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Cam Brown: 5 Plays to be excited about, and 2 to worry about

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Brown wore many hats on defense for Penn State, but how does that translate to the next level?

Penn State v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The New York Giants drafted “Linebacker” Cam Brown out of Penn State in the sixth round, at pick No. 183 of the 2020 NFL Draft. Brown is distinctly different than typical linebacker prospects because he’s 6-foot-5 with 34-inch arms, which is 97th and 95th percentile for the position.

A two-time team captain, Brown shined as a versatile weapon for the Nittany Lions. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown lined up 273 times at slot corner, 259 times in the box, 89 times on the defensive line, eight times at free safety, and six times at wide corner. During his last two seasons at Penn State, Brown had 135 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, 30 pressures, 4 sacks, and 10 passes defensed. Brown’s length presents a problem to a quarterback’s throwing windows in the middle/intermediate part of the field, if Brown is in the box. I love that the Giants made this investment on Brown, who’s length and skill-set will make an impact on special teams, but can also provide value in sub-packages early in his career.

Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham comes from the Patriots, who have been a pressure team for years without a top pass rusher. Since New England traded Chandler Jones in 2016, the team finished 16th in the NFL with 34 sacks in 2016, 7th in 2017 with 42, and 7th in 2019 with 47. They finished 30th in 2018 with 30 sacks, but still won the Super Bowl. The Patriots have used the likes of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Trey Flowers, and Dont’a Hightower to scheme pressure without a “top end” pass rusher. Let’s take a quick look at the 2019 Miami Dolphins, with Graham as the defensive coordinator.

This is a third-and-short against the Redskins, and it’s a look that Graham often uses in third-and-short to third-and-intermediate. Typically, Graham employs a 3-3-5 front that mixes mostly Bear and Eagle fronts [here is a guide to defensive fronts] when they’re utilizing three down lineman. Given the context of the play, pressure, situation, etc. Graham loves to employ a fluid second level that is far from static, as we see above. There’s usually one down lineman, with three to four linebackers constantly moving until the snap, which masks their responsibilities. It’s a very common look that can be combined with a five-man pressure package, featuring some sort of stunt or twist. It’s not strange that the Giants invested several late-round picks in versatile linebacker types that offer different skill sets.

Graham remains unpredictable with his varied looks. As we see above, he’ll provide static looks in third down situations as well. Two wide edge rushers, with a true 0-Technique on the center, and two linebackers lined up as 3-3 defenders (3-Techniques that are 3 yards off the guard). The boundary linebacker slants inward, as the boundary end takes a wide rushing angle to open up the stunt for the field side linebacker, all with man coverage on the back end of the five-man pressure. It’s necessary to point this out to propound the potential impact of a player like Brown, who has versatility, blitzed a lot in college, and has the length to threaten quarterbacks in the pocket, if he’s used correctly, and I feel Patrick Graham is the guy to employ this skill set. Brown is a bit stiff, and doesn’t offer the best change of direction skills while moving laterally, but he’s a solid functional athlete who can do plenty for a defense. Graham will find a creative way to implement Brown’s versatility into his multiple defense that is predicated on multifaceted concepts and personnel. As for Brown, here are five plays to get excited about.

Play 1: Penn State @ Minnesota

Fourth quarter, 7:53, First-and-10

Brown initially lines up over the seond tackle, as the SAM, to the field side of the formation. Tight before the snap, Brown takes one step outside to directly line up on the outside shoulder of the H-Back. He reads his run keys and notices the H-Back’s blocking attempt, while seeing the quarterback and running back at the mesh point with a designed run to the field.

The H-Back attempts to seal the edge, but Brown hits him with a quick inside step, combined with a swim move over the top, which creates instant separation and puts Brown in a great spot. Once Brown is free of the blocker, he leverages his humongous tackle radius to latch onto the running back and force the tackle for a loss. Good quickness, ability to read run keys instantaneously, and good tackling in space are all shown on this play. Having the wingspan that Brown possesses (78 ⅞ inches) can be a remarkable thing for a second level defender who isn’t inept with his movement skills.

