When the Buffalo Bills selected linebacker Preston Brown in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, most considered it a move to start developing depth at the position. By the time his rookie season ended, Brown had played more snaps than any other linebacker on Buffalo's roster, and acquitted himself fairly well in the process.
For a bit of perspective on just how reliant the Bills were on Brown a year ago, he ranked 18th in the NFL among traditional linebackers in play-time percentage, appearing on 93.8 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps. Don't let the 2013 feats of then-rookie (and since-traded) Kiko Alonso make that seem less impressive; Alonso played every snap as a rookie, but Brown's rookie season was equally impressive from the standpoint of how quickly he earned his coaches' trust.
That play-time percentage figure could easily rise for Brown in 2015, as well. Rex Ryan is known for playing two traditional linebackers in the majority of his wide variety of alignments; a year ago, both of his New York Jets linebackers, David Harris (99.4 percent) and Demario Davis (99.0 percent), registered incredibly high play-time percentages. It would not be surprising if the Bills were nearly equally reliant on Brown and his running mate, Nigel Bradham, in Ryan's first season with the Bills.
Bradham is likely to receive more in the way of hype leading into the 2015 season for the Bills, and not just because he is entering a contract year; he also profiles as a moveable chess piece for Ryan, thanks to his top-tier athleticism, ability on the blitz, and his physicality at the point of attack defending the run. Ryan will move him around the alignment, and Bradham will make more big plays as a result. But thanks to his superior production in coverage, Brown will be a more vital member of Buffalo's defense.
Pro Football Focus considered Brown a 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014 - which he was, playing outside of departed middle linebacker Brandon Spikes in the Jim Schwartz scheme - and there, Brown ranked No. 3 in the NFL in PFF's pass coverage metric. The same grade would have placed him eighth among inside linebackers; not only was Brown the Bills' best coverage linebacker, he was one of the better linebackers in the entire league in that metric. It was an impressive feat for a rookie, even considering the talent in front of and behind him, and it's a trend that must continue into his second season. Like it or not, the NFL is still a pass-first league, and Brown's skill defending the pass will be something the team relies on a great deal.
It's the only trend that should continue, however. Brown will need to make significant improvements in other facets of his game, starting as a run defender. His plus-0.5 rating as a run defender from PFF ranked him just 25th among inside linebackers last season, and he has particularly large shoes to fill in that phase taking over inside for Spikes, who is one of the best run-defending linebackers in the league. Especially considering that Ryan's mixed-gap fronts will require Brown and Bradham to take on more blocks, improving as a run defender should be a major point of emphasis for Brown this year.
Brown also needs to become a much more consistent player than he was as a rookie. He enjoyed a handful of games in which he was either good or downright excellent (a Week 2 win over Miami, and then a fairly strong stretch between Weeks 8-12 stand out in particular), but he also had some bad (Weeks 6 and 15) and downright awful games (Week 1 and Week 16, which was one of the defense's most impressive performances in an upset win over Green Bay). A player as relied-upon as Brown needs to be much more reliable in terms of production.
Schwartz does not receive enough credit for how linebacker-friendly his scheme is; it's why players like Brown, a middle-round rookie, and Bradham, who was a fairly large disappointment earlier in his career, can be viewed as breakout candidates after one year in that system. Ryan's defense will not be as forgiving for these two players, and that's doubly true for Brown, who will be the on-field play-caller for a defense that is expected to be one of the league's best in 2015. Brown does not need to be a star for the Bills; he just can't regress and become the weak link on an otherwise good unit. But despite being overshadowed in nearly every way on said defense, Brown has an opportunity to emerge as a franchise lynchpin in 2015, as well.