It was not so much what one or two people said that bothered Zach Brown, although he certainly did not appreciate the draft day analysis of his ability.
It was what nearly every other NFL team did — or did not do — that really bothered him and served as motivation throughout his rookie season. They didn’t draft him.
“For me [I want] to prove that I should have been the first linebacker taken off the board,” Brown said. “That’s how I felt — that I was the best linebacker, I could do everything. So I had a chip on my shoulder thinking I was the best linebacker in that draft class.”
Clearly, he was in the minority in that regard.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s opinion was that Brown, the Tennessee Titans’ second round selection, played as if he was “somewhat allergic to contact.” Rotoworld’s Josh Norris dubbed him “pillow hands” and Greg Cosell of NFL Films classified him as an “avoid-contact player.”
None of it was high praise. Likewise, it hardly was consistent with someone taken so high in the selection process (52nd overall, ninth among the 33 linebackers picked).
“It did irritate me,” he said. “If you watch my film, you don’t see somebody who is allergic to contact. I led my team in tackles. I was up for the Butkus Award. Who would lead their team in tackles … and they’re allergic to contact?”
Sure enough, he had a team-high 105 tackles for North Carolina as a senior. He also forced three fumbles, made 13.5 tackles for loss and earned All-America recognition from several outlets.
Still, Mayock’s comment was the one that caught people’s attention. It was concise and biting but also memorable enough that it was repeated often that day and in the weeks that followed.
Brown certainly heard it. Then he had to answer questions about it, which he did with a patience that belied his true feelings.
“The guy clearly didn’t know what he was talking about,” Brown said. “… To me, I don’t have respect for him because he judged me before I was even able to play [in the NFL].
“To do the things I did in my rookie year just showed he was wrong.”
Brown made his first start in Week 2 against San Diego and eventually started 13 of 16 games. He finished tied for third on the Titans with 93 tackles, third with three interceptions and fourth with five and a half sacks.
He capped the season with two interception returns for touchdowns — one for 79 yards — in a victory over Jacksonville. And he revealed recently that he did all of that with an injured left shoulder that required postseason surgery. He said he hurt it in the preseason but put off the corrective procedure until he wouldn’t miss any games.
All of that might have put an end to the talk about whether or not he was physical enough for the NFL, but in his mind it was just a start.
“I got to outperform my rookie year,” he said. “Not too many rookies get all of that in their rookie year. So, for me, I’m like I have to get more sacks, tackles and touchdowns. If you have a good defense, you might not get as many tackles. But interceptions and stuff … for me, I take pride in it.”
If draft boards could be revised, he’s confident that he’s made gains.
Among all rookie linebackers only Houston’s Whitney Mercilus, with six, had more sacks. Among outside linebackers, just three rookies made more tackles.
However, three of the five players who got votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year were linebackers, including the winner, Luke Kuechly of Carolina. Brown was not one of them.
“I have to be No. 1,” he said. “I have to prove it each year. … I was a little on the disappointed side that I didn’t get as many sacks as I should have had. I should have had like eight or 10.
“Now I can use my left arm, I can get [blockers] off me. I’m saying I’m going to … get the ’55 rule,’ five picks and five sacks. It’s a good year if you get that. … You just have to perform and make plays every game. That’s my thing — make plays, do the job, make the other team worry about you … when they show that film.”
Coincidentally, 55 is the number Brown wears for the Titans, and he is comfortable that anyone who watches film of Titans games won’t see No. 55 shying away from contact.
In fact, most games he is eager to get that first hit out of the way.
“I’ll be nervous before games,” he said. “After the first snap, it’s all said done. You set the tempo if you just get that initial shock out of the way. Then I’m out there playing my game and trying to prove that other teams should have drafted me when they had the chance.”