Jatavis Brown is a dark horse to win a starting role for the Philadelphia Eagles.
He wasn’t the secondary savior set to finally fix the team’s perimeter perils (Darius Slay) or a 300-plus pound nose tackle with a rare ability to get after the quarterback as a plus interior rusher (Javon Hargrave). I believe I remember someone asking if Brown was nothing more than ‘L.J. Fort 2.0‘ – a question that isn’t really an insult, as Fort played very well for the Ravens last fall, but then again, he was also waived by the Eagles after Week 4 without logging a single defensive snap, so it’s hardly a compliment either.
However, after watching how Howie Roseman chose to attack the linebacker position during the draft, it’s clear that evaluation may be a tad shortsighted.
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Maybe Brown isn’t just another ‘buy-low’ linebacker who will all but certainly leave after an underwhelming tenure with the team, but instead, an under-appreciated coverage player who could split the difference between a strong safety and a weakside linebacker in base defensive packages.
If that’s the case, boy howdy could Brown be a steal.
Measuring in at 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, Brown looks a lot more like Patrick Chung than Bobby Wagner, and even with impressive measurables, as highlighted by a 4.47 40 at the 2016 Houston regional combine, he’s hardly a hit in every defensive scheme across the board.
All one has to do is look at his tenure with the Chargers to see what I mean.
From 2016-18, Brown was one of the more underrated linebackers in the AFC West, picking up 255 combined tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and 16 passes defensed on an average of 580 defensive snaps a season (roughly 55 percent). However, in 2019, Brown almost completely dropped out of Gus Bradley’s game plan – recording only 10 tackles on 92 defensive snaps (10 percent).
So, you may ask, what changed from 2018 to 2019? The Chargers had the same head coach and the same defensive coordinator.
Well, maybe Brown’s absence on the defensive side of the ball could have been due to a lingering Week 17 injury that limited his play early on. Maybe the Chargers’ newfound pension for fielding additional DBs simply made having Brown on the field unnecessary. But needless to say, when a 36-year-old free-agent addition is playing 713 more snaps than a homegrown linebacker coming off a career year in a career year, there has to be an issue.
Or, alternatively, maybe the Chargers just wanted to give a bump in playing time to their stable of young linebackers like Drue Tranquill, Uchenna Nwosu, and safety/linebacker hybrid Kyzir White across from Davis and Denzel Perryman.
Either way, Brown is coming to Philly at probably the lowest point value-wise of his career, with many openly assuming that he will be nothing more than a special teamer who plays a handful of snaps before quietly leaving for his third team in as many years next spring.
Or, hear me out, what if Brown actually wins out the Eagles’ weakside linebacker position outright and becomes one of the more versatile coverage linebackers in the NFC East?
Is that unlikely? Maybe so. It’s entirely possible the Eagles opt to run a big nickel package as their base defensive package in 2019 with a box safety like Will Parks playing across from Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards in the middle of the field.
If that happens, Brown is probably out of luck, barring him beating out Gerry of course.
Sidebar: Gerry was actually the Eagles’ most valuable linebacker in 2019 according to Pro Football Reference. That would make one assume that his spot is safe. The Eagles’ decision to add three more coverage linebackers without extending his contract past 2020, however, does not speak to an excess of confidence.
But then again, what if the Eagles want to kill two birds with one stone? What if they opt to go all-in on back-seven coverage while retaining a more traditional look without going full-on, one linebacker on every play regardless of down and distance? There, my friends, is where Brown could shine.
With safety speed and linebacker pop, Brown can move around the field with ease and cover a ton of ground when deployed in zone coverage. He can cover in the slot, cover running backs in space, and even drop the wood as a willing participant in the run game. Would Jim Schwartz want to put Brown ISO on a running back like Derreck Henry for 60-plus snaps in a game? No way, but that’s why teams have multiple players across their defensive front. Connor Barwin was used almost exclusively as a spy against Cam Newton in an Eagles-Panthers game in 2015 and he was the team’s best edge rusher at the time. If Brown can lock up a player like Jordan Matthews in the slot for an entire game than by all means keep it going, but if he can’t, why keep it going?
In the NFL, the best defensive coordinators find ways to put their players in situations to optimize their skills and hide their flaws, as opposed to forcing square pegs into round holes. Bill Belichick has practically made a part-time career out of taking misfits from other teams and making them stars in his system. While it would be unrealistic to expect Brown to become an All-Pro, do-it-all linebacker who never leaves the field, his ability to go sideline-to-sideline and make moves in coverage is certainly worth his one-year, $910,000 deal.
And really, who else is going to win the role? Of the two linebackers the Eagles added in the 2020 NFL Draft, Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, neither is particularly ready for the rigors of the NFL game. Both are relatively new to playing linebacker, have to improve their instincts, and would be better suited using the 2020 season as a red-shirt year to potentially compete for Brown and/or Gerry’s starting roles in 2021 and beyond. If the Eagles really weren’t confident in Brown’s abilities to play at a high level in 2020, they probably would have opted for a linebacker like Troy Dye, who is much more pro-ready than Taylor despite having a lower ceiling.
As crazy as it may sound, 26-year-old Brown is actually the most tenured and oldest linebacker on the Eagles’ roster, which is a rather biting indictment of Howie Roseman’s willful ignorance of the entre linebacker position.
Ultimately, we won’t know what Jim Schwartz and the Philadelphia Eagles have planned for the 2020 season until the 2020 season actually comes along later this fall. Jatavis Brown may play a ton as a do-it-all defensive weapon who can cover all over the field while defensive passing and tackling ball handlers for a loss at a near one-for-one clip, or he may be a glorified special teamer who leaves for a new team in 2021. Either way, Brown’s role has to be one of the more exciting storylines to follow this fall, regardless of how it turns out.