Eagles receiver A.J. Brown says he's in best shape yet

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- Injured but eager to begin another climb, wide receiver A.J. Brown arrived at the Florida Atlantic University training facility in Boca Raton, Florida, in late January, about three weeks after the Eagles' 2023 campaign had ended in collapse.

Brown was sidelined for the final blow -- a 32-9 throttling at the hands of theTampa Bay Buccaneersin the wild-card round of the playoffs. The week before, in the regular-season finale against the New York Giants, he was forced out of the game after being targeted on a short pass over the middle in the first quarter and falling awkwardly. Tests revealed he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his right knee -- an injury that cemented that both his team and personal goals would not be met.

"He was pissed off about not being able to play in that playoff game and not finishing the season out with his teammates," said Brown's longtime trainer and head strength and conditioning coach at FAU, Joey Guarascio, who noted Brown came down to train even earlier than usual. "He wanted to hit the ground running. He said, 'I want to be in the best shape of my life.'"

Brown believes he has since met that goal. The photo he posted on social media in May suggests he might be right.

"I think [I am in the best shape of my life]," Brown said during minicamp earlier this month. "I always ask myself at the end of the season: Can I work harder? What else can I do? Those are the questions I ask myself and the answer is always 'Yes.'"

First things first, they had to get the knee right. Guarascio said Brown was about 75-80% healthy upon arrival and that there was some "stability stuff" that needed to be worked on. They focused on building up strength in and around that right knee and gradually advanced his change-of-direction progressions.

"We didn't rush him knowing that we had time," Guarascio said. "Before you knew it, probably two to three weeks in, he wasn't even thinking about his knee. It was an afterthought."

With the injury behind him, the training ramped up. There were no major overhauls to the workout routine -- after all, Brown eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards for the second straight season in '23 and was one of the most dominant players in football. He actually got faster in Year 5 of his NFL career, topping out at speeds north of 23 miles per hour thanks partly to a regimen that includes acceleration drills, sled pulls and chain pulls. He hit those numbers once again this offseason.

The biggest change this time around was related to diet.

"He did a really good job this year of honing into the nutritional side of it. His dietician did a great job with him and he really bought into it," Guarascio said. "We saw a huge drop in his body fat percentage -- we saw like a 2% drop in just a few weeks because he was so dialed in nutritionally. He was so disciplined on the weekends. Our running joke is he stays away from cake and chips -- those are like his vices."

The end result was a leaner, cut-up Brown, who weighed in around 225 pounds while boasting a body-fat percentage in the mid-7s.

Guarascio said Brown's vertical jump reached 38.5 inches during training this offseason -- two inches higher than what he recorded at the scouting combine in 2019 even though he's five years older and weighs more than he did coming out of Ole Miss.

Brown, now 26, saw his offseason work pay dividends on the field this spring. According to coach Nick Sirianni, Brown had the most catches and the highest catch rate on the team through the organized team activities.

"A.J. became a captain for us last year because he has a great work ethic, and he knows how to lead," Sirianni said. "He just works his butt off. He wants to be great. He has his sights on being great. He's been great, and he wants to continue to do it year after year and this year."

Added receiver DeVonta Smith: "He's the same guy -- a guy that comes in, he's going to work, he's going to demand everybody to work and play to the standard he's working at."

Brown set a franchise record with 106 catches last season. He became the first player in NFL history to post six consecutive games of 125-plus receiving yards, breaking a mark previously held by first-ballot Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson. Brown made his third Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro.

And he still fell short of his goals.

"He wants to be the best offensive player in the league," Guarascio said.

"He wanted that first-team All-Pro. He wanted all the accolades that come along with that. He wanted to win a Super Bowl -- that was the biggest thing. But we didn't get to realize any of those. Even though he had a great year -- [nearly] 1,500 yards in back-to-back years, that six-game stretch where he was over 125 yards per game -- in his mind he feels like a failure, which is why you love him and why he is who he is because he is such a competitor ... He's never satisfied."

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