Last offseason I put together reviews for the rookie season of a few of the Titans 2016 draft picks. They are linked below if you care to go back and check them out.
I like to go back and review rookie seasons primarily because the largest jump in performance for most NFL players occurs between their first and second years in the league. This isn’t just a popular anecdote from talking heads either, it’s something that’s been quantified in many studies of NFL aging curves like this one from SoCalledFantasyExperts.com.
Titans linebacker Jayon Brown is one of those players heading in to his second season as a pro in 2018. This will be his age 23 season, so that leaves him entering the peak of his career according to the graph above.
Last year around this time Brown was generating a lot of buzz at OTA’s and he’s doing it again this offseason according to Mike Keith (go to 1:06 in the video below).
Brown’s 2017 offseason buzz turned in to a significant role as the coverage specialist in the Titans linebacking corps as a rookie. He was on the field for 45% of the team’s defensive snaps, the 11th highest rate on the defense, and his 37 tackles ranked 8th among Titans defenders. He also accumulated 1.5 sacks and 4 passes defensed in 2017, good for 8th and 5th on the team respectively.
Brown’s primary role on the defense was to come in on passing downs and work as a coverage linebacker, often matched up man-to-man with the opponent’s tight ends and backs. According to PFF charting data including both regular season and postseason, Brown was thrown at 60 times on 375 coverage snaps. Opposing quarterbacks completed 38 of those passes being completed for a total of 415 yards and 1 touchdown. That results in a passer rating allowed of 89.2 which is about average. His yards allowed per coverage snap of 1.11 ranked 26 out of 48 qualifying linebackers.
He was asked to pass rush on 39 snaps, resulting in 1 sack (PFF does not give half sacks), 1 hit, and 5 hurries for a Pass Rushing Productivity score of 14.1 which was good for 23rd out of 51 qualifying linebackers.
It’s pretty difficult to statistically evaluate Brown as a run defender. He was only on the field for 84 rush attempts total — compared to 414 pass attempts — so the sample size is really small. PFF’s Tackle Efficiency metric was not kind to Brown in the run game. He was credited with 4 missed tackles in run defense versus just 6 tackles, 5 stops (solo tackles that result in a “win” for the defense), and 5 assists for an efficiency score of 3.8. That ranked last out of 38 qualifying linebackers.
However, as I mentioned that’s a small sample size and the tackling issues did not extend to his larger work in pass coverage. As a pass defender he had just 3 missed tackles against 31 tackles, 13 stops, and 6 assists for an efficiency score of 13.3, good for 13th out of 38 qualifying linebackers.
It’s worth noting that 4 of Brown’s 7 total missed tackles (per PFF) came in the first two games of the season. After that he settled down and had just 3 misses over the final 16 games of the season, including the two playoff games. The perceived missed tackle issue could, in fact, just be a rookie getting used to the play speed of regular season NFL action.
The overall statistics seem to point towards Brown being an average to slightly above average pass defender in his rookie season, but a poor run defender. Of course, it’s always best to check stats against tape and see if they align before making sweeping judgments about a player, so I went through the tape to review his rookie season.
I decided to take Brown’s clips through chronological order so we can see his progression as the year goes on more clearly.
This first clip is actually the very first snap of his NFL career and the Raiders took a look at him right away. Oakland split the 6’-5” Jared Cook out wide on 3rd and 6 and isolated him against the 6’-0” rookie linebacker. Brown actually does a pretty nice job on the route, but Cook’s size and the perfect timing of the throw beat his coverage giving the Raiders a critical 3rd down pickup.
Where Brown struggled, especially early in the year, was simply knowing where to be. This next clip shows Woodyard motioning Brown to get him in the right spot before the snap. After the snap, Brown continues to show his inexperience by failing to carry Amari Cooper to the back of the endzone. With the only other receiver on that side of the field bracketed by Adoree Jackson and Johnathan Cyprien, Brown has no reason not to stick with Cooper here. He ends up getting bailed out by Brian Orakpo getting a hand on the pass from his position as a spy, but this is a rookie mistake from Brown.
