Back in 2012, when Zach Brown was 22 years old and interviewing for his dream job as an NFL linebacker, his pre-draft stock was dinged from afar. Mike Mayock, the respected NFL Network analyst, said Brown was “allergic to contact,” an especially damaging critique when you’re tasked with blowing up running backs and dragging down tight ends for a living.
Five years later, Brown is leading the NFL in tackles. He might be the most valuable, reliable cog of the Redskins’ defense. And in the Washington locker room especially, that pre-draft analysis hasn’t aged particularly well.
“Really? That’s not the Zach Brown I see?” linebacker Preston Smith said.
“Allergic? Whaaat? Come on, man,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “I hope nobody believed that junk.”
They certainly don’t now, not this season. Through eight games, Brown appears to be everywhere – often on a single play. In Sunday’s win over the Seahawks, Redskins coaches counted 14 tackles, 12 of them solo including a sack — plus three quarterback pressures and two quarterback hits.
The key is his speed. As he has shown on a weekly basis, he can move sideline to sideline; he can spot a tailback a few steps and still catch him; and he can track down any scrambling quarterback or tight end who feels he has breathing room.
“I feel like if you’re 20 or 30 yards in front of me, and you got 40 yards to go, I feel like I can catch you,” he says. “No matter who it is. Maybe there’s certain guys I can’t catch, but nine times out of 10, I think I can get them.”
He’s physical enough to help up front and quick enough to assist in coverage. And even if he makes a bad read or he finds himself out of position, Brown corrects himself so quickly that he still finds himself in the middle of most plays.
“I just think his athleticism makes up for anything he might do wrong with his eyes,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “Certain linebackers, if they’re wrong with their eyes and they get out of position, they’re out of the play. Zach Brown, he can be looking over here, the ball’s over here, he still has time to react.”
It goes back to his days running track at Wilde Lake High in Columbia, where he won state titles in the 100 – and 200-meter races. Despite his large frame – he’s listed as 6-feet-1, 251 pounds – he was just a sophomore when he set North Carolina’s school record in the indoor 60-meter dash with a time of 6.72 seconds. At the NFL Combine in 2012, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds, a time that a running back, receiver or defensive back wouldn’t be ashamed of.
“His speed just shows on tape every time we play,” Gruden said. “Certain plays – tracking down Russell Wilson from behind and chasing down tight end when he’s 30 yards in front of him. It shows up. The more comfortable he gets with the system and all that stuff, the better he’ll continue to get.”
For all of the attention being paid to quarterback Kirk Cousins’s contract situation, Brown, 28, could be making himself a big offseason priority for the Redskins. He was Washington’s biggest free agent signing last offseason, and though he was a bargain, the Redskins locked him up for only one year.
Despite earning a spot in the Pro Bowl last year with Buffalo, Brown didn’t find a long-term deal in free agency and signed an incentive-laden contract with Washington, in which he bet on himself in a big way. His base salary is $1.55 million with another $750,000 in guaranteed bonus money. But he stands to earn more than $2 million in additional income if he hits certain marks, most of which look pretty attainable midway through the season. The benchmarks include making the Pro Bowl, earning All-Pro honors and playing a high percentage of defensive snaps.
According to the NFL’s figures, Brown leads the league with 86 tackles, including 57 solo. And while the Redskins have lost key players up-front (Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis) and in the secondary (Josh Norman) for long stretches, Brown consistently has been an anchor in the middle of everything.
“It’s a great team,” he said. “The young guys are doing a great job. For me, I like it here. I love it. It’s a place I want to be for a long time.”
Despite Mayock’s early concerns, the Titans made Brown a second-round pick. Brown said the analyst’s critique echoed — at least in his head — for several years, and he often felt he had something to prove. Not that there’s much doubt today, but Brown says he never shied away from contact at any level of football and simply did what coaches asked.
“If coaches want to me to go out of the box and cover a receiver, I’m gonna go do it. I’m not gonna complain about it,” he said. “But ‘allergic to contact?’ I took offense to it. I mean, how can I get a lot of sacks, tackles, tackles for loss?
“It stuck a little bit. To this day, if I ever see the guy — you know, thinking about that now, people say these nice things. But I’m same player I was. That’s why I play defense: to hit.”
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