Zach Brown keeps his focus as NFL draft approaches
The physical gifts and athleticism have never been in question.

When he was a student at Wilde Lake High School, Zach Brown mastered a presidential physical fitness test by completely clearing a 9-foot mat that was rolled out to measure his broad jump. While at the University of North Carolina, Brown joined the indoor track team after football season and set a school record by running 60 meters in 6.72 seconds.

Then, there was the time he walked back into the Tar Heels' football weight room after missing a week of conditioning because of an illness, and lifted and squatted "400 and 500 something," according to North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick.

"Guys thought every time he didn't work out or he was sick, he would somehow come back stronger," Reddick said. "He's just naturally strong and naturally fast. Once you get him going, you're not going to be able to stop him."

Brown is 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds and clocked a 4.5 40 time at the NFL Combine despite stumbling slightly out of the blocks. His combination of size, speed and natural ability has the outside linebacker primed to become the earliest local athlete to be taken in this week's NFL draft, which starts with Thursday night's first round.

Brown and his family and friends will watch the draft at a party at the Green Turtle in Columbia, anxiously awaiting the announcement of his name and the revelation of his future NFL home.

"The [draft] process feels kind of long," said Brown, who was born in South Carolina but moved to Howard County when he was in elementary school . "At the end of the day, it's like, 'Where am I going to?' I just want to play ball. That's all I really want to do, but I'm going to be really nervous because I don't know what is going to happen."

Nor seemingly does anybody else. Brown, 22, has become one of the more polarizing prospects in the draft. Some pundits focus on his size and athleticism and believe that he will be an impact player in the NFL. Others question his instincts and work ethic, and openly wonder whether his game will transfer well to Sundays.

"I just don't think he's ever defined exactly what he's going to be at the pro level," said ESPN draft guru and Baltimore native Mel Kiper Jr. "I've said all along, I think [South Carolina wide receiver] Alshon Jeffery, on the offensive side, presents a difficult evaluation at least for me and Zach Brown for me as well. Both will be second round picks probably, but [it's] very tough to project how they're going to fit in on the pro level. I've been kind of all over the place on Brown in terms of trying to figure him out, and I don't know to this day if I have."

Brown hasn't exactly been on the NFL radar for very long. He wasn't even a full-time starter at North Carolina until his senior season. Before then, he played in the shadows of all-Atlantic Coast Conference linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter. But that changed in 2011 when Brown led the Tar Heels with 105 total tackles, including 13 1/2 for losses. He also added three interceptions, 5 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles, fully establishing himself as a legitimate NFL prospect.

While he's shown the ability to track down pretty much any running back and he's faster than most of the cornerbacks in the upcoming draft, Brown hasn't been able to outrun some skepticism leading into the draft.

"I'm not as impressed with Zach Brown as most of the league is," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who projects Brown to go in the third round. "I guess the most impressive attribute he has is obvious, which is his speed. From a height, weight, speed perspective, he's a first-round pick. When you watch the tape, he makes a lot of plays, but they are almost all in space. If he diagnoses a screen pass, and drives on it between the guard and tackle, he looks beautiful. However, any time a big body gets on him, actually any time anybody gets on him, his feet stop and he's not physical at all. I don't see the toughness and the physicality. He's a run and chase linebacker that's going to make plays with his speed. But I think he's going to get enveloped by [everybody]."

Brown knows that the scrutiny is all part of the draft process, which has seen him bounce from city-to-city for workouts and interviews with a multitude of NFL teams, including the Ravens. Brown met with John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens' coaching staff and he said that being back in Maryland to play professional football would be "pretty cool."

The Ravens aren't viewed as the best fit for Brown because they play a hybrid 3-4 defense, while most analysts believe that Brown is best suited in the pros to play a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 alignment. Brown, however, feels that he'll flourish in any system.

At the combine, he exuded confidence, saying that he possesses the ability to overpower offensive linemen and the speed to cover the NFL's top tight ends, like Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley. But if you want to get Brown to bristle, mention that there are some questions about his work ethic.

"A lot of people are asking about my work ethic and I always say, 'How am I a lazy player when I led the team in tackles the past two years and my numbers jumped this year?,'" Brown said. "How can you consider that lazy? I showed up on Saturdays and in practice and I knew the whole defense. It's crazy that you say somebody that did all that is lazy."

The work ethic questions also don't resonate with those he played with and for at North Carolina. Reddick said that Brown was "going to give you full speed at all times."

"Other people make a lot of noises, like ahh, ahh, all that type of stuff," Reddick said. "They make it look harder than it actually is. With Zach, he's going to do it and he's going to go hard, but he's going to make it look easy because he's so talented."

Former Tar Heels linebacker coach and current Texas Tech defensive coordinator Art Kaufman remembers Brown arriving in Chapel Hill after a year of prep school at Hargrave Military Academy as a raw and inexperienced player who relied almost solely on his athletic skills.