Middle linebacker Preston Brown not only led the Buffalo Bills in total tackles in 2017 (144), he led the NFL for stops during the regular season. Brown, 25, came up with 84 solo stops, with many of those tackles occurring down field. He logged seven games with 10+ tackles, including 15 combined stops during a Week 16 loss to the New England Patriots.
Over the final three weeks of the season, Brown was in on a league-high 37 tackles, but despite such gaudy tackling stats, Brown earned an overall grade of average (71.6) from Pro Football Focus and graded out as the 42nd best linebacker in the league.
Brown, one of 16 unrestricted free agents, is 25 years old, and can either re-sign with the Bills or he can test out free agency.
As a middle linebacker, Brown showed in 2017 that he lacks the speed to keep up in man coverage. His abilities in the run game are below-average, too, as he seems to lack the athleticism and instincts to make big plays in front of him.
Tackling has been Brown’s strength since he was drafted 73rd overall (third round) out of the University of Louisville in the 2014 NFL draft. Brown has recorded 100-plus tackles every year he’s been with the Bills, with his tackle totals rising from 108 in his rookie year, to 117 in 2015, 135 in 2016, and a career-high 144 tackles in 2017.
If the Bills decide to move on from Brown, who in the past had shown an ability to play all three linebacker spots, there isn’t a lot of internal talent to replace Brown’s productivity.
Second-year linebacker Matt Milano has made a name for himself on the weak side after a solid rookie campaign that saw him appear in 16 games (five starts) with 49 tackles (32 solo). His signature play was a 40-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown during a 34-14 win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 8.
There are questions about the future of starting strong-side linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who turns 35 in May. The Bills’ brass would be wise to keep Milano on the weak side, especially if Alexander doesn’t return in 2018. Otherwise, that would mean Buffalo would have new faces at all three linebacker positions.
When the 2017 season ended, then-rookie Tanner Vallejo was listed as Brown’s primary backup. In his first season out of Boise State, Vallejo, a sixth-round draft pick, appeared in 15 games, primarily on special teams. He made four tackles with two solo stops, and it would appear to be asking a lot for this inexperienced linebacker to take over as the quarterback of the defense.
Veteran weak-side linebacker Ramon Humber was producing as a starter before breaking his thumb in a Week 4 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Humber, who appeared in 13 games (nine starts) finished with 89 total tackles (60 solo) with one interception. Humber does not seem like a candidate to slide over to middle linebacker to replace Brown and is a free agent.
Deon Lacey, who appeared in all 16 games, finished with nine tackles primarily as a special teams contributor. Lacey, who was listed as the backup strong-side linebacker at the end of the 2017 season, does not have NFL experience as a middle linebacker.
The bottom line is, if the Bills don’t retain Brown’s services, they will have to turn to the draft, free agency, or a trade to replace Brown. As far as internal options go, the cupboard is pretty bare.