Brown certainly must have earned Dick LeBeau’s trust early, because here he is matched up man-to-man in the slot against Michael Crabtree. The play goes to the opposite side, but you can see one of my favorite things about Brown in this clip: his quiet feet. He’s patient through the stem and keeps himself in good position to break on the out cut. He doesn’t panic or bail too early — two things that are easy to do when you’re a rookie linebacker put in this position. This isn’t exactly a matchup that the Titans would like to invite frequently, but it’s good to have a guy like Brown who is capable of handling it when put in a bad spot like this.
The Raiders went back to the same look again a couple drives later and decided to test the rookie. Brown was up to the challenge though. He, again, does a nice job keeping his feet quiet until Crabtree makes his break and then follows closely. He isn’t able to prevent the completion, but he’s tight on the ball and able to make the tackle for no gain which is the next best thing.
While Brown has far more pass coverage snaps to evaluate than run snaps, I do want to show some of those to get a feel for his play against opposing ground attacks. Here you can see him doing a decent job of filling his gap and helping make the tackle for a short gain. I’d like to see him play a little bit meaner in the box and look to deliver the blow more often though.
Here’s another rookie moment from Brown. You can see pre-snap he’s out of position and Williamson has to correct him and get him to the right spot. After the snap he tries to shoot the gap created by the pulling tackle, but gets clipped by the guard on the way through — possibly due to being out of position at the snap — and ends up getting caught up in the wash inside. This is why coaches hate starting rookies.
Brown’s man cover skills eat up running backs, particularly those who aren’t natural route runners like Leonard Fournette. Here he’s in perfect position to defend the pass and knocks down the poorly located Blake Bortles pass.
The Titans frequently used Brown to spy in Week 3 to help contain the elusive Russell Wilson as he’s doing in the clip below. The game situation is 3rd and 10 early in the 1st quarter. Brown stays in to spy and successfully forces an escaping Wilson to check down to his back, C.J. Prosise, in the flat rather than taking off down field. That’s a small victory for Brown, but that’s not what I love about this play. Watch him finish. Prosise has the ball with Logan Ryan and Da’Norris Searcy nearby on the sideline, but Brown races over from midfield and ends up saving the play for the defense as his big hit at the end stops forward momentum and keeps Prosise from picking up the 1st down. Really good hustle and awareness by Brown here.
Like the Raiders, the Seahawks decided to take a look at Brown in some one-on-one matchups. Here Seattle uses C.J. Prosise — a former college wide receiver who converted to running back — to try to create a mismatch by motioning him out wide against a single high man cover look from the Titans. They send Prosise on a go route, but Brown sticks in his hip the entire way down field before forcing the incompletion. You can’t ask for better coverage than that, especially against a talented opponent.
The Seahawks came back to that look a few drives later though and this time they got the rookie to take the cheese on a sluggo route from Prosise. Brown bites hard on the slant route and gets roasted. He does a nice job of of recovering and eventually saving the touchdown — the Seahawks would eventually punch it in a few plays later — but Jayon got caught looking to make a big play here.
Part of the problem with just looking at stats, even advanced ones, is that stats communicate results, not performance in almost all cases. One example of that is the play below. Brown is man coverage against Jimmy Graham. Not an easy task. The game situation is 1st and 10 with 4:42 left on the clock. The Titans lead 33-20 so the goal here is to make a stop, but above all, prevent the quick score and keep the clock running. Brown’s coverage here is pretty good, but a good throw and catch beat him for 11 yards. On the plus side Brown is able to prevent yards after the catch AND keeps Graham in bounds which is big in this specific situation. So while this play gets recorded as an 11 yard catch against Brown, it’s actually not a bad play by the linebacker.
OK, let’s skip ahead a few games to Week 10 and see how Brown is progressing through the 2017 season. This is his first snap of the game and he’s lined up in press man coverage against Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft on a 3rd and 3. First, Brown’s physical jam at the line of scrimmage disrupts the timing and landmarks of Kroft’s route and likely contributes to him losing balance and falling coming out of his break. Beyond that, Brown stays in great position throughout the route and really leaves very little room for Dalton to fit the pass in. This is outstanding work.
