By Cole Topham
PHOENIX – Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Marquise Brown slanted inside during a pass play in the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles, finding a brief pocket of separation to elevate for a catch over the middle.
Brown hopscotched around the midfield defender, set his feet to stabilize his balance, then sunk his hip back in the opposite direction to shake through another tackle. The boulevard to the end zone that developed during the play began to close quickly. Brown shifted gears and blurred upfield through the hashes to score his team’s first points of the game, which ended in a 20-17 loss on Oct. 9.
The 25-yard house call, among other highlights, has already validated Brown as a worthwhile addition even though he has been sidelined on injured reserve since Week 7 with a broken foot. The Cardinals designated Brown to return from injured reserve Wednesday, giving him a chance to play in Mexico City against the San Francisco 49ers. The team announced Monday afternoon, hours before kickoff, that he would not be activated for the game.
A handsome sum of future picks was needed to acquire the electric big-play potential of “Hollywood” Brown in a bold draft-day trade.
The Cardinals moved the No. 23 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to the Baltimore Ravens for Brown and a third-rounder used to select outside linebacker Myjai Sanders. The move reunited Brown with quarterback and former Oklahoma teammate Kyler Murray. The duo set program records and led the Sooners to a Big-12 Championship victory as well as an appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2018. Murray won the Heisman Trophy and Brown was a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. Both declared for the upcoming draft and were selected in the first round.
The Cardinals hoped to recapture some of that winning mojo that Murray and Brown showcased in Norman – and there has been a recent track record of success when pairing young wide receivers with their college quarterbacks at the next level.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow advocated for the organization to take his former LSU teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, with its top-five choice in 2021. As a rookie, Chase surpassed Chad Johnson’s franchise record for the most receiving yards in a single season. His 1,455 yards ranked fourth in the NFL, while his 13 touchdowns trailed just Cooper Kupp and Mike Evans – two established veterans at the position. Chase and Burrow, who also enjoyed his best statistical season, propelled the Bengals to the Super Bowl in their first year together.
This season, former Alabama teammates Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith have helped the Eagles claim the league’s best 9-1 record. Another Alabama quarterback-receiver duo, Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle, have also produced results on the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins have won every game this season Tagovailoa has started and finished. Waddle is fifth among NFL wide receivers with 878 receiving yards.
The previously-forged chemistry can take teams to new heights. Before Brown went down with the foot injury, he and Murray were on a similar track of enhanced production.
Through the first six weeks of the NFL regular season, Brown’s 43 catches ranked fifth in the NFL, and his 485 receiving yards were seventh. Murray threw to him often in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-happy attack, making Brown the third-most targeted player in the NFL. No player had run more routes than Brown at the time of his injury.
It was the type of rapport the Cardinals envisioned would immediately flourish, and it was exactly what Brown wanted after three seasons with the Ravens left him disgruntled about his usage.
“I asked them for a trade after the season,” Brown told the I Am Athlete podcast in April. “It was just my happiness.”
Despite a career-best season in 2021 that saw him grab 91 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, Brown believed his role under Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman underutilized his talents. The Ravens are consistently one of the most run-dominant teams in the NFL each year, and Roman specifically caters to the dual-threat capabilities of quarterback Lamar Jackson. Brown wanted to go to a team that would involve him as a major piece of the offense, and the Cardinals promised to deliver him the ball.
“Even until this day, I know the Ravens they’re going to be where they need to be because of Lamar Jackson,” Brown said later in the interview. “So it was one of those things that I felt like they didn’t need me. . . I just wanted to get to a situation where I could be happy, and that I can contribute the way I know I can.”
While Brown does not fit the profile of a possession receiver, the Cardinals already have that type of playmaker in DeAndre Hopkins. But when Hopkins was suspended for the first seven games after testing positive for an illegal substance, Brown stepped up to the plate and performed admirably as the team’s featured weapon. The Cardinals, sitting third in the NFC West standings with a 4-6 record, hope Brown and Hopkins can supply a much-needed explosive boost when they finally take the field together.
The threat of Browns’ speed is the perfect complement to Kingsbury’s offensive structure. It can stretch the defense vertically and create favorable matchups for other players, including Hopkins, veteran A.J. Green, versatile gadget piece Rondale Moore, and athletic tight ends Zach Ertz and Trey McBride. Even when he is not testing secondaries on deep routes, Brown can use his speed in the short and intermediate areas of the field to erase angles and pull away from coverage.
