PHILADELPHIA — Since becoming teammates in 2022, Eagles receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith have quickly established themselves as one of the top tandems in the NFL.
They combined for 2,692 receiving yards last season — the most by a duo in Eagles history and second most across the league behind only Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins (3,006).
They’ve accounted for 79% of their team’s receiving yards through two games this year, the highest in the NFL. And it has even been symmetrical: Brown and Smith each have 15 targets, they each have 11 receptions, and quarterback Jalen Hurts’ average target distance to them is exactly the same (14.3 yards), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But the Eagles’ passing game actually comes into Monday night’s matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+) in a rut. Defenses have been trying to stifle the normally potent aerial attack by deploying unscouted looks and dropping upward of eight players into coverage to flood the zone and force short passes.
It’s working, as Philadelphia entered Week 3 ranked 29th in passing yards (162.5 per game). The flipside is it’s leaving the opposition vulnerable to the Eagles’ ground game, which racked up over 250 yards in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Two games and two wins in, though, Hurts didn’t hide his irritation over the focus on lack of air yards.
“When did winning not become the main thing?” he asked.
SOME FRUSTRATION HAS crept in, and Brown’s surfaced prior to the start of the fourth quarter against the Vikings. Cameras showed him having an animated conversation with Hurts on the sideline, compelling coach Nick Sirianni to interject.
A team source said the interaction was over a play that unfolded minutes prior in which Brown was the primary read and Hurts went a different direction. Brown, who finished with four catches for 29 yards, left the stadium without speaking to reporters, later saying his emotions were running hot. He downplayed the exchange, ranking it as a 0.5 on a scale of one to 10.
Not only are current circumstances creating fewer chances for Brown and Smith — and moments of consternation — but the dynamics are shifting under them. As first-time captains, both are assuming leadership roles.
“I’ll be that guy to have uncomfortable conversations,” Brown said, referencing his talk with Hurts. “There’s a reason why I got the ‘C’ on my chest.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s star is on the rise. Eagles cornerback Darius Slay opined this summer that “it ain’t going to be too much longer [before] we’re going to be saying Smitty is the best receiver in the league.” Smith showed off his ability during a four-catch, 131-yard performance against Minnesota that included two receptions of 50-plus yards, one of which went for a touchdown.
The Eagles have two No. 1 receivers on their hands in Smith, 24, and Brown, 26. Trying to keep everyone fed in a run-heavy system — tight end Dallas Goedert is a central part of the plans as well — can be a challenge. And perhaps the biggest hurdle awaits with Smith eligible for a contract extension after this season. The Eagles will have to decide whether they can pair two handsomely paid receivers with a quarterback in Hurts making over $50 million a year without short-changing the rest of the roster.
For all of those possible points of friction, Brown and Smith’s relationship seems healthy. Though the focus following Thursday’s game was on Brown’s interaction with Hurts, Smith said no attention was paid to how happy Brown was for Smith’s success that night. And it was Smith who grabbed Brown’s back in the locker room later that evening, and again the following Thursday, jumping into the large media throng around Brown’s stall to read a Bible passage about refraining from harsh judgment.
They credit the friendship they’ve built since last year and experiences leading up to their time together in Philly for making it easier to keep the big picture in mind even when their alpha personas kick in.
“To be honest, we’re selfless guys, man. We love each other, so it doesn’t matter,” Brown said.
“It just comes down to you both being happy for each other,” Smith added. “As long as you’re always happy for the next person, it’s going to come around.”
SMITH AND BROWN’S production altered the Eagles’ record books last season. Smith (1,196 yards) and Brown (1,496) became the first 1,000-plus-yard receiving duo in franchise history. Smith totaled the most single-season receptions (95) by an Eagle, while Brown established a team high for receiving yards.
And they did it in very different ways. Brown (6-foot-1, 226 pounds), dubbed “Swole Batman” by Slay, has a linebacker build designed to wreak havoc over the middle of the field, while the 6-foot, 170-pound Smith — “Skinny Batman” — is the field-stretching, sideline-toe-tapping acrobat.
“They’re such good friends and then in a lot of ways they’re like fire and ice,” receiver/punt returner Britain Covey said. “Think of their body types: basically polar-opposite body types for a receiver. And then even in their personalities: Smitty is kind of stubborn and he’s got his routine and then I feel like A.J. is more free-spirited and a little playful and things like that. It’s fun to see how they complement each other.”
