It was easy to overlook Buffalo Bills linebacker Zach Brown, an inexpensive free-agent signee who agreed to a one-year contract in early April, a year removed from the splashiest offseason in team history.
As soon as the ink dried on his contract, Brown was penciled in as a starter next to Preston Brown on the interior of the Bills linebacker corps.
Less than a month later, Buffalo aggressively moved up in Round 2 of the 2016 NFL Draft to snag decorated inside linebacker Reggie Ragland from the college football empire that is Alabama.
Brown slid into obscurity, even among the free-agency class he was a member of in Buffalo.
Brown was the only free-agent signee concretely locked into a backup role — heck, in his post-draft press conference, Whaley said himself that Ragland would start at weakside linebacker.
Late last week, Manny Lawson told the media he had a partially torn pectoral muscle.
The next day, rookie inside linebacker Reggie Ragland suffered a knee injury in practice. And now we know he's set to have surgery and is expected to land on IR.
In less than 24 hours, Brown went from the most likely to be forgotten free-agent acquisition to being thrust into one — or maybe two — starting roles on the second level of Buffalo’s defense.
"Given the Bills are playing Ragland and Brown inside, what role is there for Zach Brown? If teams spread out on passing downs having both on the field would leave the Bills at a disadvantage having two ‘thumpers’. Zach Brown is a better coverage LB than the other two. How will he fit into the defense, considering the similarity of Preston and Reggie’s skill set and the need for coverage LB’s?"
"Right now Zach Brown is the third inside linebacker. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Zach Brown stepped onto the field in subpackages for coverage assignments. One of the faster linebackers in the league, Zach Brown would be a good fit against backs and most tight ends on passing downs. That’s where I see his role for Buffalo this year."
Brown is indeed one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL. He was selected in the second round by the Titans after a sparkling career at North Carolina. He made 224 tackles and snagged seven interceptions in his final three seasons.
As a senior in 2011, he was given First-Team All-ACC honors after accumulating 105 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and three picks. Here’s how he performed at the 2012 combine:
|Height / Weight||40-Yard Dash||Vertical||Broad Jump|
|Zach Brown, 2012 combine||6'1" / 244||4.5||33.5"||116"|
Playing on a mediocre-at-its-absolute-best, small market team in Tennessee certainly didn’t help him gain notoriety around the league. Yet the soon-to-be 27-year-old has appeared in 49 games in his pro career — an injury cut his 2014 campaign to just one contest — and has 260 tackles, 10 sacks and six interceptions to his name, which is far from a bad resume.
John Breitenbach of Pro Football Focus typed this about Brown in a March article which dubbed him one of the "Top Bargain Free Agents."
In 2015, he allowed just 22 receptions on 31 targets for 198 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a pass defensed. The 61.0 QB rating he allowed was bettered by only Josh Mauga and Luke Kuechly. Couple Brown’s contributions in the passing game with a top-10 tackle efficiency—he missed just 5-of-77 attempted takedowns last year—and his appeal to NFL evaluators should be obvious. The value of reliable linebackers with coverage skills has never been higher, making Brown an excellent free-agency investment.
At 6’1", 240-plus pounds with 4.5 speed, Brown is a prototypical WLB, no doubt about it.
So let’s breakdown how exactly he’d "fit" next to Preston Brown in the Ragland’s spot.
Zach Brown In Reggie Ragland’s role
The weakside linebacker in just about every NFL defense is the "play-maker," free to roam — as we hear and read often — from "sideline to sideline" as the middle and strongside linebackers typically eat blocks.
Even in a 3-4 alignment, in which there are two inside ‘backers, there’s almost always strongside and weakside designations based on each player’s skill set and physical specialties.
While Ragland isn’t clearly springier than Preston Brown, we’ve previously mentioned he is in fact the more dynamic athlete, better suited for the weakside job the Bills handed to him the moment he was drafted.
