It’s always interesting to see the ebbs and flows of the draft process during the months leading up to the big date, with players seeing their stock rise and fall sometimes due to things as seemingly trivial as hand size or personal demeanor in a ten minute interview.
It’s also a revealing time for the latest NFL fads to come to light, as big, long corners, move tight ends and hybrid safety/linebacker types seem to fly up boards in team’s efforts to create and eliminate mismatches by acquiring these rare birds. At the same time, we’ve seen certain position groups lose their value in the eyes of NFL teams, most notably non-pass rushing defensive linemen, running backs (to a degree) and run-thumping linebackers.
But in reality, the death of the true linebacker has been greatly exaggerated,and it is instead the death of the traditional linebacker that has gone by the wayside. Gone are the days of the Zach Thomases and Levon Kirklands of the NFL world, replaced by lighter, more athletic linebackers that can cover sideline-to-sideline and play more of a run-and-hit, attacking brand of football.
With this type of player only increasing in value, Ohio linebacker Blair Brown should be a prospect poised to come off the board sooner than most are anticipating.
At 5-11, 238 pounds, Brown represents the modern linebacker, from his coverage ability to his outstanding range. He’s absolutely terrific in space, coming downhill in a hurry, but also showing the presence of mind to throttle down before wrapping up.
If you can play hard and fast, while also being under control as a linebacker, you’re going to make a lot of plays. Brown consistently flies around the field tracking the ball, yet still does an excellent job of wrapping runners up with impressive grip strength and getting them to the ground.
His athleticism is eye-catching, but Brown is also a sound mental processor, reading and reacting to his keys appropriately. He was absolutely outstanding against Tennessee this past season, doing his part to shut down their rushing attack with instinctive and aggressive play in the box.
The Vols run outside zone here, and the left guard must help the center secure the shade (1-tech) before climbing to the second level. Brown immediately reads the guard’s release and beats him to the spot, flying up field to fill his gap and make the stop.
If you’re an undersized linebacker playing in the box, you better be able to process quickly while winning with your natural tools. Brown isn’t small and he doesn’t lack physicality, but you don’t need to be elite at stacking and shedding linemen if you’re constantly beating them to the punch. That’s how the best linebackers win.
Similar concept here, ACE block (guard-center combo) on the shade, with the right guard tasked with securing the nose tackle and climbing to the second level. Brown reads it correctly and fills his gap before the lineman can attack his position.
Critics will point to the fact that Brown had just three passes defensed and zero interceptions in college, but he blanketed receivers so often in man coverage that quarterbacks just didn’t throw at him very often. As a linebacker, Brown saw mostly zone coverage responsibilities or picking up running backs in the flat, but I noticed a few times on tape he had to pick up a wheel route or vertical pattern and did so flawlessly.
His athletic profile suggests a player who can run with and mirror most offensive skill players in coverage, and his tape reinforces the same sentiment.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brown missed just three tackles while registering 128 total stops last season, including 15 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks. He seems to sniff out every screen pass, reading the offensive linemen’s release from his zone drop and then letting his athleticism and tackling take over.
Of course, Brown isn’t without his flaws as well. He’s far too eager to bite on every play action fake and misdirection, and can work his way out of a zone drop or run fit by taking too many missteps. In zone coverage he’ll often try to cheat and jump certain routes, instead of positioning properly and relying on his athleticism to make up the necessary ground.
As a run defender, Brown consistently takes on blockers with the proper shoulder to leverage his gap, but you’re not going to want him stacking-and-shedding like a MIKE backer sifting through trash in the middle of a defense. That’s simply not using his strengths to your advantage.
Brown has the ability to start right away as a 4-3 WILL ‘backer in the NFL, especially in attacking schemes that will let him be aggressive and even blitz from time to time. The senior notched 4.5 sacks this season and was often impressive getting after the quarterback, both as an interior blitzer and off the edge. His experience stepping into the slot at Ohio could translate to a similar role in the NFL in nickel and dime situations, as Brown has the athleticism to match up with flexed tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
The league is looking for linebackers who can play all three downs, provide sub-package flexibility and compete in coverage, and Brown gives you all of that and more at a discount rate compared to where Haason Reddick, Tyus Bowser or Zach Cunningham will come off the board. Brown should be a top 75 pick as an immediate impact player with the ceiling to become an excellent NFL linebacker in time.