The Buffalo Bills have had plenty of turnover at the linebacker position since the end of the 2015 season.
The team opted not to re-sign former fourth-round draft pick Nigel Bradham, who wound up inking a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, and last year’s undrafted darling A.J. Tarpley unexpectedly retired, leaving general manager Doug Whaley with the task of filling holes at the second-level of Rex Ryan’s defense — particularly at inside linebacker.
After selecting Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Whaley moved up in the second round to select Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, who was the recipient of the 2015 SEC Defensive Player of the Year award after helping the Crimson Tide win a national title in his senior season.
Buffalo also made waves shortly after the draft by signing Eric Striker, whose heartfelt speech went viral after the former Oklahoma standout went undrafted. Though he played mostly on the outside in college, the undersized linebacker figures to play on the inside in Orchard Park.
The Bills also recently signed veteran linebacker Jamari Lattimore prior to their June minicamp, adding to their depth at the position.
However, with the recent additions of Ragland, Striker and Lattimore, there’s one linebacker on the roster who’s seemingly been forgotten — fifth-year player Zach Brown.
Signed by Buffalo in April, Brown figured to be in good position to start alongside Preston Brown in Rex Ryan’s revived 3-4 defense this upcoming season.
That all changed when the Bills selected Ragland 41st overall, and the former second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans suddenly became an afterthought to most fans and NFL pundits.
With that in mind, the fifth and final part of Building the Herd’s “Under the Radar” series takes a look at why Brown could have a much bigger role in 2016 than some people may think.
Aside from the 2014 season in which he missed all but one game due to a pectoral injury, Zach Brown has proven to be one of the more reliable linebackers in the entire league, especially in coverage.
Switching from and outside linebacker in college to more of an inside linebacker in the pros, the former North Carolina Tar Heel came into the league and made an instant impact for the Titans, racking up 184 tackles (140 solo, 44 assists), 10 pass breakups, nine-and-a-half sacks, four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns in his first two seasons.
On the verge of potential stardom prior to the injury in his third year, Brown returned to form in 2015 but was relegated to more of a reserve role following his absence.
The 6’1”, 248-pounder still performed admirably, however, as he managed to produce 77 tackles (55 solo, 22 assists), three pass breakups, two interceptions and one-half sack in 16 games, which included five starts.
The stats might not blow you away at first glance, but they’re certainly solid numbers considering the 26-year-old was a backup and saw just 499 snaps.
What’s most impressive about his play last season was what he did in pass coverage.
During their annual review of position groups, Pro Football Focus found that the former Titan allowed just 22 catches on 31 targets for 198 yards and zero touchdowns, which was good for an opposing quarterback rating of 61.0 — the third-best rating for a linebacker behind only Kansas City’s Josh Mauga and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly.
In addition, Brown’s overall rating of 69.9 and coverage rating of 81.9 were good for 30th- and 12th-best amongst qualifying linebackers, respectively, while his pass-stop rating of 4.3 and pass-tackling efficiency of 14.5 both ranked in the top-five for inside linebackers specifically.
And while it’s clear to see that covering opposing receivers has proven to be Brown’s forte thus far in his NFL career, he also displayed solid tackling ability in 2015 as he missed just five attempted tackles, which was also top-10 for linebackers last season.
Add in the fact that the former Hargrave Military Academy attendee is probably one of the more athletically-gifted players at his position in the entire league — 4.5 40-yard dash, 7.26 3-cone, 35” vertical, 9’8” broad jump — and it’s clear to see that Brown is more than capable of holding down a starting job in the NFL.
While the Bills seem set at the top of their depth chart at inside linebacker with third-year player Preston Brown and rookie Reggie Ragland, there may be an opportunity awaiting Zach Brown at the top backup spot.
Ragland was drafted by Whaley with the hopes that he could play all three downs, which could very well end up being the case when all is said and done.
However, at 6’1”, 247 pounds, Ragland has had some questions surrounding his ability to stick with tight ends down the field after the former Alabama standout ran a pedestrian 4.72 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
If the rookie ‘backer is unable to prove that his speed and coverage skills aren’t a liability at the NFL level, then Zach Brown could be the solution should that problem ever arise.
Although it’s unlikely that Brown will see many starts in Rex Ryan’s defense in 2016, there’s a chance he could still see plenty of time on the field in certain sub-packages as he’s versatile enough to play both inside and outside.
He could also provide stability at the position should either starter succumb to injury at any point during the season.
Whether a larger sub-package role is in the plans or not will soon be revealed in training camp and the preseason, but there’s no denying that fans should keep an eye out for “the other” Brown when things begin to heat up at St. John Fisher College in the weeks to come.
Who knows, when the dust settles and the cookie crurmbles, Zach Brown could wind up being a free agent steal for the Bills.
Only time will tell.
Follow John Green: @JGreen_PRsports