Zach Brown, believe it or not, is one of the more high-profile linebacker free agents in the NFL this off-season. That may be hard to believe after signing with the Bills last off-season on a one year, $1.25 million dollar contract, but it’s true. After struggling for the first few seasons with Titans, the team that drafted him, Brown represented a low-risk move for the Bills. For Buffalo, it turned into being a steal as Brown would produce a career year of 149 tackles, four sacks, four pass deflections and one interception. Brown would cap off his breakout season with his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
This time around, Brown will be heading into free agency at age 27 (still young) and due for a massive raise. He will likely be looking for a multi-year deal that could command near-top dollar at the position with the rising salary cap in the NFL. He showed well in the Bills 3-4 defense under Rex Ryan, functioning as a true three-down linebacker. Brown played for the most part on the inside but showed terrific coverage skills and the ability to rush the passer as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown led the Bills with 54 “stops” in the run game, showing his ability against the run as well.
According to overthecap.com, the Bills only have around $18 million dollars in cap space this off-season as of this writing. And with Stephon Gilmore, Mike Gillislee, Lorenzo Alexander and Robert Woods all also free agents this off-season, it’s possible they may not be able to retain every key free agent. Also, the Bills have Shaq Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Reggie Ragland all under contract for 2017 at the linebacker position, so they may have enough resources at the position already to invest more long-term money into Brown.
The Patriots on the other hand, have some glaring needs at linebacker at the moment. They traded star outside linebacker Jamie Collins during the middle of last season while star inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower is an unrestricted free agent this off-season and will likely get contract offers that exceed Collins’ deal from the Browns earlier this off-season (four years, $50 million dollars, $26.4 million guaranteed). While it would be hard to see the Patriots defense without Hightower, it is possible that the team simply gets outbid by a team in free agency. If that is the case, the Patriots will need some major help at all linebacker positions.
While Brown succeeded as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, it wouldn’t be the hardest transition for Brown to play in the base 4-2-5 defense the Patriots usually employ. Brown could actually fill in Hightower’s role as a three-down linebacker responsible for stopping the run and being able to either rush the passer or drop back in coverage on passing downs. While Brown may not be the caliber of player that Hightower is, he certainly has the athleticism to play the role.
The Patriots currently have Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny to make up their inside linebacker core. Roberts is a fine run-stopper but is still a liability in pass defense. Van Noy and McClellin are fill-in types of talent at inside linebacker who are both shaky in coverage on passing downs. And Freeny is simply depth who is coming off a major injury and may not make the roster, as I discussed in February.
Brown would arguably be the second best inside linebacker in free agency after Hightower as there doesn’t seem to be much depth at the position on the open market. And with the NFL Draft only featuring a couple of solid prospects at the position in Reuben Foster and Zach Cunningham, it’ll be even more important for the Patriots to shore up their inside linebacker depth before the season were to begin.
With the rising salary cap and the lack of premium options at the position, it is possible that Brown could see a contract around what Danny Trevathan signed last off-season with the Bears (four years, $28 million dollars, $13.5 million guaranteed). And while that may seem like a lot for a player coming off one solid season, he would represent a nice discount from what Hightower is expected to receive (which could be more than double in total dollars and guarantees).
As stated before, Brown is certainly not as gifted of a player as Hightower is. But considering his similar ability to play against the run and be useful on passing downs in multiple ways, it’s certainly possible that Brown could the guy to step in for Hightower. Of course, this is all assuming that Hightower does sign with another team, which is far from a sure thing at this point. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald mentioned on Twitter that the Patriots and Hightower are “continuing to keep an open, productive dialogue” when it comes to talks about a new contract. If Hightower were to re-sign with the Patriots, it may be tough for the team to invest massive cap space in both Hightower and Brown.
But as we have seen with the Patriots in the past (see Asante Samuel and Darrelle Revis for example), they are not afraid to let a free agent go to another team if they offer more then what they are comfortable with. That very well could be the case again with Hightower, so the Patriots will need to have contingency plans in place for that possibility. Brown would be an ideal “back-up plan” for the Patriots in this scenario.