Special teams. For many teams around the NFL, those two words are indicative of the depth they’ve built, representing their primary means for developing late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents as they work their way up the depth chart. It’s a crucial part of the game and, especially for winning teams, it treated that way.
Not for the Los Angeles Chargers. By contrast, those two words – special teams – have served as something of a vulgar four-letter word for the Bolts, their coaches and their fans since Marty Schottenheimer was run out of town following a 14-2 season. Whether it was missed tackles, missed blocks, botched returns or shanked kicks, the team has routinely been betrayed by its not-so-special-teams time and time again with little relief in sight.
That may well be on it’s way to changing in a big way with the addition of undrafted free agent defensive back Tony Brown. A former five-star recruit at Alabama, Brown was the recipient of some early praise after an impressive rookie minicamp in May, where he stood out at corner, free safety and, of course, on special teams.
Much like with the subject of my last spotlight, Ben Johnson, Brown isn’t going to wow anyone with his college statistics. Tony appeared in 39 games over his four-year career in Tuscaloosa, recording 86 total tackles, four and a half tackles for loss, five pass breakups and three interceptions. Having said that, he did a lot of the dirty work on defense and special teams.
In my opinion, two big things stand out when you watch Tony Brown’s college tape. The first thing is obviously his blazing speed, as he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the combine and absolutely flies down the field. The second is his aggressive, physical demeanor. He clearly enjoys hitting people – punishing them, really – every chance he gets, and it shows up time and time again on tape.
There is no doubt in my mind that Tony is entering the league as an NFL-ready gunner with the ability to develop into a core special teams player in the mold of Kassim Osgood or Darrell Stuckey. In addition to his ability to blaze his way down the field, the undrafted corner also possesses an uncanny nose for the football and excels in pursuit. Few people are able to run away from him and he closes like a freight train. It’s fun to watch.
Brown was primarily used as a nickel and dime linebacker in Alabama’s sub packages. His primary function in that role was to provide run support from the slot and he attacked that role with vigor. Brown is quick to diagnose, flies downhill, uses his hands exceptionally well to keep himself clean, and punishes ball carriers. He also offers the added value of being a very effective blitzer.
In coverage, Tony shows some promise even if there are some holes in his game. He’s generally calm and collected, doesn’t panic when he gets beat early in a coverage rep, and, as you might expect, he exhibits electric closing and recovery speed. I also think he possesses some impressive ball skills despite a lack of ball production in college.
Though he possesses electric straight-line speed, Brown’s hips are exceedingly tight, making it difficult for him to suddenly change direction, transition out of his backpedal and adequately react to double moves. As a result, he frequently has a ton of ground to make up at the top of routes and spends a lot of time in a trail position. I’d also like to see his technique as a tackler cleaned up, but that’s the most easily cured of my concerns.
Unlike Ben Johnson, who probably should have been drafted at some point during the third day of the draft, Tony Brown went undrafted for good reason. In addition to the athletic shortcomings I mentioned earlier, he also faced a slew of disciplinary problems at Alabama. He was sent home prior to the team’s bowl game in 2015 and suspended by the NCAA in 2016 for what was presumed to be failed drug tests.
I suspect a position change may be in order for the speedy corner from Alabama. He’s probably too stiff to stick at corner and the team will want to put him in a position to come downhill as often as possible while also limiting his exposure to man coverage matchups against shifty and explosive NFL wide receivers in the slot.
A crowded and talented depth chart at both corner and safety may make for a complicated path to the 53-man roster. The Chargers have four corners who are assured of roster spots (Hayward, Verrett, Williams, and King), and a fifth, Michael Davis, who played well on special teams and flashed at corner in 2017. They also have a slew of safeties competing for what will likely be a maximum of five roster spots. At the end of the day, they might just run out of room for him.
The way I have it figured, Brown’s path to the active roster has to run through either Michael Davis or Adrian Phillips. While Davis is probably the most vulnerable of the two to being overtaken, Tony’s prowess as a nickel linebacker and on special teams could also pose a significant threat to Adrian Phillips, who enters the 2018 season on a one-year contract. Whether he winds up overtaking Phillips or Davis, one thing is certain: it will be on the strength of Brown’s special teams play.
Needless to say, the coaches could be faced with a difficult decision when picking the 53-man roster. Brown offers a rare combination of size, speed, and physicality, and there is no doubt the team will fall in love with his special teams play. Unfortunately for Tony, I think his positional uncertainty combined with some of his athletic limitations might make it difficult to carry him on the active roster right away. In any case, he should, at the very least, provide some special teams fireworks during the preseason.