This is familiar territory for Preston Brown.
The Buffalo Bills’ linebacker is used to learning new defenses and being challenged for his job, and this season will be no different. Former second-round draft pick Reggie Ragland is back from injury and has his eyes on the starting job at middle linebacker – the spot Brown currently possesses.
“I’ve been in competition since high school,” Brown said last week. “With all the linebackers, not just Reggie, but whoever it is. We’re all competing to play. I mean, we’re all trying to make the team better. The best three are going to play, or the best four, or whoever is out there is going to play and have fun.”
Brown should feel confident in his chances. Since being selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he’s played in all 48 games and started the last 46 of them, a streak dating back to Week Three of his rookie year. Whether it was in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 or Rex Ryan's 3-4 scheme the last two years, Brown has been a productive player.
He is just 24 years old, and coming off a season in which he finished sixth in the NFL with 139 tackles. Despite that, there has been speculation about his future with the team. Just last week, Bleacher Report published a list of “NFL trades that should happen before the 2017 season opener” and included Brown being sent to the Washington Redskins to reunite with his teammate with the Bills last year, Zach Brown.
With Preston Brown entering the final year of his contract, and his potential replacement on the roster, it’ an interesting idea to ponder. At the very lest, it’s hard to shake the feeling he’s a bit of an underdog in the competition with Ragland. Here’s what coach Sean McDermott said about both players in March.
“I know Reggie from tape in college and what he can do. … We'll start at the middle linebacker position is really where we see him. And what innately comes with that position is the leadership skills. He possesses those leadership skills to get us lined up, be the antennae, so to speak, of the defense.
“I'm not out there and over the years, when you look at that position, in this system -- guys like Luke Kuechly, guys like Jeremiah Trotter -- that can check the defense, get us in and out of bad calls, bad defenses, set us up for success, that's an important part of that position and Reggie, from what I can tell and what I've observed and been told about him, he has that DNA.”
As for Brown, he would “be in that same mold in terms of that middle linebacker position for us, and so very confident in watching Preston last year and over the last couple of years, really, in the different systems he was in. Very productive player. He's a nice fit for us as well. It'll be a fun position to watch."
That’s praise for both players, but it’s telling that the coach brought up Kuechly when talking about Ragland. The bottom line is, nothing is guaranteed in terms of playing time, which how McDermott wants it. That’s fine by Brown.
“Every year you have something to prove,” he said. “We’ve got a new coach, a new system. The best 11 are going to play, so everybody is out here competing and trying to find a spot.”
That could include Ragland and Brown on the field at the same time, which is a possibility defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier didn’t rule out.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Brown said. “I really don’t have any preference or anything – I just want to play football. Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m going to do that.”
The knock on Brown since coming into the league has been his speed. He ran a 4.86-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, and today’s game demands that linebackers be able to cover running backs and/or tight ends. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked Brown 60th of 76 qualified linebackers in coverage last year.
“Everybody thinks you’ve got to be fast to cover, but I don’t think that’s necessary,” Brown said. “I mean, a lot of fast guys overrun stuff, so you’ve got to study. I take a lot of time to study routes and things to be better at pass coverage. I think we all can do better at pass coverage as a better unit to get more turnovers to help the team.”