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All-22 analysis: Buffalo Bills linebacker Preston Brown doesn’t stand out

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The NFL’s 2017 regular season leader in tackles often fails to jump off the screen

A third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft began Preston Brown’s career with the Buffalo Bills. If the best “ability” is “availability,” then Brown has it in spades. Brown has appeared in all 65 games (regular and post season) the Bills have played since selecting him, starting all but two.

Brown has done more than just start in fact, being entrusted with the radio equipped helmet for defense by three separate coaching regimes. This past season saw Brown making nutrition changes to shed weight and play faster. You may remember his pivotal role in the culture of candy for several years. Lifestyle changes and a verbalized desire to remain with Buffalo make him seem like quite the “process-y” type of player. But does his play on the field inspire the same confidence as his attitude?

Play 1

Preston Brown is all over diagnosing this play and reacts quickly. There’s a brief moment he contemplates shooting the highlighted gap but rapidly makes the right decision to streak toward the sideline to be in the best position to help. He adjusts angles on the move and would be right there to clean up if Lorenzo Alexander misses the tackle. Also of note, he’s step for step with Alexander as they move across the field. For the 2017 season, both players were roughly the same size. Alexander’s nine-year head start in age however, suggests if there’s a compliment here it goes to Alexander.

Play 2

This is why Brown gets the radio helmet. He’s directing the defense even as the play starts, making sure the team is looking in the right direction. Most notable here is that he’s got it right. As he slides over to cover his zone, Lorenzo Alexander and Tre’Davious White can’t make it over fast enough to prevent the catch. The play pauses slightly at the end. Though the All-22 misses some of it, the two appear to chat about the breakdown.

Play 3

It seems like Brown’s not really doing anything at the start of the play, but this is the scheme in action. Brown covers this area of the field quite a bit by waiting and reacting. Melvin Gordon (28) is the safety valve for Philip Rivers here, but Brown’s position takes him out of the equation. Note Brown’s speed in reacting and play recognition as soon as the ball is in the air. He turns right to Keenan Allen (13) despite having his back turned to the route. He takes a good angle and makes the right adjustment to make the tackle. Allen is wide open to make the catch as a result of Alexander and E.J. Gaines both biting on the route from Hunter Henry (86).

Play 4

E.J. Gaines is credited with the tackle here, but Preston Brown helps make sure for no gain. Melvin Gordon stutters like he wants to bring it back inside as he slips off a tackle attempt by Jerry Hughes. Brown has gotten far enough in the gap to shut down that option and Gordon elects to turn it into a footrace to the sideline, but Gaines is able to get enough ankle to make the play.

Play 5

Brown sees that it’s Derek Watt (34) getting the ball right away and shadows him relatively well. He makes the mistake of trying to sidestep right guard Michael Schofield rather than drive into him, which gives him a poor angle to shed the block. Schofield doesn’t have much trouble turning Brown around and completely taking him out of the play.

Further Thoughts

If One Bills Drive places a premium on stats when considering players, Preston Brown has that locked down. In 2017, he was the regular season leader for the entire league in tackle (144 combined). While this was his best season statistically, he has racked up solid numbers every year he’s been in the league. A small part of this is due to his omnipresence on the field. His rookie year was the low water mark in playing time with a ”scant” 93% of defensive snaps. The last two years he has fallen just shy of 100%. While it’s common for teams to have a linebacker on the field all game, Brown’s counts highlight durability and reliability.

As noted though, snap counts are only part of the story. Seven linebackers had more solo tackles than Brown, while an eighth tied him at 84. Brown’s total tackle numbers are greatly helped by his assists. At 60, he leads linebackers, with only three other players breaking the 50 mark. There’s an excellent argument that assists are a good metric for linebackers as they demonstrate the player was in the mix on the play. On the flip side, assists are also often an indicator that the player was a little later than someone else. Make no mistake, his numbers are good and it would take a miracle to lead the league in tackles without talent. But “league leader” only tells a partial story.

When reviewing film of Brown, it can be hard to reconcile his high tackle count with what you’re seeing. His speed is often underwhelming as seen above. He’s often a step or two behind in coverage, which is reflected in his low number of defended passes. At 3 on the year, he’s tied for 35th among linebackers. He has only 10 in his entire four-year career. This is equal to, or less than, 3 linebackers’ numbers in 2017 alone. He isn’t the strongest player either. Brown is nearly identically sized to Jerry Hughes, but their ability to drive people back or push them aside are night and day. Brown’s high tackle rate is a model lesson on the importance of what’s between an athlete’s ears. Brown’s best on field trait is 100% his ability to diagnose the play and get himself over to where the action is.

Decision Time

Preston Brown took active steps improving his health this last year, which arguably helped him have his best year so far as a pro. The recency of this change could mean he’ll continue to improve. Even in consideration of this though, it’s very difficult to watch Brown and not come away thinking you could upgrade the position. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Buffalo Bills try exactly that.

The only point of reluctance in letting Brown go is the mental part of his game. The 2015 and 2016 seasons were plagued by confusion on the defensive side of the ball. Brown didn’t shy away from pointing the finger at the coaching staff. This appeared to be a resolved issue in 2017, which suggests the team communicated better on defense hinting that Brown wasn’t the issue.