The Buffalo Bills linebacker spot is the most intriguing position on the roster for a plethora of reasons.
Sean McDermott takes the reins of the defense after spending five years coaching the NFL’s most productive, well-respected, high-profile linebacker duo in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Buffalo will finally get to see its 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland in action, the 2015 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and unanimous All-American, who missed his entire rookie campaign with a torn knee ligament.
The Bills also stockpiled players at the position after 2016’s early-season star Zach Brown wasn’t retained. The capable Gerald Hodges was signed in free agency. Two late-round draft picks were used on linebackers Matt Milano (Round 5) and Tanner Vallejo (Round 6), and even two tryout linebackers were added to the training camp roster, Abner Logan and Jacob Lindsey.
Then there’s Preston Brown, the lone holdover in the linebacker group from, yes, the Doug Marrone era (Round 3 pick in 2014) who’s had a teeter totter of an NFL career.
With Brown being a bigger linebacker there have been plenty of speculation regarding his fit in McDermott’s 4-3 defense that prioritizes speed and quickness in its second-level defenders.
Hmmm. This begs the simple question — Is Preston Brown good or not?
Before we get to my examination, I figured this would be an appropriate time to disclose why you see many articles featuring “analytics” or “advanced stats” from me.
In this day and age, writing that a player is good or bad isn’t enough. Neither is using elementary statistics to back viewpoints about said player. The fan, the reader, the insatiable football content-digester, craves more. He or she wants smarter analysis, deeper dives, and stronger evidence to support claims. The driving force behind this “movement” is the natural advancement of knowledge. More specifically, public access to All-22 film, and sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders have significantly aided that advancement and furthered the understanding of player performance.
With a little over two games left to grade (there needs to be more hours in the day) from the 2016 season, Brown fared adequately albeit unspectacularly in my Rumblings Bills Grades project.
Zach Brown outpaced him by a decent margin in the run-stopping department, and was much more effective in coverage, but Preston actually performed better than Zach as a pass-rusher in my estimation.
By and large, it was a decent 2016 for Preston. Rarely did he stand out. Occasionally he was a liability.
Yesterday, I came across an article on Football Outsiders, one of the leading football analytics entities, that highlighted Brown as the leader in one of its statistics -- “Defeats.”
Here’s FO assistant editor Vincent Verhei on what constitutes a “defeat.”
“Defeats are one way to account for defenders who make frequent appearances on highlight reels.
As a reminder, a defender is credited with a defeat any time he makes one of the following plays:
- A tackle that results in a loss of yardage, including sacks.
- Any play that results in a turnover, including tipped passes which are then intercepted.
Any tackle or tipped pass that leads to a stop on third or fourth down.”
With 10 pass defeats and 21 run-game defeats, Brown led the entire NFL with 31 total defeats, two more than... Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Lavonte David.
My reaction: O_O
Verhei added this on Brown at No. 1:
“Brown hardly fits the profile of a big-play defender, with only three interceptions and one sack in his career. But Brown did a little bit of everything in 2016:Brown hardly fits the profile of a big-play defender, with only three interceptions and one sack in his career. But Brown did a little bit of everything in 2016:
- Twelve run tackles for loss.
- Nine run tackles for stops on third or fourth down, including four with 1 or 2 yards to go.
- Seven tackles on completed passes for third-down stops.
- One tackle for a loss on a completed pass.
- One sack.
- One forced fumble.
As if Brown wasn't surprising enough on top of the leaderboards, we also see his teammates Zach Brown (no relation to Preston) (or to this guy) and Lorenzo Alexander in the top ten as well. The Bills as a team were just 23rd in pass defeats, but they led the league in run defeats, and were sixth in overall defeats. This is all quite shocking, because as you'll recall the Buffalo defense was lousy last year, especially against the run. What's going on here?
Part of it is that the Bills faced a lot of runs—489, to be exact, second-most among defenses behind San Francisco. More running plays means more opportunities for run defeats. The Bills defense registered a defeat on 16 percent of opponents' run plays, which was just 15th in the NFL. More to the point, when the Bills didn't get a defeat on a running play, it meant bad news. The average non-defeat run against Buffalo gained 5.6 yards, fourth-most in the league.Twelve run tackles for loss.”
So the numbers for Brown were skewed slightly, and relative to how many run plays the Bills faced, his defeat figure wasn’t that impressive.
Going further into Football Outsiders data to get a better grasp of Brown’s play as a whole, the linebacker was credited with 53 solo tackles (Pro Football Reference had him with 59) yet 11 missed tackles in 2016, meaning he had a missed tackle rate of 17.2%. In 64 “opportunities” to make a solo tackle (53+11), Brown missed the tackle 11 times.
Of the 55 linebackers who made at least 40 solo tackles (according to Football Outsiders) in 2016, Brown’s figure was 41st-highest.
Even so, leading the league in defeats can’t and shouldn’t be totally ignored, regardless of how much opportunities Brown had.
Pro Football Focus wasn’t nearly as kind to Brown, as it gave him an overall grade of 49.8 for his play last season, which placed him at No. 66 out of 87 qualifying linebackers. His run-stopping grade was a paltry 47.1, and his coverage grade was 57.8. He fared best as a pass-rusher, as he earned a grade of 67.8, a score that leaves much to be desired. All those grades would constitute a “poor” distinction from PFF besides his pass-rushing grade that’d be labeled as “below average.”
As a rookie in 2014, in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 alignment playing next to capable linebacker Nigel Bradham, Brown accumulated a 78.3 overall grade from PFF, right on the cusp between the “average” and “good” ranges in the labeling system. For perspective, in 2016, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier received a 78.4 overall PFF grade.
To me, it’s quite clear what the assortment of specialized stats and film-study grades indicate about Brown — he’s become a boom-or-bust linebacker, someone capable of short bursts of incredible play who severely lacks consistency.
What’s good for Buffalo — Brown was at his best (and more importantly, his most consistent) as an off-ball linebacker in a 4-3 than he was in a scheme that had 3-4 principles. Based on that inarguable fact, he should be comfortable in McDermott’s defense this season.
However, Brown will need to demonstrate steadier overall play to return to his rookie-year form.