Zach Brown could have hung his head.
When he signed with the Buffalo Bills in April, it was with the expectation that he would have a starting role on the defense.
That lasted less than two weeks. When the team drafted Alabama’s Reggie Ragland in the second round, Brown became an afterthought.
Ragland was the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, and was destined to be one of those rookies who started “right off the bus.”
That was until Aug. 5 – when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a training-camp practice. Just like that, Brown was back to being an integral part of the Buffalo defense.
“I just made sure I keep competing,” Brown said. “I had to know my stuff, make sure I was comfortable in the defense, because you never know what might happen. He got hurt, unfortunately, so I had to step in and keep it going.”
Through three games, Brown has definitely done that.
He ranks second in the NFL in tackles with 34, just one behind New Orleans’ Craig Robertson.
“Zach is a very talented individual. Physically, he’s as gifted as most linebackers in this league,” defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. “He can run. He can hit. He can cover. He can tackle well. He can blitz. I mean, there’s very few things that he can’t do.”
So how is it that Brown languished on the open market for nearly a month before the Bills signed him to a one-year contract worth “only” $1.25 million?
It starts with health. A torn pectoral muscle suffered in the 2014 season opener with the Tennessee Titans proved difficult to overcome.
“I had a year where I couldn’t really do anything,” he said. “I couldn’t run. I mean, I biked, but that couldn’t do too much, because I couldn’t really sweat like that. I had a body sling on for six months, so half the year I wasn’t running. I was out of shape.”
By the time Brown returned in 2015 for the final season of his rookie contract, he had been passed on the depth chart.
Brown also has another theory on how he went unsigned for so long.
“I was in Tennessee – we were always losing,” he said. “We ain’t never really have a prime-time game. What I did my rookie year and what I did the following year after that, nobody knew anything about that. I had a torn labrum my rookie year. Nobody knew that, but I still put up numbers.”
Brown had back-to-back 90-tackle seasons in his first two years as a second-round draft pick in 2012 out of North Carolina. When he came out of college, the NFL.com scouting report on him said he “might be one of the fastest straight-line linebackers to ever enter the NFL.”
His 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds is the eighth best among linebackers in the last decade, but … “I was sick during the combine. I was throwing up. It would have been low 4.4, easy.”
That coverage ability was evident right away. Brown had three interceptions as a rookie, including one he returned 79 yards for a touchdown.
But that same scouting report suggested it was work ethic, and not physical skills, that could cause Brown’s stock to drop in the draft. Former Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt also publicly wondered about that at times.
That’s not the first bit of adversity Brown has had to overcome. He moved out of his parents’ home in high school, with his wrestling coach taking him in. Brown is matter-of-fact about that, just as he is about his past performances.
“If you took a look at my film before, my year two, before I got hurt, I was doing the same thing I’m doing now,” Zach Brown said. “I mean, my game’s my game. It’s the same way, just in a different defense. At the end of the day, I have to play with 10 other guys who are counting on me.”
Shortly after Ragland got hurt, Bills coach Rex Ryan made it clear that he wanted to see Brown “get a little dirtier” around the goal line. In coach speak, that means to play with a more physical edge.
So far, it’s been message received.
“I think this is the best he’s ever played,” Ryan said.
Brown has teamed up with Preston Brown to give the Bills a pair of linebackers that can play in all situations. They’ve also developed a, well, brotherhood of sorts.
“I told him when he first got here: If you’re playing well, you’re my brother,” Preston Brown said, “but if you’re not, we’re unrelated Browns. He’s definitely been playing great. He’s a guy that has made a lot of plays in this league.
“He’s my brother right now, so we definitely have some good chemistry going.”
Preston Brown is second to Zach Brown with 28 tackles.
“With me and Preston, it’s always ‘who can get to the ball first?’ It’s the game within the game,” Zach Brown said. “We feel like if one of us can get to the ball, we might cause something to happen.
“We’re just yin and yang. Pick your poison, who you want to try and pick on, because one of us is going to make you pay. It’s not going to be there he goes, catch and run for 80 yards. It’s going to be catch and tackle.”
Last year, three of the Bills’ four leading tacklers were defensive backs. Zach Brown is determined to make sure that’s not the case in 2016.
“We don’t want our DBs to tackle at all,” he said. “I told Preston, ‘me and you, we’ve got to lead the team in tackles.’”
The Bills have given up just one rush of 20-plus yards through three games.
“It’s not about a blow-up shot. Everybody that’s trying to do the blow-up shot, they’re going to miss,” Zach Brown said. “Just hit the guy — get him to the ground. You can’t go try to blow somebody up. The running back we played last week, you can’t go try to blow him up, he’s going to make you miss and it’s going to be a big play. He might score a touchdown, because it’s rare that you see a DB tackle him one on one.”
The Bills trained Zach Brown and Preston Brown, as well as Ragland before he got hurt, at both middle and weak-side linebacker, making them interchangeable.
“It just depends on how they come out formation-wise,” Ryan said.
For all the talk last year about the complexities of Ryan’s scheme, Zach Brown has shared no such sentiments.
“This defense is fun,” he said. “Real fun. … You’ve got to be disciplined. Sometimes you’ve got to be patient, and other times you can go get it.
“It’s been a pretty good start. You know, just got to keep it going, keep running to that ball.”