He’ll play next to the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and two-time national champion linebacker Reggie Ragland from the college football empire that is Alabama, so it won’t be difficult to overlook Preston Brown.
But the Bills third-year linebacker will be a vital piece to Rex Ryan’s plans in 2016... and the quality of his play will substantially contribute to the overall quality of Buffalo’s defense.
As a rookie in 2014, playing next to a healthy and explosive Nigel Bradham and the thumping Brandon Spikes, Brown thrived in a significant role.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brown was on the field for 94% of Buffalo’s defensive snaps, more than anyone else on that side of the ball.
After his debut season with the Bills, PFF named Brown a “Secret Superstar” and wrote the following, explaining the selection:
Missing only six tackles on the year while making good on 67 left Brown with a combined Tackling Efficiency (attempts per miss) of 16.5; ninth-best for off-ball LBs. In the passing game he missed just one against 31 total made, with 13 of those counting as defensive stops.
Before that season, most believed the Bills would miss Kiko Alonso.
While Bradham was noticeably more dynamic, Brown was the trustworthy tactician.
In 2015, Brown — and fellow ‘backer mate Bradham — never got comfortable in Ryan’s complex defense, one loaded with varied checks and responsibilities for everyone, especially the second-level defenders.
As the signal-caller of Buffalo’s defense, Brown infamously made mention of calls coming in late to the radio in his helmet last year, saying:
It’s something that shouldn’t happen. Opposing offenses run people in and off because they know we’re having issues with that upstairs in the box. So people are going to keep doing it, running in and off. I mean, teams that usually are the slowest teams on the ball, they’re hurrying up on us and trying to get plays because they know it’s something that we’ve had issues with.
At the time -- following the team’s demoralizing loss to Washington -- his comments acted as a dousing of fuel on a fire already burning brightly among fans irate with Buffalo’s defensive downturn that occurred in Ryan’s first year.
It also was the catalyst for more justified piling on of Rex from the media for the Bills’ surprisingly poor showing on defense.
Ryan took all that criticism in stride.
But Brown’s clear dip in performance wasn’t solely due to his presence in a complicated defense. On film, he appeared tentative at times, especially when attempting to shed blocks late in the season.
To be fair, with Bradham out for the final five games of 2015, Brown played next to extremely inexperienced youngsters Tony Steward and A.J. Tarpley and veteran journeyman Kevin Reddick.
In March, the Bills head coach gave a reasonable assessment of Brown yet didn’t shy away from issuing somewhat of a motivational challenge.
He has the physical attributes you look for in a Mike linebacker, an inside 'backer. He really does. And he's a good football player. But that spot, in particular, it's like a quarterback of the defense. You're in the middle of it, you need to step up and communicate that way. I know it's not his personality off the field, he's a very quiet individual. But you've got to be a leader on it. That's the challenge to Preston, and he understands that. We'll see how he does in that role.
This came after the Bills’ official website reported -- and Rex confirmed — that Brown was stripped of his defensive signal-caller duties late in 2015. Yikes.
But now, everything appears to be copacetic.
Brown has gone on the record to state Ryan has simplified the defense, saying on WGR radio in April, “We've already installed like 50 plays. A whole bunch of simpler plays. Our checks are limited. They're not as many as they were. And they're kind of the same kind of checks. So it's not as wide as it was last year coming into it. They've kind of simpled down some of the plays.”
I’ve watched all the snaps Brown has taken as a member of the Buffalo Bills. While he has the requisite size, intelligence and physical nature to be a successful NFL linebacker, he’s much more valuable when he’s not asked to be a sideline-to-sideline, run-and-chase guy.
While certainly not sluggish, at 6’1” and 250 pounds, the former Louisville standout ran a 4.86 in the 40-yard dash at the combine with a 10-yard split of 1.72 and 20-yard split of 2.85.
Brown’s short-shuttle time of 4.26 was impressive, and his three-cone time of 6.96 was tremendous. But his overall athletic profile indicates he’s best suited in a traditional middle linebacker or strong inside linebacker role. In either position, he’d be mostly confined to making plays between the tackles, running with tight ends down the seam, and patrolling from the central most sector of the defense.
Immediately after drafting Ragland, Bills GM Doug Whaley made it known that the rookie will start at the weakside linebacker spot, the “play-maker” position in the linebacker group.
Though similarly sized to Brown — Ragland is 6’1” and 247 pounds — the Crimson Tide star ran 4.72 in the 40 at the combine with a 1.65 10-yard split and 2.75 20-yard split. He didn’t do the three-cone drill, yet his 4.28 short-shuttle time was nearly identical to his new teammate’s.
From a timed-athleticism perspective, it’s more logical for Ragland to have the freer, play-making job, and he very well could make a major impact right away. However, as a rookie, we should expect some growing pains.
That’s precisely why Brown’s play is so critical for the Bills in 2016. He’ll again have a top-level linebacker partner on the inside and won’t be forced into an ill-fitting gig as part of an incredibly intricate system.
But he’ll call the plays on defense. That’s huge. Brown’s leadership, mentoring of Ragland, and week-to-week performance accomplishing his specific responsibilities make him one of the most vital Bills’ X-factors this season.