You could see Brown getting more comfortable and starting to recognize plays quicker as the year went on. Something you’d expect to see from a rookie, but encouraging nonetheless. Here you can see a little bit of that. Brown is responsible in man coverage for Bengals running back Joe Mixon on this play so he’s supposed to have his eyes on him from the start, but you can see that he recognizes the screen very early on based on Mixon’s movements and breaks on the ball. Mixon’s butterfingers actually saves the Bengals from a 5 or 6 yard loss here as Brown had him dead to rights if he comes down with the high pass.
Here is more impressive recognition from Brown. The Bengals are giving a little RPO look here, faking the give to Mixon, and then throwing a quick slant out to Alex Erickson. Pre-snap, you can see the Titans are showing a single high press man look. As soon as Brown sees Dalton pull the ball back, he immediately buzzes out to the flat and ends up making the tackle immediately after the catch, holding the Bengals to a 4-yard gain on 2nd and 10. There’s no way the flat was Brown’s responsibility based on coverage, so this is purely a player recognizing what the play is and running to where he knows the ball is going. This is taking midweek preparation from the film room to the field. Really good play by Brown here.
Here’s another really nice play from Brown. Titans are in single high man coverage again on this 3rd and 6, though the two linebackers (Brown and Woodyard) appear to be playing some sort of pattern match coverage on the running back and tight end with Woodyard taking the first man through and Brown taking the second. Brown reads the angle route from Gio Bernard and breaks on it, making the tackle well short of the first down marker. Again, this goes down in the stat book as a 3-yard completion allowed by Brown, but it’s an excellent play and a win for the defense.
Here is more good situational awareness from Jayon Brown. This is a 3rd and 20 from the Bengals own 15 yard line with 0:25 left on the clock and the Titans leading 24-20. The Titans are sitting in a soft zone shell to protect against plays deep down field. The 3-man rush gets pressure on Dalton (props to Orakpo and Morgan who both had good rushes here) and forces the checkdown where Brown breaks hard and is able to make the tackle in bounds, forcing the Bengals to use their 2nd timeout. Again, this is a big win for the defense.
More good coverage reading and execution here from the final game of the regular season. Brown is acting as a “wall” defender here, responsible for picking up any short crossing routes that cross his face. The acceleration from a dead stop to close on Keelan Cole is really impressive here and Brown is able to make the tackle short of the first down line on 3rd and 5 to force a punt.
While he was really good in coverage consistently based on my review of his tape, he wasn’t perfect. Occasionally he’d get caught leaning the wrong way like he did on this play in the playoff game against the Patriots. James White is one of the best route running backs in the league and he schooled the rookie here with an excellent route.
There wasn’t much of that in the tape though. Brown was clearly the Titans most effective coverage linebacker during the 2017 season and the alignment issues and hesitation disappeared as the season wore on.
I found it hard to really come to a conclusion on Brown’s overall effectiveness in the run game. The number of run snaps he saw was relatively low and the run snaps that he did get were often 3rd and medium or longer which is a little different than playing run defense on more balanced downs. What I did take away was that Brown was a little bit hesitant to commit and hit the hole — again, that could partially be explained by the game situation. His size hurts him a little bit here as offensive lineman can overwhelm him when they get their mitts on him. He knows this and tries to go around blocks, taking him out of position at times. I’d be interested to see what he could do playing as the weak side backer in the base defense on a more regular basis, but for now it’s hard to say with real conviction what he could do in that role.
So the question then becomes what he can do for the Titans in 2018. The team drafted Rashaan Evans in the first round and also added veteran depth with starting experience in Will Compton through free agency. Wesley Woodyard returns coming off a career year in which he wrestled the 3-down linebacker role away from Avery Williamson.
There is going to be a lot to sort out here as training camp begins next month. Will Evans be ready to start from Day 1? Would the Titans prefer to have Brown’s coverage skills on the field more on early downs given the overwhelming importance of being able to defend the pass in the modern NFL? Will Woodyard be able to repeat his 2017 performance?
I could see several potential starting combinations come Week 1, but I would be shocked if we didn’t see Jayon Brown playing a prominent role in this defense in 2018. Furthermore, I think Brown can be more than a passing down coverage specialist at the NFL level. I think he could turn in to a perfect complement to Rashaan Evans as a long term starter in the middle of this Titans defense.