De­fen­sive MVP tops Brown’s pri­or­i­ties

Linebacker finds com­fort with Red­skins

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

ASHBURN | Back in April, then-free agent Zach Brown sat down with Red­skins coach Jay Gru­den dur­ing his visit with the team. Brown im­me­di­ately felt com­fort­able with Gru­den, who told him that, in Wash­ing­ton, he could be him­self.

“I just want you to come here and play foot­ball,” Gru­den told Brown. “We’re not go­ing to try to con­trol you, not treat you like a ro­bot when you’re on the field.”

It was an ef­fec­tive mes­sage.

“I’m lis­ten­ing to him like that’s what I wanted to hear,” Brown said. “You had me at the ro­bot.”

Brown has big goals for him­self. A Pro Bowl sea­son in 2016 didn’t re­sult in a long-term pay­day for the in­side linebacker, who is play­ing on a one-year con­tract worth up to $2.55 mil­lion with $700,000 guar­an­teed, in

Wash­ing­ton. To Brown, that means it’s time to do even more.

“I want to win the de­fen­sive MVP,” Brown said Wed­nes­day, com­ing off the field in­side the Red­skins’ white prac­tice bub­ble fol­low­ing a ses­sion of po­si­tion and team drills.

As was the case last week, when the Red­skins be­gan or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties, Ma­son Foster and Will Comp­ton started with the first team at in­side linebacker. Brown played with the first team in nickel, but mostly worked with the No. 2 de­fense.

The Red­skins didn’t sign Brown, who had four sacks, four passes de­fensed and 149 to­tal tack­les last sea­son in Buf­falo, just to play him in spots. Brown is still learn­ing the de­fense and, as he does, Wash­ing­ton stands to make more use of his tal­ents.

“You can’t coach the height, weight, speed that he has — the nat­u­ral speed,” Gru­den said. “You can feel it at linebacker with him chas­ing down play­ers on the out­side zones or the tosses out­side and chas­ing down backs out of the back­field ... he’s go­ing to be a heck of a player for us.”

There is enough over­lap in Wash­ing­ton’s de­fense and the de­fense Brown played in un­der Rex Ryan in Buf­falo to ease the men­tal bur­den slightly. More im­por­tantly, Brown liked play­ing in the Bills’ de­fense.

Ryan ap­proached de­fense the way mil­len­ni­als ap­proach re­la­tion­ships (why la­bel things?), but the Bills es­sen­tially played a hy­brid 3-4 scheme in 2016. Ryan was fired af­ter a 7-9 sea­son and new coach Sean McDer­mott is switch­ing the team to a 4-3 go­ing for­ward.

That change was one rea­son the Bills were un­able to re­sign their Pro Bowl de­fender, even when Brown’s mar­ket was un­ex­pect­edly soft in free agency.

“They had a new coach­ing staff, you know. They had their own thing and I wanted to stay in a 3-4 de­fense. Even when I went up there I was say­ing ‘Ahh, I want to stay in the 3-4 de­fense. I don’t want to be the Will ‘backer in a 4-3’,” Brown said.

Brown was drafted into a 4-3 with the Ti­tans, which seemed a good fit be­cause of his speed, but Brown clearly did his best work last year in Buf­falo’s scheme. Some of that, Brown said, was be­cause he trusted the other play­ers around him but it was also be­cause he changed his game.

“When I came in every­body was just like ‘He’s soft. All he can do is get in space and cover.’ For me that was one thing on my game I im­proved on,” Brown said. “Down­hill, my phys­i­cal­ity, just hit­ting peo­ple. You’re not go­ing to run me over to get a touch­down.”

Brown’s 2016 surge sur­prised even the Bills, who weren’t ex­pect­ing him to start un­til sec­ond-round pick Reg­gie Ragland tore his ACL dur­ing train­ing camp. Around the league, Brown said, his game doesn’t get the re­spect it de­serves.

Brown hasn’t re­signed with ei­ther of the teams he has played for. So far, he’s lov­ing play­ing for the Red­skins, but he’d still like to show them and every other team that he’s worth more than a oneyear in­vest­ment.

“I guess I just like prov­ing peo­ple wrong,” Brown said.

If Brown is even in the con­ver­sa­tion for De­fen­sive Player of the Year, he’ll have proved the Red­skins right and wrong at the same time: right for sign­ing him, wrong for mak­ing it a one-year deal.


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