Defensive MVP tops Brown’s priorities
Linebacker finds comfort with Redskins
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.