explanation of Brown's career season? Opportunity.

Brown burst into the NFL in 2014 as a premier deep threat. After 696 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, he turned in the best season of his career in 2015 with 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns on 65 catches. His role as a vertical threat firmly established, Brown was not nearly as productive in 2016 and 2017 with 817 combined receiving yards -- in part because of injuries and in part because of what he was asked to do on the field.

"When he was young, [the Cardinals] had a lot of receivers, they had some underneath guys and needed somebody to take the top off," Hall said. "For example, like our Robert Foster last year ... that's probably how John Brown started. He had some success doing it, so then it was like, 'let's just keep doing what he's good at.' So, maybe, they didn't give him a chance to do the underneath routes -- I don't know."

In Buffalo, the coaching staff didn't want to limit Brown to field-stretching responsibilities.

"When you put on film from my past few years, I'm doing a lot of deep routes," Brown said. "But here, I'm running five-yard routes -- I'm running the whole route tree. That's what I meant by [they're letting me be a receiver]."

All about the team

Just as impressive as Brown's receiving numbers this season is his ability to impact the game in other areas. Specifically against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13, Brown turned in his worst statistical game of the season with 26 yards on three catches.

But he also threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to running back Devin Singletary and sustained a block that sprung Allen's rushing touchdown in the third quarter, which essentially extinguished all hope of a Dallas comeback.

"I'm just one of those receivers who wants to win," Brown said. "It's never been about me, so any way I can help [I'll do it]. If I see somebody's doubling me, I will give my route up to be a decoy to open one of my brothers up. I'm all about the team, I'm not a selfish person."

Hall said Brown also has been a great example for some of the Bills' younger receivers -- another quality he has displayed for years.

The man nicknamed "Smoke" catches more balls before and after practice than any other player in Buffalo's receiver room, according to Hall.

"The thing about Smoke is, I bet in Baltimore, they never heard one peep from him," he said. "He puts the team first, which is rare for his position as a No. 1 receiver."

Said Fitzgerald: "He's selfless. Even though he's small in stature, going in there and blocking is not something he's afraid to do. He's a wonderful teammate, unbelievable father to his daughter and to see him come full circle this year and really be a bell-cow and perform at a Pro Bowl level would only solidify what he's done, in terms of his work ethic.

"I hope he gets all the accolades because he deserves it -- he works his tail off."