As the Bengals prepare for their Week 6 game against the Buffalo Bills, one Cincinnati native is trying to find ways to hand the team their first loss of the season.
That man is Preston Brown, who grew up as a Bengals fan and a local Pee Wee legend at running back. He pulled both fullback and linebacker duties at Northwest High School in Cincinnati, secured a spot as a linebacker with the University of Louisville Cardinals, and was picked 73rd overall in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. Since then,Brown has had the fortune to secure the Bills' starting middle linebacker spot after former starter Kiko Alonso was hurt in the 2014 preseason and traded to Philadelphia the following year.
The Early Years
"It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a linebacker like my dad," Brown said in an interview with Chris Brown from Bills.com.
Brown's rise to football began as early as his Pee Wee career in Cincinnati. Brown recalled the influence of his father, Mike, on his early career. His father spent time with the Denver Broncos briefly before being unable to stick to an NFL roster on a long-term basis. But, Preston grew up hoping to emulate his father's success. The two would sit down and go over game film and footwork as a prolific young player with his local Pee Wee team.
That all changed in Preston's senior year of high school when he transferred to Northwest High School and, at least for the first three games, took the league by storm. Preston lead the now defunct Fort Ancient Valley Conference in "rushing and scoring" through the first two weeks, helping the Knights to a massive 63-21 victory over Finneytown High School in the first week alone. Unfortunately, Preston sprained his knee and ankle in their third game at Little Miami High School, and the team suffered as a result.
Through the team's first three weeks with Preston starting, they had accumulated an undefeated 3-0 record. After his injury, they finished the season 1-6 to continue the High School's long tradition of losing and missing out on playoff berths. However, the precedent set by Preston through those first three weeks was enough to make him a hot commodity among regional D-I colleges such as the University of Cincinnati and the University of Louisville. His alma mater, Northwest, also saw significant improvement following the injection of confidence from Brown's short time with the school; posting winning seasons and qualifying for the playoffs three of the four years since he graduated, and off to a great start in 2015.
Division I Success
"I was committed to going to Cincinnati in my Sophomore year... [but] Coach Strong and Coach Bedford were guys who had been in the NFL," Brown said this in an interview with Mo Eggar of ESPN 1530 AM.
301 tackles, seven sacks, six passes deflected, three forced fumbles, and an interception. Those were the kind of stats that he amassed while at the University of Louisville that opened the eyes of NFL draft scouts. Originally, Preston had verbally committed to playing for the Cincinnati Bearcats in college. UC fans and Northwest High School alums alike were excited to see what he could do for the hometown Bearcats, but he changed his mind to make the commitment to Louisville once he realized that his chances of making it to the NFL were better with a more well established football program.
As with many college freshmen, Preston's first year with Louisville mostly involved warming up to the speed of the game.
In the NFL: Making an Impact
"The NFL was something I had always been waiting for," Brown told Eggar.
Despite a standout career at Louisville, there were some questions about his coverage abilities and motivation at the NFL level. As a result, most NFL draft scouts placed him as a fourth or fifth round talent in the draft, although extremely modifiable for the right coach who can get some fire out of him. The Bills' head coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, however, saw something they liked in him. As a result, they drafted him in the third round to be the primary backup to Kiko Alonso, who was hurt for most of Brown's rookie season and traded away in 2015.
Preston's rookie season for the Bills was a fantastic one. Although he only started 14 games, he was able to amass 66 tackles, two deflected passes, a fumble recovery, and an interception. His sudden replacement of the seemingly irreplaceable Kiko Alonso was impressive and earned him the title secret superstar from Pro Football Focus.
Perhaps as a result of Preston's fantastic play in his rookie season, the Bills traded Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for LeSean McCoy in one of the highest-profile trades of the offseason. He's impressed so far, recording a pick six in his third game of the season against the Miami Dolphins, having already picked Dolphins' quarterback Ryan Tannehill off earlier in the game.
Preparing to Host the Bengals
"It's exciting playing against the team you grew up watching," Brown said on conference call with local Cincinnati media.
In the same interview, Preston recalled his favorite offensive player growing up to be Corey Dillon, and his favorite defensive player to be Takeo Spikes. Both were players that influenced the way he played the game growing up, but now he has a chance to make his mark on franchise history. Unfortunately for Bengals fans, that means trying to spoil the Bengals' perfect 5-0 record by playing against his home town team and getting a win with his new team.
Coach Rex Ryan has really enjoyed working with Preston so far, saying that "he has a chance to be an outstanding middle linebacker in this league.... He's a smart player, he's physical and he's done a really nice job here." That's not great news for the Bengals' up and down running game, although there is a chance that the Bengals will handle his physical presence well. So far this season, opposing teams' star linebackers have been inconsistent against the Bengals. While Chargers' LB Manti Te'o and Seahawks' LB Bobby Wagner have been effective, combining for 17 tackles and two deflected passes against the Bengals, Chiefs' LB Justin Houston, Ravens' LB Daryl Washington, and Raiders' LB-DE hybrid Khalil Mack all combined for only 14 tackles and no deflected passes over three games.
It could be a thrilling game for the improbable local star, and it could be one of the first poor games of his career. Preston will be hoping for the former, while Bengals fans will be hoping for the latter. But, as Preston puts it, there's one thing for sure, "[My mama] will be up there screaming louder than anyone."