Play 2: Pitt @ Penn State

Fourth quarter, 1:47, First-and-10

Here we see Penn State in their four-down front, with them showing blitz in the playside A-Gap. Brown is at backside 3-4, just off the outside of Yetur Gross-Matos (99) in the middle of the field. Pitt’s only down by one score and the Psnthers are in their two-minute offense. It’s a big-time situation, and pressure can be expected. The Nittany Lions dial up a five-man blitz, so Pitt hits them with a boundary slip screen. This could have been a huge play by Pitt, since Penn State was in man coverage, with clear out routes towards the boundary, but Brown stepped up big.

There’s a reason Brown was available in the sixth round. While he’s a good athlete he’s a bit stiff in space and his change of direction laterally isn’t ideal, but he can quickly trigger downhill. He’s also a bit raw, but he has these brilliant flashes. Here, Brown reads the running back and quickly explodes towards an advantageous angle to avoid the blockers in space and hit the running back before he can turn upfield. Brown brings the hammer at the point of contact, and is a solid wrap up tackler. Being able to read, react, and then attack a ball carrier in space, with the game in such a pivotal moment, speaks to Brown’s ability to trust his eyes and come downhill.

Play 3: Penn State @ Illinois

Second quarter, 7:07, First-and-10

Can’t you tell Brown had a knack for coming up with big plays in big spots? Well, we see it again above. Illinois is on the goal line and they employ an RPO, with the main passing option to the field side. Brown is playing field nickel, and is blocked right off the snap. Brown feels the initial contact from the Illini wide receiver and quickly looks towards the quarterback to read the play. In doing so, Brown notices the tight end leaking out of the backfield, with the quarterback preparing to throw.

What’s supposed to be an easy touchdown turns into a forced fumble at the 1-yard line. Brown quickly disengages the block and fires aggressively at the ball to dislodge it from the tight end’s grasp. While a bit gangly, Brown brings so much violence at the point of contact, when he comes downhill. His stride allows him to cover so much ground when he plants and drives downhill, and he uses good vision through defenders to see offensive plays develop. This ability to cause turnover worthy plays will not only earn him playing time, but will also translate to special teams’ success, where his length can really be a difference maker.

Play 4: Penn State @ Iowa

Fourth quarter, 14:52, Second-and-10

Brown initially lines up over the receiver on the field side hash, with a safety directly behind him, which is usually a tell-tale sign of a blitz from the underneath defender. Brown squeezes down towards the line of scrimmage, insinuating a blitz. Once the ball is snapped, Brown has to set the edge against Alaric Jackson (77) who is one of the better BIG 10 tackles. Brown does an excellent job using his length to make initial contact, while maintaining a low center of gravity, and generating power through the ground and onto his opponent, albeit Jackson’s technique here is rather sloppy. Nevertheless, Brown gets underneath Jackson and forklifts the 320-pound man to the ground, while regathering himself to assist in the tackle for a loss. Brown has good play strength, and his technique isn’t always this proficient, but he certainly has it in his arsenal to stay low, balanced, and use his long arms to fend off blockers, while using his eyes to diagnose plays.

Play 5: Rutgers @ Penn State

Fourth quarter, 11:05, First-and-10

The Scarlet Knights come out in a pistol formation with 12 personnel, with both tight ends to the boundary, so Brown is the weak-side linebacker to the field. Looking to make a big play late in the game, Rutgers tries a flea-flicker, and judging by the safety biting into the box, they may have struck gold if it weren’t for Brown.

The patience that Brown displays on this play reveals the discipline in Brown’s game. Brown blitzes the B-Gap and has a clear shot at the running back, but he pulls up and waits for the running back to complete his motion. Watch Brown while he’s in the B-Gap, he stops to wait for the pitch to develop before aggressively exploding towards the quarterback, unabated. It seems like an easy play and an easy read, but things happen quickly while working through trash and Brown showed an impressive ability to wait and see what was developing. Brown is an effective blitzer, and Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry was not shy to blitz Brown from so many different formations and positions.

I can see Graham using Brown in the “Joker” role in certain third down packages, a role usually reserved for smaller defensive ends or bigger linebackers. Vince Biegel played that type of role for Graham last season, and he had 4 sacks and 34 total pressures on the season. I believe Brown will not be limited to this role, for he’s too versatile and there may be better options on the roster for the role, but I can see him being used in certain packages as a Joker. He’s a bit too stiff, and lacks pass rushing moves as a true pass rusher off the edge, but he can be used in this capacity in certain situations.

