Last year the Buffalo Bills selected Preston Brown in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The 6’1” 251 pounder was a productive middle linebacker for the Louisville Cardinals, but many draft analysts questioned his ability to play in coverage, giving him the dreaded “two-down thumper” label that haunts middle linebackers in today’s pass-happy league.
At the time of his selection, Buffalo already had Kiko Alonso and Nigel Bradham in place, with Brandon Spikes signed to a one-year deal, so the expectation was that Brown would “redshirt” and provide depth during his rookie season. However, when Kiko Alonso went down with a torn ACL prior to training camp, Brown was thrust into the starting lineup, where he exceeded all expectations laid out for him.
Brown went on to play 1,057 defensive snaps, 94% of the Bills’ total, recording 109 tackles–the second-most among rookie linebackers– to go along with three passes defensed and an interception. Brown’s performance as a rookie made the Bills’ front office confident enough in his ability to trade away Kiko Alonso, who wasn’t the best fit in the team’s new defense.
Now heading into his second season, Brown will likely be the team’s “Mike” linebacker in Rex Ryan’s hybrid scheme that features a lot of 3-4 concepts. So let’s take a look at what Preston Brown brings to the table.
While his ability in coverage was considered a weakness prior to the draft, Brown proved that to be a strength, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ (Subscription required) 3rd best coverage ‘backer, posting a +4.7 grade that trailed only Denver’s Brandon Marshall and Carolina’s Thomas Davis. In terms of efficiency, Brown was at the top, allowing a reception just once in every 14.9 snaps in which he was in coverage.
He allowed only 36 receptions, the 2nd fewest at his position, and receivers managed a total of 183 yards-after-catch on those receptions, the lowest total among 4-3 outside linebackers.
In the following clip, Brown’s man coverage ability is displayed against newly-signed tight end, Charles Clay. Clay runs a quick slant route over the middle and Brown runs stride-for-stride with him. Clay is able to make the catch, but the play ends there, as Brown is able to wrap him up before he can pick up any extra yardage.
Brown’s athleticism was displayed throughout the year, this time against the New York Jets. The Jets come out in the spread with an empty backfield and Brown motions to the boundary to cover tight end Jeff Cumberland in man coverage. What’s typically a “gimme” play for the offense- a sideline go route against a linebacker- turns into a turnover, as Brown plays tight coverage on the go route, maintaining inside leverage and intercepting the pass.
Like most rookies, Brown would get burned on play-action at times, like the following play against the Raiders.
But no matter which tight end or running back Brown was tasked with defending, he proved capable of holding his own in coverage. His ability to defend the middle of the field routinely forced opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball too long, resulting in sacks, as the next clip shows.
The clip shows two separate instances of Brown running the seam with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, an up-and-coming player in the mold of Rob Gronkowski, and his tight coverage played a role in the sack.
The longest reception on which Brown was defeated on all year came against Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver, Miles Austin. Running a flag route, Austin’s fake step causes Brown to bite. He isn’t able to get his hips turned around quick enough to recover, resulting in a gain of 30-yards. Thankfully, Brown won’t be expected to cover wide receivers as a primary duty, so he really shouldn’t be faulted for this play.
Rex Ryan-coached defenses are historically dominant against the run, and having Preston Brown at the middle linebacker position should keep that trend alive in 2015.
62 of Browns 109 tackles in 2014 came against the run, 44 of which were solo, and 26 were credited as “stops” by ProFootballFocus. The “Mike” linebackers in Ryan’s defenses, most notably Bart Scott and David Harris, are tasked with doing the dirty work- blowing up fullbacks and pulling guards so the “Will” inside ‘backer next to him can clean up.
In his rookie year, Brown showed that he not only had no issue with getting his hands dirty, but he would also shed blocks and make tackles too. Here, the Bills are in a 4-2-5 “nickel” defense, with Brown aligning to the “10” technique, over the outside shoulder of Miami Dolphins’ center Samson Satele. The Dolphins are running a draw up the middle, but Brown is able to take Satele on head-up, shed the block and make the tackle for a minimal gain.
Against the Jets, Brown puts on a clinic with a textbook stack and shed of the fullback- violently crashing into him before ripping him down with ease and making the tackle at the line of scrimmage.
When defending the run, Brown does more than just take on blocks, as he shows great awareness and lateral movement skills to chase down runs and work through traffic. In the following play, Brown is playing the weak-side against a dive run. Buffalo’s defensive line maintains their gaps and Nigel Bradham takes on the fullback. Without an open gap, Chris Johnson bounces outside, but Brown scrapes over the top and makes the stop for no gain.
In addition to bringing the boom in-between the hashes, Brown has great range, showing sideline-to-sideline speed to chase down stretch runs and tosses, like in the following play against Cleveland. Running back Isaiah Crowell, who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, takes the pitch and runs to the sideline, but Brown takes a great angle and brings him down for a loss.
His rookie season wasn’t without flaws, as he had a tendency over-pursue at times, which occasionally resulted in some big gains.
The following clip is arguably the most impressive play I saw Brown make last year. In his second professional game against the Dolphins in Week Two, Brown plays the read-option perfectly, keeping his eyes on Ryan Tannehill without biting on the play-fake. When he sees the handoff, Brown explodes, showing great range and closing speed to make the tackle across the formation.
Fit In Rex Ryan’s Defense
Preston Brown will be an important cog in the Bills’ defense going forward, as the “Mike” is essentially the quarterback of the unit, responsible for getting everyone aligned correctly, making checks and adjustments and calling the formation’s strength.
Ryan is an aggressive, blitz-happy coach, so Brown’s man-coverage skills will be put to work in certain man-free/Cover 1 coverages. In Jim Schwartz’ defense, Brown wasn’t asked to blitz much, as he rushed the passer just 48 times. Rex is much more aggressive with his inside linebackers- David Harris was sent as a blitzer 120 times last year- so Brown will have a lot more on his plate in his second year.
Against the run, Brown is physical and intelligent, two absolute musts in order for his scheme to be successful. Overall, Brown proved to be a talented player that surpassed the expectations many analysts had for him coming into the league, and the future is bright for the 22-year old.