Tales from the SunnySide:
Changing Formations and the Rise of Cody Brown
The change to a 3-4 alignment has become increasingly popular in the NFL, as have integrating the hybrid formations (Link). There are several reasons: Although their roots are several decades old, like all alignments, they are most recently emerging in response to the increasingly complex offenses and to rule changes that favor the offense.
Like every approach, they have strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths is the availability of linebackers who are otherwise ‘tweeners' - those who are too big for the more-traditional 4-3 formations, yet who lack the size and strength for the 4-3 DE position, much less the two-gap 3-4. Our colleges turn out many of these players each year, and with the growing 3-4 movement, the best of them can have a solid career in the NFL. And that's where Cody Brown comes in.
UConn has always been associated with basketball. It's a rare year that their roundball team doesn't place in the Sweet 16 during March Madness. The first time Coach Mike Zimmer, who was this year's defensive coordinator for the Senior Bowl's North squad saw Cody in his UConn helmet he asked, wryly, "I guess UConn isn't just a basketball school anymore, right?" Joining Cody in Mobile were his teammates CB William Beatty and OT Darius Butler. UConn has dedicated to upgrading its football program.
While the bigger linebacker has long been a trademark of the two-gap Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 system, in the modern NFL you can find them in the 4-3 and the many hybrid systems, which including the 4-3 under and over approaches (Link). A big, powerful linebacker who is sometimes called a ‘rush' linebacker, one whose main job is to rush the passer in situational formations has become a standard in the game. What's pushing this change is the increase in precise formations, tailored to the exact down, yardage and players that you are facing. This is a central piece of the NFL evolution - every time an improvement is made, several are made to counter. You don't need to look farther than the LeBeau 3-4 or the Arizona hybrid defenses from this year's Super Bowl to get an inkling of how this is playing out.
HT told us, "The Phillips is more aggressive that the Bullough. The school of thought for the Phillips 3-4 is the need to pressure against the QB to stop the pass threat, and this is done by varying who the "fourth rusher" (who is really a blitzer) is. Add another blitzer in here and there, and the speedy/aggressive Phillips system is a threat to QBs, and attempts to get turnovers by slashing the time that a QB has to make decisions." (Link)
You can also add a bigger blitzer to this base, one-gap system, as well as using them in the two-gap and the hybrid under and over formations. One of the hallmarks of successful NFL coaches is adapting their scheme to the personnel they have, and that brings us back to Cody Brown.
Cody Brown was the first true freshman to start a game in UConn's young Division 1 football era. Playing there at DE, he went on to have 20 tackles, with 5 for a loss his frosh year, and added a sack to his numbers. He started his sophomore year with 24 tackles, 7.5 of them for a loss and 4.5 sacks before breaking his arm and ending his season. He came back for his junior year healthy and energized and tallied 50 tackles, 16.5 for a loss with 7.5 sacks. His senior season increased those numbers to 55 tackles, 15 for a loss, and a career high of 11 sacks.
At 6'3 and 250 lbs (note: nfldraftscout.com (Link) has him listed as 6'2 and 242 lbs - there is substantial disagreement on the sites between 6'2 and 6'3 and 240 - 250 lbs), Cody runs the 40 in 4.70 time (Again, sites disagree: from 4.68 to 4.80). The nfldraftcountdown.com ranked him in the top 10 among DEs but Yahoo.com has him listed as 6th among the OLB who have declared for the NFL. A few short years ago, he might have slipped through the NFL cracks, but with the growing development of precise situational formations, he will have a good shot at a productive NFL career. I've seen him projected between the 3rd and 5th rounds - not bad for a lightweight former DE (who could still be productive in a 4-3 situational rusher placement) with zero experience in his projected position. After checking several sites, I found him listed as the 6th through the 9th overall-rated OLB.
Cody Brown hasn't pulled anyone from a burning building of late. He hasn't been seen pulling a pickup truck although several sites noted that he will need to keep increasing his strength, so you never know. He's just a very happy, cheerful guy who said of his NFL dreams, "I haven't even thought about it that much. I just usually laugh about it." He is a very nasty player on the field, though. He claims that his nastiness comes from "nerves", but adds, "I'm being well coached."
He has a player's knack for being in the right place at the right time. In just his second career game, he showed great promise by making four tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a sack, while also forcing a fumble against Liberty (Sep. 10, 2005) In a hard-fought game against Rutgers this October, he ended one drive by sacking the quarterback and followed that by blocking a punt, permitting running back Donald Brown to run for 30 yards and the score. (Link)
Cdsdraft.com noted, "Looks a bit like Lawrence Taylor in brief flashes of time. One of the best DEs in a tough Big East Conference."
Since his freshman year, Cody has been in the right place at the right time on the playing field. He forced 5 fumbles his senior year and it's been getting him noticed by teams including Dallas, Jacksonville, Oakland, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the New York Jets. Cdsdraft.com calls him relentless, but adds that they see him as "untested and perhaps too stiff in the hips to be anything but a 4-3 DE candidate." Yet they project him no later than the 5th round, and most have him in the 3rd (Ibid)
The Sporting News, who is higher on Brown, noted: "It's uncommon for a prospect switching positions to generate such a high grade, but he is a top athlete whose speed, change of direction ability and competitiveness rank right up there with most NFL starting outside linebackers. He would fit best as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme but would also be a solid defensive end in a 4-3 scheme that prioritizes pass-rush and pursuit skills."
Brown graded from 7.0 on point of attack strength to 8.5 on pass-rush skills with them. He's graded very high for someone that few casual fans outside of UConn have heard about. But pro scouts have watched him, live and on film, and his future in the game looks bright. The nfl.com draft/combine profile (Link) said,
"His athleticism should allow him to make a successful transition. Denied all-Big East honors in 2007, despite 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, because of the talent in the conference. Conference coaches were right to acknowledge his 2008 production, however, and did so, granting Brown first-team accolades after his 55 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and five forced fumbles made him arguably the conference's most explosive defender. Brown wasn't asked to take part in linebacker drills while at the Senior Bowl, but showed the quick feet and change-of-direction agility teams want to see. Brown could quietly rise up draft boards as the draft approaches." The newnfldraft.com has him going to San Diego at #78.
I tend to believe Scott Wright, and draftcountdown.com was even more effusive. He said,
A fantastic athlete...Good speed with a burst to close...Quick and agile...Excellent mobility and range...Fluid and smooth...Great change of direction skills...Does a nice job in space...Uses his hands well...Tough and competitive...Has special teams potential...Versatile with some experience at linebacker ... Solid intangibles ... Productive" (Link)
Yet, despite his qualities and attributes, one of the most interesting things about Cody Brown is that he's not entirely unique. In fact, there are players like him throughout the college ranks. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but they have one thing in common.
We're all familiar with the need for ‘perspective' that leads many scouting reports to consistently find negatives (and positives) that won't emerge in the players' professional game. Cody has those, and I linked to them throughout this piece. Yet, what makes Cody Brown special is best demonstrated by listening to Coach Josh McDaniels, who recently noted that the Broncos are looking for players who have a key buzzword in the NFL - versatility. Nfl.com noted, "A hybrid defense needs players big enough to meet power with power, yet quick enough to run sideline to sideline." (Link) It's fair money that the Broncos will need that in the next year.
The Broncos aren't alone. If you can run several defensive formations with the same players you have on the field, you can make the opposing team respond to you. If you can dictate their approach, you're more than halfway to winning both the battle and the game. Brown provides the potential for that skill. Along with a nose for the ball and an attitude on the field, it makes him an excellent candidate for the modern professional game.