Before Antonio Brown’s erratic behavior made him a sideshow for social media and catnip for clickbait, his skillset and work ethic made him a case study in how the wide receiver position could be played.
Brown was an undersized, sixth-round pick who turned into arguably the game’s best all-around receiver. It didn’t matter where he lined up, it didn’t matter what defense he saw. He was a 100-catch season waiting to happen.
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Boston College receiver Zay Flowers watched him closely. Almost exclusively.
When Flowers named the receivers he wanted to model himself after, the only one was Brown.
“That’s basically it,” he said. “Nobody else.”
One of the benefits of the coaching staff assembled by Eagles' first-year coach Jeff Hafley is its wealth of NFL experience. Their relationships make it easy to play six degrees of separation.
Early on, Flowers mentioned to offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti how much he studied Brown. Cignetti, who had NFL runs with the Rams, Giants, and Packers, happened to mention it to former Giants quarterback Geno Smith. Smith happened to be spending the quarantine working out with Brown.
Those workouts happened to be in Miami — a relatively short drive for Flowers.
Before Flowers knew it, he was running routes with the receiver he’d been dissecting for years.
“It’s just me Gino and AB working out on a golf course,” Flowers said.
Flowers was able to see Brown’s skill set up close. Brown broke down some of the intricacies of route running and catching deep balls. Flowers soaked it in.
One detail Flowers took with him was catching deep balls over his outside shoulder and taking off. He flashed it last week in Boston College’s 31-30 win over Pitt when he raced up the middle of the field past Panthers defensive back Jason Pinnock, hauled in a pass over his left shoulder, and sped off the other way for a 77-yard touchdown.
He did it without thinking.
“It’s second nature now,” Flowers said.
In Hafley’s first season, BC has transformed into one of the best passing teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Flowers has been one of the most dangerous weapons in the Eagles air attack.
As a freshman a year ago, Flowers caught 22 passes for 341 yards in an offense that relied heavily on the run with second-round draft pick A.J. Dillon in the backfield. This season, Flowers reaped the benefits of a more open attack. He already has 21 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
“I knew I could run routes, I just wasn’t able to show it,” Flowers said. “Last year I wasn’t able to show it because it was mostly run. This year, they’re just giving me a chance to run through every route and win my one-on-ones.”
Hafley knew it too. The first time he realized how dynamic Flowers could be was in a 1-on-1 drill.
“He goes right up in there, and I saw him release off the line and drop his hips and catch a comeback,” Hafley said. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this kid has got a live body.’ The way he’s twitched up and can move laterally, and accelerate, and how quickly he can gain ground, and then how quickly he can shut it down, that’s when I was like, ‘This kid is a receiver, and this kid has a chance to play.’”
Defensive back Josh DeBerry came in with Flowers in 2019 and saw the same things.
“He’s an elite receiver, and I believe he’s one of the best receivers in all of college football,” DeBerry said. "We go out every day and practice and compete. And we’ve been competing since freshman year, every day. So I mean, he’s definitely gotten a lot better, and he’s still getting better.
“What makes him great, he’s a he’s a complete receiver. He’ll get you on screens and he’ll go deep and he’ll take the top off. His route running is up there, too. Like I said, he’s one of the best receivers in all the college football.”
Flowers made his case in the season opener against Duke. He caught five passes for a career-high 162 yards and a touchdown and earned ACC Receiver of the Week honors. He became the first Eagles' receiver to win the honor twice in the same season when the ACC recognized him again for catching six passes for 162 yards and a career-high three touchdowns against Pitt.
“I’m blessed to be able to do that two times,” Flowers said. “I just want to keep it going and let the other receivers [around the country] know that I’m here too. BC’s got receivers too, not just people who can run the ball.”
Flowers has bigger goals in mind. He was added this week to the Biletnikoff Award watch list and sees it as an attainable goal.
“I want to try to run for the Biletnikoff,” he said. “I want to be there [as] one of the best receivers in the country.”
Hafley said the best way to get there is for Flowers to focus less on the numbers and more on the process.
“Whether you’re a wide receiver, a quarterback, or a running back, you can’t go into every game thinking you’re going to get 180 [yards],” Hafley said. "You do the best you can, you prepare like you need to. That’s the same message to him. The great ones that I’ve been around, they have a mindset to go practice and get better every day.
“Zay is a really good player, if he has that mindset he will become a special player. Every day I have to get better, and so does Zay. We all have that attitude, we’ll all continue to take small steps and do better, and continue to be a better football team.”
If the big plays and big numbers keep coming, Flowers said, so be it.
“When I get a chance to make a big play, I just want that moment,” Flowers said. “I just go like that’s all I know. Just go make a big play, get the team going.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.