Who is the face of the Lions? Amon-Ra St. Brown is making his case: 'He's special, man'
Allen Park — As the Detroit Lions continue to build the foundation of the team's rebuild, there are obvious cornerstones being put into place.
There's ultra-talented offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who has the physical gifts and nasty demeanor to anchor the line for the next decade and potentially earn multiple Pro Bowl selections along the way.
Or how about Aidan Hutchinson? The rookie defensive end who isn't shying away from the lofty expectations that come with being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and is openly embracing the challenge of helping his hometown team reverse decades of futility.
Either is capable of being face of the franchise, but there's another option proving by the day he belongs in that conversation. Second-year wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, as much as anyone on the roster, epitomizes what coach Dan Campbell desires in a player.
Passion, intensity, dedication and production — St. Brown is checking all the boxes. A fourth-round draft pick out of USC a year ago, he arrived in Detroit with an unfillable chip on his shoulder, fueled by the fact he had to wait three days, and watch 16 other receivers be taken ahead of him, before his name was finally called.
His immediate response to the slight of being bypassed the first three rounds was to go into the garage and catch 202 balls off the JUGS machine. And that's become part of his daily routine, no matter how grueling the day's practice, he catches an extra 202 balls.
St. Brown's rookie season got off to a slow start, but to say he finished with a flurry would be an understatement. He set franchise marks for receptions and receiving yards, while also setting the NFL rookie and franchise records for consecutive games with eight or more receptions. He can extend that streak to seven games in this year's season opener, a feat matched by only four players in league history.
And while it may sound unbelievable, given the way he closed that rookie campaign, St. Brown looks even better during this training camp. Much better. At the mere mention of his name, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson lit up, unable to suppress a smile.
"He’s special, man," Johnson said. "He really is. He’s on a mission right now."
Johnson went on to describe a challenge the coaching staff issued St. Brown this offseason, to get better after the catch. While he finished 24th in the league in the category in 2021, he was considerably lower in the ranking when looking at the average damage done once the ball was in his hands.
"I talked to him in the middle of the summer, during our off time, just to see how he was doing," Johnson said. "He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m telling you right now, this run after the catch, I’m all over it. I’m all over it.’ And I think you see that all over the field. At least I do. The ball gets in his hands, and he’s constantly thinking, ‘Knife up the field and get what I can, break tackles along the way."
St. Brown's approach is simple. Every time the ball hits his hands, regardless of the drill, or even if there's a defender present, he's sprinting the remaining distance to the end zone, whether it's 20 yards or 60. As he puts it, if he wants to turn an 8-yard out route into a 40-yard touchdown, he needs to practice that habit every day after every reception.
It's not an uncommon routine around the league, to run to the end zone after every catch, but going 100% each time, that's something St. Brown learned through his brother Equanimeous that former Packers receiver Davante Adams always did. The multi-time All-Pro picked up the habit from his veteran mentors in Green Bay, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
Beyond that emphasis on effort, St. Brown's routes have been unquestionably more precise this offseason, leading to better separation. More separation means more space to operate after the catch.
Nickel cornerback A.J. Parker, who has the unenviable task of having to cover St. Brown more than any Lions defender in practice, said one of the receiver's biggest strengths is how well he disguises his intentions off the line of scrimmage.
"He’s a really shifty guy," Parker said. "He knows how to mask all his routes, and all his routes look the same."
But what truly sets St. Brown apart is his physicality. He embraces it every snap and it's an attitude he's trying to make sure proliferates throughout his position group.
"As receivers, we can all get open, we can all run routes," St. Brown explained. "That's what we do. That's our job. But I think one thing that can separate us from other receivers is how we block. If we block hard, it actually puts fears into DBs. No DB wants to get it every play, then get ran by. That's one thing that we as receivers love and are focusing on is making sure we're blocking in the run game."
St. Brown, who played running back in high school and dabbled coming out of the backfield for the Lions last season, said he knows the frustration of taking a handoff, beating a linebacker only to be tackled by a defensive back because a receiver blew their block.
He never wants he or his teammates to be that guy.
"The aggression he has, he has that controlled aggression, which for a receiver is rare," Johnson said. "It shows up in the run game, it shows up in his route running, his breaks, and it carries over for the rest of the group."
As St. Brown notes, defensive backs aren't keen on getting hit. That's put him at the heart of a handful of practice scuffles his first two seasons, including one this week with cornerback Amani Oruwariye.
The two got locked up and wrestled each other to the ground, tussling for a few seconds after the whistle. As they popped back up, St. Brown was clapping, reveling in the intense competition.
It brought to mind Campbell's introductory press conference, where he described what kind of team the Lions would be, the line right before the coach's viral soundbite about biting off knee caps.
"We’re going to kick you in the teeth," Campbell said. "And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you, and when you knock us down, we’re going to get up."
That's St. Brown in a nutshell. And if the Lions are going to eventually get to where they want to go, it's easy to imagine him at the front of the pack, leading the charge.