NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What seemed like the perfect marriage of player and team was broken up by a blockbuster draft-day trade when the Tennessee Titans sent wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles for the 18th and 101st overall picks in late April.
The Titans didn't want to lose Brown, but they reached a point where getting a deal done to keep him long term didn’t seem like a possibility. Tennessee contends that contract demands reached into the $29 million per year range with $80 million guaranteed, while Brown told ESPN he would have settled for $22 million annually.
Losing a player who led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in each of the past three seasons since being drafted in 2019 in the second round was not easy to replace, and Brown has had similar results for the league-leading Eagles at 10-1, whom the Titans (7-4) travel to face Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
But that’s why Titans general manager Jon Robinson selected Treylon Burks out of Arkansas literally minutes after the trade with the No. 18 pick.
Burks had a similar kind of sturdy build that the Titans saw in Brown, along with the ability to get chunks of yards after the catch and make contested catches.
“He’s a heckuva player,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Burks. “He’s talented, got size, great strength, has hands, judges the ball well and can run. He has everything you’re looking for.”
At the combine, Burks said he studied and applied a lot of aspects of Brown’s game to his own. While there are plenty of similarities, the Titans and Burks have maintained all along that Burks’ job is to carve out his own role in the offense rather than be Brown’s replacement.
“I’ve looked up to him with me being in college and him being who he is,“ Burks said. “But he’s A. J. I’m Treylon. We’re two different people. I just play my game, and he plays his.”
Burks is starting to emerge as a playmaker after a shaky start that included missing minicamp because of asthma and conditioning issues along with a stint on injured reserve because of a turf toe injury.
“He has to be the best version of Treylon," receivers coach Rob Moore said, "and we’re starting to see what that looks like.”
Burks posted his first 100-yard receiving game in Week 10 against the Green Bay Packers. Then he followed that up with a four-reception, 70-yard performance in which he scored his first NFL touchdown.
The touchdown was the result of hustling down the field on a long Derrick Henry catch and pouncing on the ball in the end zone after Henry fumbled.
“Coming in knowing my role" is what Burks said has led to his sudden improvement since coming back from IR.
"I come to the facility and attack everything they throw at me," Burks said. "I never back down.”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel said Burks’ biggest improvement was his attitude and the way that he comes to work. Vrabel mentioned the short week the Titans had to prepare for Green Bay and how he watched Burks put in extra preparation with Moore to get some early mistakes corrected as an example.
“He’s not a guy that lacks confidence,” Moore said. “When you have a player with the traits that he has -- amazing play strength and can catch the football, good top-end speed -- when you put it all together, he has a chance to go out there each week and have a heckuva day.”
Moore commended Burks for the work and preparation he put in while on IR that helped keep him connected and immersed in what the team does philosophically. That kept Burks from having to start all over when he came back.
It's no coincidence that Tannehill’s two best passing days this season came in games where Burks had his best games. Burks’ 111 receiving yards contributed to Tannehill’s passing game over 300 yards (333) this season. Tannehill finished with 291 passing yards last week against the Cincinnati Bengals -- with Burks accounting for 70 yards.
The confidence Tannehill has developed in Burks showed in a 51-yard completion against the Bengals. Burks had 0.5 yards of separation, but Tannehill unleashed a 51-yard play-action bomb to him anyway. Burks skied over Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt to make the catch.
That was the third time that Tannehill and Burks connected for a gain of 40 or more yards -- with Burks hauling in passes of 43 and 51 yards against Green Bay. Each of those passes traveled at least 30 yards in the air.
Up until the Packers game, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine’s 61-yard reception against the Washington Commanders in Week 5 was the only completion the Titans had in which the ball traveled at 30 yards in the air.
Simply put, Burks adds a different element to the passing game. His deep catching ability is critical to making teams pay for stacking the box to stop Henry, which offers one-on-one matchups on the outside.
Burks’ 51-yard catch against Green Bay is the perfect example. The Packers loaded the box late in the game expecting Henry to run the ball. Burks was one on one against Jaire Alexander, one of the league's top cover cornerbacks. The rookie beat Alexander deep and caught the pass from Tannehill to get the first down and seal the game.
That success should open up the passing game and influence offensive coordinator Todd Downing to dial up more passing plays.
“It brings confidence to the passing game,” Titans receiver Robert Woods said of Burks’ recent success. “We have playmakers who can go out there and make plays. Treylon has shown that. Then to be a receiver on the other side of that, having him make plays down the field backs the defense up and allows guys to work underneath. It creates more space against these zones and opens up the passing game.”