Zach Brown finished among the league’s leaders in tackles even after injury cut short his season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Inside linebacker is a top priority for the Washington Redskins, but re-signing veteran Zach Brown may be a luxury the front office can’t (or won’t) afford.

Coach Jay Gruden reiterated in January that bringing back Brown was an “important” task on their offseason to-do list, but he also noted “it’s a business” when it comes to negotiations.

After a four-year stint with the Tennessee Titans and bouncing from Buffalo to Washington during the 2017 offseason, Brown emerged as the NFL’s leading tackler for much of last season. He finished with 127 in 13 games — 17 fewer tackles than Buffalo’s Preston Brown, Cleveland’s Joe Schobert and Green Bay’s Blake Martinez, who each played in all 16. It’s Brown’s speed that is most impressive, and it’s his strength and athleticism that make him one of the better run defenders in the NFL.

Said Gruden, during the Senior Bowl: “He’s important. We like his speed, his athleticism, without a doubt.”

Addressing the position is a priority, but the price has to be right, too.

Washington re-signed pending free agent linebacker Mason Foster in late January and now must determine whether it’s possible to retain Brown or fellow inside linebacker Will Compton.

“We’d like to get a couple of them done at least,” Gruden said last month, referring to all three linebackers. “Hopefully we’ll get at least two, maybe three, and there are other free agents on other teams that we can go target.”

Brown picked up right where he left off in Buffalo and had an impressive season for the Redskins, so it’s easy to understand why he’d want to get paid like the league’s top inside linebackers ($10 million or more per year). But the question is: How much are the Redskins willing to spend?

“If [Chicago Bears linebacker Danny] Trevathan was worth $7 [million] a couple years ago and [Miami’s] Kiko Alonso’s unrestricted years were worth $8 [million] last year, I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” former NFL agent and salary cap expert Joel Corry said. “Whether the Redskins want to pay, that is a whole different story, and whether they have to pay it. There’s probably a good chance they won’t have to. And if they’re going to pay that, it’s going to be because another team forces them to, most likely.”

There are a few factors that will play into the Brown-Redskins negotiations this offseason:

  • Timing
  • The market for inside linebackers
  • Mason Foster’s deal
  • Compton’s free agent status

Timing
After signing a one-year contract with a base value of $2.3 million last year, Brown is eager to test the market. But the longer he waits to ink a deal, the more he runs the risk of signing for less.

He had a standout season in 2016 and still didn’t get the type of money he wanted in free agency. That resulted in him not signing with the Redskins until April.

Waiting for the right offer is understandable, but Brown also doesn’t want his negotiations to drag on past the first wave of free agency or worse, the league meetings in late March.

Foster’s deal
Washington addressed its free agent linebacker needs with the quick re-signing of Foster, a dependable and versatile veteran. When paired with Brown, opposing teams gained 3.74 yards on the ground, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Not only do they complement each other well on the field, but Foster’s contract numbers might also work in Browns’ favor. Foster, 28, signed a two-year, $3.4 million extension that includes a $500,000 signing bonus and $1.5 million guaranteed, and it pays him an average annual salary of $1.7 million.

Even with the incentives, it’s a team-friendly deal. And that could bode well for Brown.

“They can afford to invest more in Zach Brown because Mason came cheap,” Corry said.

The market
It isn’t strong for non-pass rushing linebackers, and that’s not good if you’re Brown.

While teams are willing to break the bank for quarterbacks and pass rushers, they aren’t nearly as generous when it comes to signing inside linebackers, especially guys from other teams.

Former Arizona Cardinals insider linebacker Kevin Minter didn’t sign his one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals until mid-March last year. And like Minter, Brown was sitting out there for a while during free agency. Said Corry: “Neither one of those guys got the type of money they were looking for, and that was pretty much indicative of inside linebackers last year.”

And while it makes sense that Brown would target $10 million a year, Corry cautioned: “He better be flexible pretty quickly ’cause you don’t want the first wave of free agency to go and you’re still out there. After last year, he should be a little more reasonable in his demands.”

Compton’s negotiations
With Foster already in the fold, the chances of both Brown and Compton returning are slim.

All three linebackers dealt with injuries last season, and Foster (torn labrum) and Compton (Lisfranc) both ended the year on injured reserve. Now, they’re each eager to be starters. But which will join Foster on the field for Washington?

If you’re the Redskins, you’ll use Compton as leverage in your negotiations with Brown. But Brown’s camp has an easy rebuttal.

“Will Compton is not Zach Brown,” Corry said, “Otherwise they didn’t need to sign Zach Brown, and they could have just started Mason Foster and Will Compton. Zach Brown was great when he was on the field. You can’t argue that. He was playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level.”

***

It’s easy to make a case for Brown getting paid: He’s a three-down linebacker and a tackling machine on the field. The key phrase there, however, is “on the field.”

Brown gutted through injuries last season, including toe, Achilles and hip ailments. And that, too, will be noted by the Redskins. Productivity is key, but availability is just as important.

“I’m going to hold the durability against him if I’m the team,” Corry said. “And because you’ve seen that other teams don’t value non-pass-rushing linebackers in free agency. So I’m not going to pay him any more than I have to and bank on the fact that he won’t find the deal he wants if he hits the open market. I’ll still be able to get him for, maybe, more than I want to pay, but it’s still more than what he’d get elsewhere.”

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