TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim didn’t overlook the slight stature, small school background or lack of experience against elite competition when he made the organization’s selection with the No. 91 overall pick last week.
Instead, he chose to focus on John Brown’s greatest asset: versatility.
Brown, the first player taken out of Pittsburg State since 1993, was sensational just about wherever he was asked to play during his collegiate career.
A three-time Division II All-American, Brown virtually re-wrote the record books with his own two hands, setting new program-highs in career catches (185), receiving yards (3,330) and touchdowns (32).
However, it’s his legs that might get him on the field right away with the Cardinals.
“I’m just a person that plays fast,” said Brown, who was named the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) Special Teams Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013. “That’s the question everyone keeps asking [as to whether or not I can adjust to the speed of the game in the NFL], but when I got into the East-West Shrine Game, I showed them I could play with the speed.
“I think it will be a little faster, but I’ll adjust really quick.”
That adjustment period might not take that long after all, when considering what he was able to do on the ground.
As a senior, the 5-foot-10 standout accumulated 653 yards on special teams, including 389 on just 12 kickoff return attempts. And of those 12 return attempts, six went for more than 30 yards.
Additionally, he averaged 13.63 yards per punt return from 2011-13.
“My vision and my ability to change directions helped me [become a dynamic returner],” Brown said. “I also had great blockers, so that was a plus.”
Brown’s numbers might not seem like a big deal when considering that they came in the MIAA and not the NFL. However, despite having numerous players on their roster with prior history in the return game, the Cardinals had their fair share of issues in that category throughout the 2013 campaign.
The team’s primary kick returner, Javier Arenas, struggled mightily to make an impact. In fact, of the league’s 22 qualified return men last season, the former second-round pick had the second-worst average (21.4 yards/kick return attempt).
Patrick Peterson wasn’t much better when it came to returning punts. After an electrifying rookie season that featured an NFL-record four return touchdowns and 699 yards, the three-time Pro Bowler has seen a steady decline when it comes to his special teams production.
Peterson returned 33 punts a season ago for 198 total yards — good for the third-worst average (6.0 yards/attempt) in the league.
The former No. 5 overall pick also didn’t reach the end zone for a second consecutive year, leaving head coach Bruce Arians to suggest that his days on special teams may be coming to an end in 2015.
That decision makes a good deal of sense, considering that Arizona’s special teams shortcomings were remedied in part by the offseason signing of veteran return specialist Ted Ginn, Jr.
And in drafting Brown with the second of their two third-round picks, the Cardinals acquired yet another weapon they can send back to return kicks.
If it were up to him, he’d take on the challenge right away.
“I would love to return punts,” said Brown. “I can do whatever I want. I believe I can help out, but I just need to learn the system. I’m really happy about the idea of returning punts and showing the coaches what I can do.”
Just a week into the job, Brown admitted he’s already found the fastest way to learn that system: Talk to his accomplished teammates.
“I feel like I can learn from Patrick Peterson and Ted Ginn,” said Brown, who returned his first ever punt at Pittsburg State for an 84-yard score. “It’ll be a good fit, and I can catch on quick. And in case anything happens, I believe I can do what they do.”