With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown. According to Brown's high school coach, the Maryland three-sport superstar would be on a field this August, even if he chose some sport other than football. "If things didn't work out for Zach in football," Doug Duvall told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "he could have been a decathlete."
Brown could have been a track star; in fact, he was one at North Carolina. Or, he could be a wrestler. Or a running back; he has the athletic profile of a young Herschel Walker. As a linebacker, he's an intriguing work in progress: with a 4.50 forty time at the 2012 scouting combine, he was easily the fastest linebacker on the field, but the tape shows that it will take some work to turn his decathlete-level measurables into pro production.
Pros: Brown has exceptional straight-line speed and an extra burst in the open field. Brown puts his speed when blitzing off the edge, running plays down from behind, or buzzing across the field in pass coverage. Brown will beat blockers when blitzing simply by getting past them before they can set. If he reads a passing play, he can cross the field and surprise the quarterback by jumping the route and intercepting the pass.
Brown is willing to plug gaps and delivers thumping tackles at times. His instincts in zone coverage are pretty good, as he often anticipates the quarterback's decision. Factor in his speed and hands, and he can be very dangerous in underneath coverage.
Cons: Brown is a lunging tackler. He is very inconsistent when it comes to gathering himself up, breaking down into good tackling position, and wrapping his arms at the ends of plays. As a result, he's often seen on the ground as the ballcarrier races past him. He recorded 105 tackles in 2011, but many were clean-up jobs after completions or at the tail ends of significant runs.
Brown gets latched onto blocks too easily, and he is not very good at sifting through bodies to get to the ball. He lacks technique and creativity as a pass rusher: if he doesn't win with pure speed, he's blocked.
Conclusion: Brown can be confounding to watch on tape. He spends a lot of time lurking on the edges of plays: getting off his block just in time to pile onto an already-made tackle, or flailing at a running back who just cut back on him. He gets clean-up sacks after Quinton Coples sends the quarterback scurrying in his direction. He catches a fluky, tip-drill interceptions, like he did in the 2011 Music City Bowl or against Missouri, and while you marvel at the athleticism, you wonder if an NFL career can be made of hustling under batted balls.
What's never in question is Brown's pure athletic ability and speed. Brown looks like a 240-pound cornerback when he is running in the open field. Given proper coaching, he could be a devastating weapon as an all-purpose outside linebacker in any system.
The key words are "proper coaching." Brown is the kind of player the Steelers like to stick on the bench for a year or two, then unleash on an unsuspecting league after they have mastered the finer points of tackling, reading plays, and using their hands-shoulders-hips to beat pass protectors. If he steps on the field as a raw rookie, he will be a "run-around" guy who is too easily blocked or confused, though he will be a terror on special teams no matter what.
NFL Comparison: Keith Brooking. Not the recent Brooking, a savvy veteran who played inside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, but the old Atlanta Falcons version of Brooking, who was fast, disruptive, and mixed big plays with undisciplined stretches.
More Shutdown 50:
#42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia | #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami | #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy