With only one receiver under contract beyond the upcoming season, the Detroit Lions had a glaring need for long-term solutions at the position heading into the 2021 NFL draft.
But for the first two days of the event, the team ignored the need, opting to follow their board and select an offensive tackle, two defensive tackles and a cornerback in the first three rounds.
The Lions wasted little time on the draft’s third day plugging the hole, adding USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown with the seventh pick of the afternoon, No. 112 overall. At the end of the day, first-year general manager Brad Holmes joked, “Well from the sounds of it, after we drafted St. Brown, I felt like people would get off my (butt) about not getting a receiver.”
Despite being a Day 3 pick, early expectations are high for St. Brown. He’s projected as the team’s No. 3 receiver, and with the top two options having a history of durability issues, there’s a possibility the team could need to lean on the rookie even more at some point during the season.
With that in mind, we thought we’d learn a little bit more about the type of player the Lions are getting in St. Brown. We watched tape from seven of his college performances, including five from this past season, to get a better feel. Below is our scouting report.
► Statistics: 2018 — 11 games, 60 receptions, 750 yards, three touchdowns
2019 — 13 games, 77 catches, 1,042 yards, six touchdowns
2020 — six games, 41 catches, 478 yards, seven touchdowns
► Athletic profile: At his pro day in March, St. Brown posted a mixed bag of measurables, which correlated with what showed up on film. A player who clearly demonstrates on-field strength, his 20 reps on the bench press is among the best numbers posted by a receiver this decade. He also showcased elite leaping ability, registering among the best in his class with a 38.5-inch vertical and 10-foot-7 broad jumps.
The biggest concern with St. Brown is his straight-line speed, confirmed by his 4.61-second 40-yard dash and equally disappointing 1.63-second 10-yard split. It’s not disqualifying, by any means, but it does present limitations. Those are somewhat offset by his slightly above-average change-of-direction quickness, which combined with his high-end strength and leaping ability, allowed him to be a consistently productive option in the USC passing attack.
► Alignments: Playing in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense, St. Brown was a chess piece for the fast-rising coordinator. In 2019, he primarily operated out of the slot, but was featured more on the outside (a little more 70% of his 2020 reps) following Michael Pittman declaring for the NFL Draft a year ago.
In addition to splitting time out wide and in the slot, USC also occasionally utilized St. Brown out of backfield alignments and regularly put him in motion. Harrell also showed a somewhat surprising comfort level putting the 5-foot-11, 197-pound St. Brown tight to the formation in short-yardage situations.
► Release: Likely a symptom of Harrell’s aggressive downfield attack, St. Brown didn’t face a lot of press coverage. When he was jammed, his strength proved to be a bigger asset than his footwork.
One of the best examples came against UCLA last season. Working deep in the red zone, the corner got a strong punch into St. Brown’s chest on the snap, but the receiver maintained his balance, slanting inside from his inside alignment for a touchdown catch.
► Route running: St. Brown runs a complete tree, with a large percentage of his routes schemed to break toward the sideline rather than across the middle of the field. He shows fluidity out of his breaks and the ability to quickly decelerate on routes coming back to the quarterback.
► Separation: Creating space from the defender is a clear weakness in St. Brown’s profile. Hindered by his lack of speed and acceleration, defensive backs are able to sit back on his routes and quickly close on his breaks.
Without traffic, St. Brown doesn’t offer much value on crossing patterns and probably won’t be much of a deep threat on the outside against NFL-caliber corners. He’s at his best creating separation against off-coverage in the slot, showing a consistent ability to get a nickel corner or safety turned around when pressing on them vertically.
St. Brown also demonstrates advanced savvy in using his frame and off-arm to create late separation, particularly on fade routes.
► Ball skills: When the ball is in the air, St. Brown shows excellent tracking ability and spatial awareness, using his frame to create that late separation and his plus leaping ability to high point the ball. He shows no issues catching the ball away from his frame, and once it is in his hands, he does a nice job securing it in a way that the defender doesn’t have an opportunity to jar it free.
► Hands: For someone who displays such good ball skills, making many difficult and contested catches, St. Brown has a surprising number of concentration drops. In the seven games we watched, he nearly had a pass per game that hit him in the hands and ended up on the ground.
According to Pro Football Focus, St. Brown’s 8.9% drop rate in 2020 ranked below average for the position.
► After catch: As noted, St. Brown doesn’t have great burst, and doesn’t generate a lot of separation on his routes, particularly against the high rate of off-coverage he saw. Therefore, he naturally doesn’t yield a lot of production after the reception.
He has a moderately effective spin move he’s comfortable using in the open field, but his best tackle-breaking asset is his strength, where he’ll run through the arms of a defender who’s not squared up.
► IQ: St. Brown is competent at finding space against zone coverages, making small adjustments to expand his quarterback’s window. He’s equally adept in scramble-drill situations, showing a knack of when to come back to the quarterback or break deep when pressure collapses the pocket and flushes the passer.
Another positive example of St. Brown’s on-field smarts is the way he utilizes his blocks in the quick passing game. Not pressing the action allows him to maximize the potential of the play design.
► Blocking: St. Brown is a physical, high-effort blocker who contributes in both the run and the pass game. He routinely overpowers defensive backs and takes pride in dominating a one-on-one matchup.
Like any skill, there are areas to clean up. He will take an occasional bad angle in the open field or can get sloppy with his hand placement, allowing the defender to quickly shed the block. The only time he was blatantly overmatched in our film review was when he tried to take on a UCLA linebacker and got flattened.
Still, positionally, few will match St. Brown’s consistently in this area.
► Durability: One of the selling points with St. Brown is his toughness. During his USC career, he missed just one game, as a freshman. He was briefly sidelined in high school by a hand injury and played through a sports hernia in 2019 that he had repaired ahead of the 2020 season. He didn’t miss a start his final two seasons, but he didn’t finish his final college game after suffering an AC joint sprain, his second in three years.