Perhaps the expectations were always going to be too high for Cardinals' wide receiver John Brown in 2016.
After amassing over 1,000 yards on 65 receptions for one of the league's most prolific offenses in 2015, it was unlikely a third-year player out of Pittsburg State could match or better such impressive stats.
Even though Brown has the speed and route-running abilities to earn the requisite number of targets needed for a 1,000-yard season, he doesn't have the dominant skill set most perennial 1,000-yard receivers possess.
In some ways, with Larry Fitzgerald mastering his transition to the slot and Michael Floyd entering a contract season, Brown should have been prepared for a slight dip in production, given that his 2015 output represented such a substantial increase from his rookie season.
Still, when Brown's numbers did drop off this season, they did so in large part because of a health issue, as the 5-foot-11, 179-pound receiver was diagnosed with sickle-cell trait.
Sickle-cell trait caused Brown intense pain in his hamstrings, limited his practice reps, and kept him off the field entirely at various points during the Cardinals' 2016 campaign. From weeks 11 through 14, Brown registered just one reception for 19 yards as the Cardinals lost three of four games, all on the road.
The diagnosis quite literally stopped Brown in his tracks, and forced both Brown and the Cardinals to re-think his future and his pain management. While certain athletes have successfully competed with sickle-cell trait, doing so is a significant challenge, and one that will test Brown in the coming seasons.
Brown in 2016
With a 39-reception, 517-yard season, Brown still proved he can handle the tasks associated with being a No. 3 receiver, the role he entered the 2016 season with.
However, after Brown's breakout 2015 campaign, the Cardinals were likely hoping to accelerate Brown into a No. 1 or a No. 2 role considering Fitzgerald's career is winding down and Floyd was set to enter free agency. Now, it's unlikely the Cardinals will be able to count on a steady jump in production in 2017, leaving both Brown and the Cardinals in a tough position.
When Brown is at his best, as he was during the Cardinals' week four contest against the Rams, he's able to get in and out of breaks at a rapid speed, disguise his routes, and challenge defenders both vertically and horizontally. Those are the skills that helped Brown secure 10 catches for 144 yards against the Rams, and helped make him one of the Cardinals' most effective players in 2015.
Though Brown only caught five passes in four games for the Cardinals this year, one of his most encouraging efforts came late in the season, when he hauled in five passes for 81 yards against New Orleans at home. After struggling to regain his role within Arizona's offense following his sickle-cell trait diagnosis, Brown's output against the Saints offered both him and the Cardinals encouraging signs heading into the offseason.
Brown in 2017
It's unlikely the Cardinals will move forward counting on Brown as a No. 1 or a No. 2 threat in 2017, which means that Brown should have the opportunity to carve out a role lower in Arizona's rotation. If the Cardinals find playmakers who can ease the load for Brown, when he's on the field, he could end up becoming a primary option because he'll be fresher and able to exploit cornerbacks with his impressive route running capabilities.
The key for Brown and the Cardinals in 2017 is finding a system that works for both sides. There's no doubt about Brown's desire and willingness to play, as he's already attempted to play through intense pain in his hamstrings caused by sickle-cell trait. If Brown and the Cardinals' staff can determine a way to help Brown manage his pain during the offseason and through the course of game weeks during the regular season, then his potential to contribute on Sundays could receive a serious boost.
Regardless of what happens in 2017, though, head coach Bruce Arians has publicly stated the Cardinals are going to do everything in their power to assist Brown with his health and to put him in advantageous situations, which is the type of support any player in the league hopes to receive.