The 2017 free agency period for the Bengals is remembered more for their subtractions in the form of both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler moving on to other franchises.
But the main addition of that free agency class was middle linebacker Kevin Minter. Entering his fifth year, Minter started the previous 32 games for the Arizona Cardinals and played his best ball in 2016, but Arizona allowed him to walk.
The Bengals inked the then 26-year-old to a one-year deal to man the middle of their defense with the possibility of a new contract if he exceeded expectations.
Unfortunately, Minter ended up playing less than 20 percent of the snaps on defense mainly due to injuries, and he looked underwhelming when he was on the field. He only appeared in nine games, and the “star” of the Bengals free agency class was nothing more than a forgettable two-down linebacker that ended up becoming a one-year rental.
When diving into Preston Brown, this is the reality we must first reflect upon, but you shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet.
The Bengals, once again, signed a second-contract starting middle linebacker for an inexpensive one-year deal in Brown. The Cincinnati native was a productive college linebacker, who was drafted in the 3rd round like Minter was.
As an athlete, Brown tested with above average agility and explosiveness, but his 4.86 40-yard dash time is indicative of his lack of overall speed. For reference, Minter ran a 4.81 at 6’0” 246 pounds.
On paper, Brown fits the mold of a typical two-down gap stuffer that the Bengals consistently feature at middle linebacker, and for the most part, he is. But, Buffalo’s defense lacked athletes to play on 3rd down, so Brown was heavily used as a three-down player. In fact, in his four years in Buffalo, he played over 90 percent of the defense’s snaps.
Brown’s durability is a plus since he’s replacing a player that had trouble staying healthy last season, but besides availability, what makes Brown an upgrade over Minter? I took the liberty of letting Erik Turner, the knowledgeable mastermind behind cover1.net, do the heavy lifting for this. Let’s start with playing the run:
Brown had a very good game. 10 tackles and 3 run stops. pic.twitter.com/6jqIOKbnC0— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) January 2, 2018
Instincts is a popular term when it comes to linebackers. The very best at the position seem to be in the right gap and spot to meet the running back in the hole or in the backfield. Reading the ball carrier’s eyes and limiting false steps is how those instincts translate into production.
Racking up 84 solo tackles for a linebacker doesn’t just happen, that number is indicative to him consistently keeping with his run fits and reading his keys. As the play above showcases, Brown is quick to diagnose the running backs path, fill the proper gap and make the stop.
Brown didn't hesitate to shoot gaps this game. pic.twitter.com/XIsaRaakh5— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) November 28, 2017
More instinct on display! Brown has the size to take on second level blockers that allows others to create plays if his defensive tackles get blown off the ball, but he also is able to operate freely downhill. As soon as he sees the combo block between the center and left guard on the nose tackle, Brown immediately fires into the point of attack, keeps his shoulders square, and makes the stuff.
OZ by ATL-DL doing their jobs. PB has to come a long way but is kept clean and makes the tackle. pic.twitter.com/kDsJbLUdPV— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) October 4, 2017
Something that impressed me about Brown’s tape was how he consistently put himself in the best position to make a form tackle. He doesn’t have an abundance of sideline-to-sideline speed, but he has enough to scrape over the top of outside zone runs like this and meet the running back in his cutback lane. The key is how he doesn’t overpursue and resets his shoulders to the line of scrimmage when engaging the back for the tackle.
Fantastic recognition by Brown vs the screen. pic.twitter.com/2EjEf6yHSA— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) December 27, 2017
This play was my favorite because it embodies all of the qualities of Brown that I’ve already explained. Brown is not fooled for a millisecond by the play fake and fake reverse, keeping his eyes on the running back at all times and reacting accordingly. Both concepts of the play-call were designed to give the back some space on the screen pass, but Brown reads it all the way, meets him behind the line of scrimmage and wraps him up in space for a loss. Again, the number of plays Brown ended up being involved in wasn’t by accident, and it wasn’t a product of teams running towards his gap. He made plays on his own week in and week out.
PROPS to the staff and players for adjusting-I chronicled the troubles the second level defenders have encountered vs this alignment/concepts but they adjusted well. Chiefs attack Brown/Johnson w a high/low. Poyer helps vs dig, Brown closes vs Kelce.— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) November 28, 2017
Link: https://t.co/XtdKI2IlGi pic.twitter.com/GgipcQDc5Z
Brown’s saving graces will come from defending the run. His ability dropping back in coverage leaves more to be desired when he has to keep up with breaks and mirror underneath routes; as is the case for most linebackers of his athletic profile. If he’s isolated against the slot receiver in man coverage, or tasked to take away an underneath zone in the middle of the field, more times than not he’ll be a liability. If things are kept in front of him, and he can get his hands on the route, then he can make it work, as seen here against former Bengals running back Rex Burkhead:
Good play by Brown to pick up the RB who comes across the formation. The pressure by Davis speeds up the play and Brady tries giving his player a chance. Meanwhile over the middle... It happens, sometimes you are trying to attack a matchup. pic.twitter.com/NUOiIVnV9z— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) December 5, 2017
It’s those instincts from Brown that kept popping up in his tape, and his read and react skills made him a better player in coverage:
3-3-5 Tampa 2 with Zo as the rat defender that I spoke about. Look at the depth Brown gains to take away Kelce (good job of flipping his hips also). Tremendous zone awareness by Gaines.. pic.twitter.com/rxGhr67s9m— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) November 28, 2017
As the MIKE in the tampa 2 coverage call, Brown’s responsibility is to take away the deep middle of the field. After showing blitz, Brown reads the quarterback’s eyes and the tight end opening up on his seam route, covering a large amount of ground and showing good fluidity in his hips.
Brown was forced into this role because Buffalo had no one else to supplement him. His experience will prove valuable to the Bengals, who are currently in a similar state as far as linebackers who can cover, but again, he’s not a clear solution to that problem.
Looking back at the reactions to the Minter acquisition, many, including myself, overestimated his potential impact and the quality of that transaction. The fact that the Bengals rarely bring in unrestricted free agents to play on their second contracts probably elevated the perception of Minter’s arrival.
This was something that stuck with me when going over Brown, and with it in mind, it’s still a quality move. They’re getting a player that should give them exactly what they expected out of Minter, who’s also a year younger and has much more experience as a starter, for about the same price.
While he’s not of the caliber of linebacker like Cordy Glenn is at left tackle, he has a good chance of providing a similar much-needed upgrade at a position of need. In free agency, that’s all you can ask for.