After a standout career at Troy, James Brown was ready to take that next step during the 2012 draft. Many analysts believed him to be one of the more athletic linemen in that class, yet his size (6-4, 306) left teams wondering what position he'd play in the pros. He's shorter than a typical NFL offensive tackle, yet lighter than your standard, mauling NFL guard.
That, combined with small-school-only experience, led to him falling out of the 2012 draft. The Chicago Bears, who did not select a single offensive lineman last year, were quick to snatch up Brown immediately following the draft. He made the practice squad coming out of training camp and was elevated to the active roster in Week 13.
Two weeks later, with injuries piling up along the offensive line, Brown was inserted as the starter at left guard. He started the final three games of the campaign yet, as one might expect from an inexperienced rookie, Brown struggled. He failed to get much push in the run game and was inconsistent in protection. In just three starts, he allowed two sacks. Extrapolate that over an entire season and Brown would have given up roughly 11 sacks, which would have been nearly twice as many as any other guard in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
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Yet both of those sacks came in one game, the Week 15 contest against the Packers. In Week 16 and Week 17 combined, Brown allowed zero sacks, zero QB hits and just one QB hurry. Those numbers show improvement, which is likely one of the reasons Chicago's new coaching staff was quick to insert Brown as the starter at right guard this offseason.
"James has done well," Bears assistant offensive line coach Pat Meyer told Bear Report at the conclusion of veteran minicamp. "He's learning. He's stepped in and done a nice job here in OTAs and minicamps. Being relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of the guys, he's going to need all the reps he can get."
Chicago's staff obviously feels Brown has made the most of those reps.
"James has ascended during camp," Marc Trestman said. "I've talked to [offensive coordinator] Aaron [Kromer] and Pat [Meyer] about that, almost each and every day, and he's locked in and he's grown as a player. He's got to face a heck of a defensive line every day and our defensive tackles, and that's enabled him to get better. It's everything he can handle each and every day and it brings out the best."
Brown played tackle in college and was used only on the left side last year, so right guard is a brand new position for him. As such, he was seen during voluntary minicamp working individually with Roberto Garza on his technique.
"Right now I'm having a little trouble with my stance," Brown told Bear Report "He's looking out for me. He's giving me some pointers. You can always learn from somebody that's been doing this a long time."
It's promising to see a young player seeking help from a veteran but the need for the extra attention gives us a glimpse as to how far Brown has to go. Let's face it, he's a second-year player who was active for just five games last season, one whom no NFL team felt fit to draft last offseason, whose playing a new position. Brown may have potential but he has a serious uphill climb ahead of him.
Which brings us to Brown's biggest obstacle this season: Kyle Long. Chicago's first-round draft pick wasn't able to attend OTAs or veteran minicamp due to an archaic NFL rule that forced Long to go back to Oregon for six weeks to graduate. As a result, Brown got the starting nod, but during training camp it's going to be a pure competition.
"We're going to most likely move [Long] inside to guard," said Meyer. "He hasn't been here the whole time so that's obviously been a disadvantage for him and for us. We'll work him in there. With Kyle coming in, there's going to be a couple of good battles up there."
Fortunately for Brown, Long has even less experience. In fact, Long was the most inexperienced player in this year's draft, having started just five Division I games in his collegiate career. And missing almost an entire offseason of workouts has put Long even farther behind.
Additionally, Brown's skill set should fit well in the new zone-blocking system being installed by Kromer. Brown's biggest asset is his ability to move, which is a key ingredient in a blocking scheme that relies on quick offensive linemen.
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Unfortunately for Brown, that is also Long's strongest ability as a player.
"Just to give you an idea, we do a lot of research on the athletic end of it," GM Phil Emery said during the draft. "Jim Arthur, one of our assistant strength coaches, does a tremendous job of correlating information and pulling all the history of that position together, where they were as athletes. It started with Rusty (Jones) and Bill Polian. It's called our athletic index score, or A-Score. [Long] is the highest, this guy is the number one offensive guard in the last 12 draft classes and that's as far back as we go. He rates as rare. In our scale, nine is rare. He rates as rare.
"I think he was about fifth all-time. Fifth or sixth in the last twelve years, so we're looking at, again, a very rare athlete for his height, weight, speed. You don't find these guys often."
And when asked what stood out about Long, Emery again cited his athleticism.
"His agility, his lateral agility, he has very good feet," said Emery. "There isn't a movement playing where this guy doesn't impress you."
Also working against Brown is the fact the team wants Long to start right away.
"He's got to earn his way just like all the players do but we see a player that's going to contribute right away," Emery said. "Despite his limited time at Oregon, he was a starter at the end of the season. He did very well. His Senior Bowl was excellent. I thought he was the best offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl so we expect him to contribute right away."
Is James Brown a starting offensive lineman? That remains to be seen but there's no denying all the factors stacked against him. He's going to have to show substantial development in training camp to prove he's starter worthy.
Will Brown be the Bears' first-team right guard in Week 1 this year? At this point, that appears unlikely. There is plenty of time for Brown to change that but he's got some tough sledding ahead of him if he's going to emerge from Bourbonnais as a key contributor this season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.