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It feels like Tennessee Titans already have lost 2022 NFL draft after A.J. Brown trade | Opinion

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Jon Robinson solemnly explained his actions Thursday night, much the way a coach would after some bitter upset loss – one of those results he knows is sure to incite the fanbase in an intensely personal way.

This felt that way, too. It was that type of defeat.

No matter what happens Friday and Saturday, the lasting memory of the Tennessee Titans’ 2022 NFL draft will be as follows:

You traded A.J. Brown! How COULD you?

Cut to Robinson: Money. That’s how.

In this offseason in which deals have been skyrocketing for top wide receivers, Brown wanted more than the Titans were willing to get close to paying.

“We had discussions back and forth, and I really realized we got to a spot where it was going to be kind of hard to get a deal done,” Robinson said. “… At the end of the day, we have to make – I have to make – the hard decisions. There’s a lot of things that impact those decisions. Certainly, the finances impact decisions, and trying to get value when we can.”

The Titans trading Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles will be the splashiest headline from this draft. It was a true bombshell, ringing throughout the team’s locker room. Multiple Titans players tweeted immediately in disbelief and disgust, responses that mirrored most of their fans, I’d imagine.

Understandably, all this overshadowed the actual first-round pick the Titans made with the Eagles’ No. 18 spot – Arkansas WR Treylon Burks – or that the Titans traded their No. 26 pick to gain high picks in the second and third rounds.

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Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) warms up before facing the Miami Dolphins at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

You feel for poor Burks. He’ll be inextricably linked to this deeply unpopular trade that brought him to Nashville. He didn’t ask for that. It’s not his fault that he’ll basically be viewed – at least in the short team – as “not A.J.” Which is kind of funny, since he actually is a similar receiver to Brown.

It’s clear that the Titans were trying to mitigate the damage of losing a star like Brown by adding a receiver who was being widely compared to him by draft pundits.

And I’m not just saying this to make y’all feel better, Titans fans: Burks really is a promising prospect.

He was a problem for SEC defenses. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, he is that special blend of size and speed and ball skills to where his highlights looked a lot like … well … Brown. The idea of the Titans drafting Burks when his stock slipped a bit after he ran a 4.55 at the combine? I didn’t just like it. I loved it.

I’m not just saying that now. I’d written that Burks was who I most hoped the Titans would select.

Of course, I was assuming that Burks would be joining Brown, not replacing him.

That’s an enormous difference, obviously.

I’m not sure how this will look in a year or two, but on the first night of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Titans’ roster got a lot worse. No other way to say it.

Contending teams do not get better or kick the door down to a championship by trading away a 24-year-old superstar who is arguably their most valuable player and inarguably one of the NFL’s best wide receivers.

Can Burks replace a player of Brown’s caliber? Perhaps. In time. 

But a better question: Is it fair to ask a rookie to do that immediately for a team that was the AFC’s No. 1 seed and expects to be firmly in the mix again in 2022?

Nope. It’s not fair.

In Brown, a special player is leaving the Titans, one who doesn’t come along every day. His departure changes everything. This was a step back from contention.

You can chalk it up to the harsh realities of professional sports. But there’s good reason why you, me and pretty much everyone else – including Titans teammates – were blindsided by this trade.

It’s because the Titans kept publicly telling you, me and pretty much everyone that they weren’t going to trade Brown – right up until they actually did.

The Titans didn’t have to do this now. He had another year left on his contract. 

Once reports of a new $100 million deal between the Eagles and Brown began circulating soon after the trade commenced, it revealed this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.

As it turned out, the speculation about Brown was the truth. What the Titans had been saying was not.

It’s unclear what changed in recent days. Brown's posts on social media, vague as they were, hinted at a growing divide. ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported that Brown had “stopped communicating” with the Titans over contractual demands.

“Just realized that the gap was really too far for us to bridge,” Robinson said. “And in doing that, that’s where those hard decisions and those tough discussions come in. It’s not easy, trust me.”

Robinson said he “didn’t foresee” trading Brown a week ago. Coach Mike Vrabel had seemingly slammed the door shut previously, telling radio host Rich Eisen that Brown wouldn’t be on the trading block “as long as I’m the head coach.”

Vrabel was still the head coach Thursday night, saying he was on the same page with Robinson and that the team had gone "to the extreme" to try to keep Brown.

“I love A.J. personally,” Vrabel said. “I know how Jon feels about him. But I’m very comfortable with how this went down. … We’re going to be here awhile. We’re not going to be able to keep every single player that we draft and develop.”

I’ve seen Vrabel after losses on Sundays.

The mood was similar. It felt like a major defeat.

For the Titans, that’s how this draft is going to be remembered.