“He works really hard,” Kingsbury told USA TODAY Sports in June. “I know his name is Hollywood, so you think he’d be chilling, but he works really hard. He’s a great practice player. Anything you ask him to do he’s going full speed.
“He has a quick twitch, he’s dynamic, he can really run, and for a smaller guy, he can really track the ball well down the field and make plays.”
The Cardinals have proven they can manufacture the production Brown desires, and general manager Steve Keim will have to dip into his checkbook once more when contract talks begin to boil with the 25-year-old receiver.
Brown is still currently in the final base year of his rookie contract, a $2,102,364 cap hit for the Cardinals. His fifth-year option, a built-in feature of all first-round rookie contracts, was exercised after the trade by the Cardinals to buy time. When it kicks in next season, Brown’s roster spot will be a $13.4 million premium.
“Yeah, we’d love to get it done,” Kingsbury told USA TODAY Sports. “Hollywood is a guy that we see as a long-term answer.”
Brown maintained his trade was purely about satisfying his production wants. But his performance this season will only provide more grounds for a hefty payday.
“I ain’t even get into no contract details because I really want to showcase what I can do first,” Brown told the I Am Athlete Podcast. “So it’s not even anything where I was looking to get paid. That was going around, like, ‘Oh, I’m holding out so I can get paid.’ It’s not even like that. I’ve been broke before. I’m not looking to break the bank right now. I’m looking to get to a situation where I can thrive and have fun.”
When the time comes for negotiation, Keim and the Cardinals will be at a severe disadvantage. The Cardinals forfeited leverage when they gave up the first-round pick for Brown. They wanted him, so they paid the Ravens’ price.
Brad Spielberger, a salary cap analyst for PFF, said it would benefit the Cardinals to get an extension for Brown done quickly before other contract-hungry receivers put pen to paper.
“Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman, those guys are going to sign these huge deals,” Spielberger said. “The Cardinals could have done Brown’s extension after the trade, but I get why they didn’t. They wanted to see more of Marquise. I think if Arizona is smart they will beat all the other teams to the market. Because the longer they wait, the higher their price is going to get.”
Brown is signed to CAA Sports and represented by Tory Dandy, the co-head of the agency’s football division. Dandy negotiated nearly $660 million for player clients over the past calendar year, according to the Sports Business Journal. It was the highest annual total of his career.
Among the slew of deals that Dandy hammered out were several short-term agreements for talented wide receivers selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft – the same class Brown belongs to.
Deebo Samuel inked a three-year deal worth $71.55 million with the San Francisco 49ers. D.K. Metcalf earned a $72 million extension with the Seahawks, which will also be dealt out over three years. A.J. Brown, traded on the same night as Marquise, signed a four-year extension worth $100 million with the Eagles with a potential out after the 2025 season.
All three players rank among the top eight receivers in average annual salary.
Dandy will likely pursue a similar timeframe and figure for Brown. Spielberger said he forecasts $20 million per year to be “the absolute floor” based on Dandy’s aggressive methods and Brown’s initial production.
“He drives a hard bargain,” Spielberger said. “Chris Godwin and Mike Williams, too. We can go on for days. Honestly, right there the floor is going to be $20 million per year, even though maybe he hasn’t been up to those guys’ standard.”
Spotrac, an online resource for team and player contracts, projects Brown’s market value at $21 million per year. That would make Brown the 10th highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL per average yearly salary. Given Dandy’s preference for three-year extensions, the total money in Brown’s new contract would likely be around $63 million.
“They are definitely willing to spend,” Spielberger said. “Brown was really good to start the season. He’s probably a building block, a guy that becomes the new number one option. And you kind of got a glimpse of what life could look like without Hopkins.”
The Cardinals gave Keim and Kingsbury extensions last offseason through 2027. Next, they handed Murray a five-year extension worth $230.5 million, which holds the second-highest guaranteed money ($189.5 million) in NFL history. All of the moves suggest Cardinals are confident its core can be contenders for a Super Bowl in that window.
Locking in Brown as an additional pillar for a championship run would only increase the Cardinals’ sureness of their recent big spending.