Those differing skill sets are starting to blend. Brown tries to pick up pointers when it comes to Smith’s pristine route-running — “everybody knows DeVonta is slippery,” Brown said — while Smith has taken cues from Brown’s hand work, whether it be at the line of scrimmage to get off a press or using late hands to keep a defender guessing when the ball is in the air.
Sirianni made the point that a coach might play game clips of former elite players (he used Andre Johnson as an example) to demonstrate how something is supposed to be done during meetings, whereas Smith and Brown have the benefit of simply being able to look to their right or their left.
“They’re sitting right next to each other. To be able to say, ‘Hey, why did you do that right there, DeVonta?’ ‘Why did you do this right there, A.J.?’ And they’re able to get each other better because they’re not only watching each other do it, but they also can sit there and talk about it,” he said. “I really like their relationship. I think that’s pretty special.”
Sharing the field with another dominant receiver is nothing new for Brown or Smith.
Brown’s counterpart at Ole Miss was Seattle Seahawks standout DK Metcalf, who was selected in the second round of the 2019 draft — 13 picks after Brown was picked by the Tennessee Titans.
Alabama, meanwhile, had an embarrassment of riches at receiver during Smith’s time there, including Waddle, Jerry Jeudy and Calvin Ridley.
“When you’re in on the action, it’s fun; when you’re not in on the action, it’s not fun,” Smith said. “But those moments molded me into being who I am now to where I know you just have to wait on your time, and when it comes, you’ve got to be ready for it.”
Smith and Brown took turns going off last season, each eclipsing the 100-yard mark in a game five times. It’s hard for fans, media and even some teammates to refrain from the comparison game — being swayed to believe one player is better, only for the other to explode the next week and rearrange the order.
“They’re both top-10 receivers in the league,” Covey said. “It doesn’t matter who’s better, they don’t care who’s better.”
“We’re great together,” Brown said. “… I think everybody, the city of Philly, or whoever, I think you should just appreciate the both of us while you have us.”
How long that will be is up for debate.
Hurts signed a five-year, $255 million extension in April and is making $51 million per year. Brown is averaging $25 million per season. He inked a four-year, $100 million deal after being traded from the Titans.
Smith, meanwhile, is eligible for a contract after this season. He’s tracking toward a lucrative payday, with the 10 highest salaried receivers currently averaging $24 million annually, led by Hill at $30 million.
It’s not impossible to keep the band together. The Los Angeles Chargers signed quarterback Justin Herbert to a mega-contract with receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the roster making $20 million-plus a year — cumbersome numbers no matter how you slice it.
“As a team you have to be lucky enough to catch one of those guys on a rookie deal,” former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin said. “Because we all know, once you pay the quarterback, the chances of you having a lot of options around him are slim, so you have to pick and choose who you want with you.”
Boldin was part of one of the top receiver tandems in NFL history along with Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Drafted in back-to-back years, they spent six seasons together with the Cardinals from 2004 to ’09, including three seasons where they each went for 1,000-plus yards.
But Boldin requested a trade after a new contract never materialized. He was dealt to the Baltimore Ravens in 2010 and was again paired with strong receivers in Derrick Mason and later Torrey Smith. They won Super Bowl XLVII, quarterback Joe Flacco proceeded to get paid, but Boldin was asked to take a paycut. He declined and was once again on the move to the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s a short window. Once DeVonta gets paid, A.J. will be underpaid. And now obviously he’s going to want to be paid his worth, especially if he’s putting up the same type numbers, which is then going to force the organization to make a decision,” Boldin said.
Brown’s goal is to play with Hurts and Smith as long as he can. He knows Smith’s payday is coming and it could affect things — he suggested as much during a podcast appearance this offseason — but seems to have put that out of his mind for now.
“We’re not worried about that. We’re not focused on that. I’m going to enjoy playing alongside him,” Brown said.
IT DIDN’T TAKE long for things to return to normal following the sideline exchange between Brown and Hurts. Covey said Brown was poking fun at himself in the locker room postgame and Hurts and Brown were “laughing their heads off about it.”
It’s been tough sledding through the air game early on, but the belief is it’s only a matter of time before it erupts. The personnel is too good, and defenses can only get gashed on the ground for so long before having to adjust.
If things go according to plan, Smith and Brown will be back to swapping — and occasionally sharing — monster nights before long.
“Like I always say, when it rains, it pours,” Brown said. “When it starts coming, look out.”