Through the first quarter of the 2016 NFL regular season, Zach Brown has been, quite easily, the best value free-agent addition in football.
The Buffalo Bills signed the former Tennessee Titan to a one-year, $1.25 million deal in April, and all he’s done is been a tackling robot in each of the club’s first four games.
In fact, his 35 solo tackles are tops in the league, even one takedown more than perennial All-Pro and former Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly.
And, Brown’s not making, Paul Posluszny-esque tackles after huge gains or sizable pickups on first and second down.
According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, Brown has 19 run stops and 10 pass stops, both of which lead all off-ball linebackers.
What is a “stop,” you ask?
Here’s PFF’s definition of the useful advanced statistic:
Stops are what we judge to be tackles that prevent an offensive success (defined as gaining 40% of required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth).
Essentially, they’re impact tackles.
His +6.6 overall grade in my system is the highest among all Bills defenders through four weeks and the third-highest on the team behind only running back LeSean McCoy and right guard John Miller.
Using Brown’s contract to put his value into some fun perspective, Buffalo has paid him $24,038 per tackle thus far, and that number will decrease the more he plays this season.
For context, given Kuechly’s $6 million cap hit this year, Carolina has paid him $130,434 per tackle heading into Week 5.
That is not to say Brown is a better linebacker than Kuechly. It’s meant to show how much of a bargain the former second-round pick has been for the Buffalo organization.
As we’ve seen for the majority of his coaching career, Rex’s defense accentuates the skills of inside linebackers due to a considerable amount of two-gapping responsibilities from its defensive linemen.
GM Doug Whaley — likely in collaboration with Rex — identified Brown as an ideal inside linebacker for the Bills defense, which is a hybrid by name, but has old-school 3-4 roots.
As we all know, scouting NFL prospects is far from an exact science, but the superb athletes who had productive college careers typically succeed at the pro level.
Brown’s Pro Day 7.26 three cone and 4.32 short shuttle aren’t outstanding — comparatively, Preston Brown had a 6.89 three cone and 4.26 short shuttle — however, his 4.50 time in the 40-yard dash is still the second-fastest time among all linebackers at the combine over 235 pounds in the last five years.
Dating back 10 years of linebackers running at the combine, Brown’s 4.50 is the sixth-fastest time.
(Watching Zach and Preston, their workout numbers truly tell the story of how they play. Preston changes directions somewhat fluidly, but his 4.86 40-yard dash time is evident when he runs in a straight line. The opposite can be said for Zach, who doesn’t have exceptionally quick change-of-direction ability but is a laser beam in a straight line.)
As for his collegiate production, Brown accumulated 105 total tackles (62 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in his final season at North Carolina.
His athletic trump card — tremendous speed for his size — coupled with his refined skill on the football field indicated he’d thrive in the NFL, especially when placed behind a good, block-eating defensive line and next to a thumping linebacker mate.
That’s precisely what Brown has now with the Bills, and Buffalo couldn’t be happier with its discount free-agent acquisition who’s become a key cog on the defensive side of the ball.