A career year wasn’t enough to make Zach Brown in demand.
The inside linebacker ranked second in the NFL with 149 tackles, had four sacks and two forced fumbles, yet he knew he’d be moving on from Buffalo. The Bills’ coaching change from Rex Ryan to Sean McDermott and shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense put the writing on the wall, so Brown tested the free agent market.
Instead of being a Day One signing, Brown had to wait more than two weeks before taking a one-year deal with the Washington Redskins at a bargain-basement price. Coach Jay Gruden’s pitch sold him right away.
“He told me: ‘I just want you to come in and play football. We’re not going to try to control you, not treat you like you’re a robot when you’re on the field,'” Brown said. “And I’m listening to him like that’s what I wanted to hear. Don’t have me as a robot. … Let me play the game the way I play it.”
Brown plays football like someone is always doubting him, so another prove-it season seems perfect for the 27-year-old. After making the Pro Bowl last season, he set the goal of wanting to win the defensive MVP award and is eager to show the rest of the league he’s the best defender on the field.
“I guess I just like proving people wrong,” Brown said. “That’s always something in my brain that makes me play that much harder.”
Brown already proved something, but now enters a situation where he’s competing with established linebackers Will Compton and Mason Foster for a starting spot and playing time. Shocker: Brown embraces the chance for competition.
“The next person or somebody’s always going to come in and try to take your job, so for me every year I’ve been in the league I had competition,” Brown said. “I was never just certified as the starter going into any season I’ve been playing so far.”
It should be the expectation that Brown starts, given the numbers he put up last season. Gruden said the system Washington runs with new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is similar to what Rex and Rob Ryan had in Buffalo, so he expects Brown to adjust and feel comfortable quickly.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player for us,” Gruden said. “He’s a great athlete. You can’t coach the height, weight, speed that he has — the natural speed. 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, so it’s a great addition for us.”
Even Compton raved about what the Redskins are getting in Brown: “A lot of athleticism. The dude, it’s very natural to him. He moves very well, he runs very fast.”
But Brown, three years removed from a torn pectoral muscle that cost him the 2014 season with the Tennessee Titans, isn’t content just being an athletic, quick defender. He heard criticism early in his career that he was “soft” and could only cover in space, so he improved his downhill running and run stopping.
Because Manusky reminds him so much of the Ryan brothers, Brown is excited about the Redskins’ aggressive defense.
“The edge is going to be set, go get the ball,” Brown said. “Say no more. I’m going to do what you want me to do.”