Things Brown can work on

Play 1: Iowa @ Penn State 2018

First quarter, 12:54, Second-and-5

A similar look to what we saw before against Minnesota, Brown initially lines up over the 6-Technique, before moving to the outside of the H-Back, only this time it’s a two-tight end formation and not a big tackle. The play is a quick jet-sweep to the motioning wide receiver, with T.J. Hockinson (38) and Noah Fant (87) (the two tight ends) lead blocking to the field. Brown does a really good job expanding to the far hash as the force defender, who’s job is to box the running back towards his teammates. While Brown is expanding, his teammate gets upfield pressure to force an inside spin by Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6). The safety, Nick Scott (4), is the alley defender, coming downhill to fill his run fit, but Brown stops on that hash, with two blockers to the outside. Hockinson is able to handle Brown with ease, while Fant and the Iowa receiver have a chance to theoretically create a wall for Smith-Marsette between the hash and the boundary; that’s a lot of space. Luckily, the Iowa receiver fails to block John Reid (29) and Reid is able to act as the secondary force defender. If the Iowa receiver was able to wash Reid inside, right after they disengaged, then this play could have been huge for Iowa. Brown gets blocked out, yes, but he’s able to force a wide bounce, giving his teammates time to rally to the football. Keeping the alley narrow restricts the space for Smith-Marsette to operate against Scott, so I really don’t want to hit Brown for that. However, I’ve seen small mistakes from Brown that should be discussed when talking about the continuity of a defense. His lack of ideal change of direction skills, with momentum, pose an issue in this area at times, especially against shiftier ball carriers.

Play 2: Pitt @ Penn State

Second quarter, 8:12, Second-and-goal

Pitt operates out of the shotgun, in a tight 2x2 stack, with the running back to the field, which is Brown’s side. Pitt runs a simple mesh concept, and the two receivers running the drags do a horrible job with their MUSH/MOSH responsibilities (Man Under/Man Over) and they run into each other. Penn State brings a five-man pressure package, so Brown initially follows the No. 2 receiver to see the depth of his inside breaking route, until he notices the running back on the wheel route, towards the field, where the No. 1 receiver attempted to clear out the deep third with a post route.

Reid, a very underrated corner, does a fantastic job not biting and staying home, forcing the quarterback to roll to the field. The running back angles inside, after being covered up by Brown, and the quarterback continues to roll, prompting Brown to come downhill. Brown has a little more than 8 yards of separation between himself and the quarterback, once he starts to come downhill. Brown covers the ground quickly but he gets high and wild at times in these situations, which we see here. Brown underestimates the quarterback’s scrambling ability, takes a poor angle, and doesn’t come to balance before the tackle attempt. He flies past the quarterback, allowing him to pick up an extra five yards. Brown struggles with consistency in his tackling mechanics as he can get wild, high, and lacks the quick change of direction skills to laterally move when he has a full head of steam. Like I wrote about earlier, he can be a bit stiff, and there’s a reason why such an intriguing prospect, who has flashed greatness, was around in the sixth round.

Final thoughts

Cam Brown looks more like a shooting guard in the NBA. He’s long, lean, and chiseled up. Linebackers aren’t supposed to look like him. I really do like this pick as Brown is a tough player who offers a quick trigger downhill, versatility, length, a huge tackle radius, and leadership. Yes, he can be a bit wild with his tackling mechanics, and his instincts in coverage aren’t great, but he’ll have a role with the Giants in 2020. Graham is the type of defensive coordinator who can get the most out of a player like Brown. Graham is smart, has employed a lot of unique second level defenders in the past, and was affiliated with the New England coaching tree, which seems to gravitate towards players like Brown, who may not be the perfect prospect, but can do important things for their respective teams. Graham knows how length closes throwing windows in the short to intermediate parts of the field for quarterbacks. If Brown develops a better feel for coverages, he could really find himself on the field earlier than most expect. I think he has the potential to earn a versatile role that can expand with development. But at the very least, he’s primed to be a special teams ace.