Why Brown is on the list
Brown is not the player you think he is. Or at least the player so many draft analysts saw before the Tennessee Titans drafted Brown in the second round in 2012. One writer said Brown had "pillow hands" because of his inability to get off blocks. The phrase "allergic to contact" was used, and Brown's lack of toughness widely was questioned. But that Zach Brown didn't show up on the film I watched.
The Brown I watched didn't look like a rookie. He knew his assignments and was asked to perform a variety of roles as the starting weak-side linebacker. He covered tight ends, running backs and even occasionally wide receivers. He knifed through the line of scrimmage to find ball carriers. And, yes, he took on blockers.
More importantly, Brown's lack of physicality did not get in the way of his other plus attributes. The NFL increasingly is a passing down league, and the Titans were comfortable leaving Brown on the field all three downs. He was very good on passing downs, an observation backed up by ProFootballFocus, which ranked Brown No. 9 among all 4-3 outside linebackers in coverage (out of 43.)
Brown is known for his speed, and he uses that speed to cover a lot of ground. I doubt many linebackers made more tackles from sprinting down the field to clean up mistakes by teammates.
Playing in Tennessee will keep Brown's profile relatively low. There aren't many other good reasons why Brown couldn't bust out as a big name in Year 2. He was not a great blitzer, although it was not for lack of effort. Yes, he gets washed out of plays sometimes. It happens to weak-side linebackers. Yes, he darts through the wrong hole occasionally and gets out of position. But it did not seem out of character for an NFL starter, much less a rookie.
The flip side of guessing wrong occasionally: Brown also made a lot of instinctive plays while darting through traffic to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Avoiding blockers when it's possible is what a good weak-side linebacker does. It's his job.
The Titans have the makings of a very intriguing linebacker group, especially if middle linebacker Colin McCarthy can stay healthy. Akeem Ayers should start on the strong side and third-round draft pick Zaviar Gooden should come off the bench. But Brown has the most potential of the group to become a special player. With a year under his belt, look for Brown to play even faster.
He's the type of player who can cover Brandon Marshall occasionally in space and make an open-field tackle. He's the type of player who can fake a blitz up the middle, drop into coverage and make an interception. Brown is very much a linebacker built to play in today's NFL.