Speaking of weakside linebackers — in Rex Ryan’s defense — I want to touch on how Ray Lewis, typically of "middle linebacker" fame, actually manned the WLB position for a good portion of his career, especially when Rex was Lewis’ defensive coordinator in Baltimore.
Evidence of this can be found from an awesome YouTube video posted by user CoachScott61 which features extensive All-22 clips of the Ravens 2005 defense.
(I could post more screenshots, but you can take my word for it — Lewis played plenty of weakside linebacker in his career.)
In the above still, No. 96 is Adalius Thomas, the 6’2", 260-pound versatile linebacker who held down multiple jobs for Ryan. Most often though, he played on the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the opposition’s formation, which created a traditional 4-3 look (or "under" front) but was, technically, a 3-4.
On this specific play, No. 56 — the middle linebacker — took on the responsibility of taking on any lead blocks toward the strong side, which was, unsurprisingly, the direction of the run. That allowed Lewis to flow behind him to the football and help with the tackle on the ball-carrier.
This is important to point out because it is in this weakside role that a linebacker’s quickness and pure athleticism are most accentuated.
With Brown’s speed, in theory, he should be able to thrive as the run-and-chance ‘backer. With the Titans, Brown primary played WLB and was pretty darn productive despite getting minimal notoriety.
He lacks the "pop" of Ragland but with the stockier (Preston) Brown next to him in the "stuntman" role — hat tip to my long-time Twitter buddy Rich Fann — the Bills free-agent add will be put in an excellent position to flourish in Buffalo’s defense as the weak inside linebacker.
Zach Brown In Manny Lawson’s Role
In Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 — like many of its kind today — the outside linebackers are not created equal, or should I say, they usually have completely different responsibilities.
The "rush" outside linebacker does just that — he rushes the passer most of the time. Yes, he’ll be asked to drop into coverage on a few zone blitzes, but his primary job is to fly off the edge and create pressure.
See: Jerry Hughes.
The outside guy opposite the "rush" linebacker is asked to play almost identically to that of a 4-3 strongside linebacker. He’ll flip between starting off the ball and down on the line as an edge-setting, quasi defensive end. He also has more coverage duties, which makes sense, because he’ll frequently find himself head up with tight ends before the snap.
See: Manny Lawson
Speaking of Lawson, here are two shots of him playing the same outside linebacker position but lining up in completely different spots and taking on entirely contrasting post-snap duties.
Given his adoration of versatility, there’s no wonder Ryan heaped immense praise on the wily veteran and allowed him to the run the Bills' defense on the field at the end of the 2015 regular season.
At 6’5" and 240-ish pounds Lawson is superbly talented, although at 32, he’s probably not as explosive as he once was. But mind you, he had one of the most "wow" combines of the last 20 years. If you forgot how ridiculous his performance was, check here.
The body-type disparity between Lawson and Brown is stark, but I think Brown can be plugged into Manny’s spot while Lawson is on the shelf... if need be.
Yes, IK Enemkpali has manned the "Manny" role for most of camp — although the diminutive Eric Striker took first-team reps away from him for a few practices. He’s closer to Lawson’s size and would be harder to move at the point of attack than Brown. But IK is a relatively stiff athlete and will struggle in coverage.
As Chris Brown and Pro Football Focus mentioned above, not only do Zach Brown’s athletic gifts lend themselves to quality run-stopping... they’ve helped him become a trusty cover man as well.
Also, as the first screenshot below the Lawson subheading depicts, the SLB in Ryan’s scheme, on occasion, looks like a 4-3 linebacker. He has to play in space moving backward into coverage.
Even when that linebacker starts near the line of scrimmage — looking like a traditional defensive end or base 3-4 OLB — he can have the job of covering the tight end down the seam.
This article isn’t meant to insinuate Zach Brown will transform into Lavonte David or Anthony Barr in 2016. However, I think he has the ability to, potentially, play two different linebacker spots at a high level within the Bills defense throughout the course of the season.