Secret Superstar: Buffalo Bills
Preston Brown was drafted in the third round out of Louisville in 2014 and was expected to be a backup behind the starting trio of Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, and Nigel Bradham. A season-ending injury to Alonso, however, meant he was pushed into the starting lineup sooner than expected and tallied 94% of the team’s defensive snaps on the year, the highest percentage on the Bills’ defense.
Grading out 15th overall among 4-3 outside linebackers, Brown’s season mark of +3.9 was held down by a pair of poor performances. Looking past those two games (Week 1 and Week 16, both ends of the season, understandable for a rookie), Brown notched a +11.5 grade over the other 14 contests.
There are two clear strengths to Brown’s game: the first is as a coverage defender and the second as a pure tackler. Posting impressive numbers when in coverage, he allowed just 0.57 yards per coverage snap, which was third-best for all off-ball linebackers and his +3.6 coverage grade came in 11th among all 4-3 OLBs and ILBs combined. The moments he showed some struggle in coverage were nearly all down to over-aggressiveness in reacting up to the run first and having trouble getting back to find his zone. Certainly a fixable issue.
Missing only six tackles on the year while making good on 67 left Brown with a combined Tackling Efficiency (attempts per miss) of 16.5; ninth-best for off-ball LBs. In the passing game he missed just one against 31 total made, with 13 of those counting as defensive stops.
A late-season lull against the run (-6.3 grade in run defense over the final four weeks) cooled what was shaping up as a strong season in that department. On 356 snaps in the run game Brown posted 26 stops (36th at the position), relying on his ability to attack downhill. Also comfortable meeting the lead blocker in the hole to redirect runners, Brown only found difficulty when he was more reactive and let offensive lineman get their hands on him early.
It will be interesting to see how Rex Ryan employs Brown as an inside linebacker. Ryan likes to blitz his ILBs — not something Brown excelled at as a rookie. On 48 pass rushes in 2014, he managed just four total pressures.
The big question for Brown heading into the 2015 season will be whether the last four games of 2014 showed a lack of endurance, or if he was figured out. The next, of course, will be how well he can handle moving to an inside spot in a 3-4 scheme. Regardless, he has shown promise in key areas, proven he belongs as a starter in the league, and should have the opportunity to continue improving.
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