How a diet helped turn Preston Brown into NFL's leading tackler

The NFL's leader in tackles for 2017 was not Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner, the pair of perennial Pro Bowlers who both can lay claim to being the NFL's best linebacker.

It was Preston Brown, the Buffalo Bills’ third-round pick in 2014 who enters unrestricted free agency in March having topped the league with 144 tackles this past season -- 83 solo and 61 assisted.

Durability has never been a concern for Brown, who said by phone last week that he has only missed four games during his entire football career. But 2017 proved to be a transformative year for Brown, who partly attributes his uptick in production to a decision he made on his own last offseason to shed about 10 pounds and attempt to play faster.

"I think it definitely helped throughout the course of the season. I never had any nagging little injury, hamstring or something like that," he said. "I think I had more success, more tackles, just being able to have more energy later in the game."

Brown, 25, played this past season in the "low 240s," down from his listed weight of 251 pounds. Losing the weight meant cutting out the candy he would stash in his hoodie during practices, as well as hiring a live-in personal chef to prepare him healthier meals.

For the first three years of his professional career, eating healthy meant ordering wraps from the Wendy's near the Bills' practice facility in Orchard Park, New York.

"It wasn’t [healthy]. It’s not good," Brown said last week. "[Now] I’m eating salads and greens, all the fruit and vegetable stuff I should have been eating instead of stopping by a drive-thru."

Brown's performance apparently was not lost on coach Sean McDermott, whose core message after being hired last year was respecting the everyday process that goes into winning games.

"In the exit meeting [after Buffalo's playoff loss to Jacksonville], coach made it sound like they wanted me back," Brown told ESPN. "He said some things that sounded like that. But you never know what’s going to happen during free agency. I would love to go back to Buffalo. That’s the No. 1 choice for me."

Brown was on the field for 1,098 of 1,108 defensive snaps this past season, a 99.1 percent playing-time rate that led Bills defenders. He also led Buffalo's defense in playing 99.4 percent of snaps in 2016, 98.2 percent of snaps in 2015 and 93.8 percent of snaps in 2014.

Brown has played in all 64 regular-season games since he entered the NFL, starting every game except two during his first two months as a rookie. Since Brown supplanted then-Bills veteran linebacker Keith Rivers as a consistent starter in 2014, he has worn the radio-equipped helmet to relay defensive play calls to his teammates.

"That’s my main thing I love to do, just seeing guys grow around me," he said. "There’s so many players that have been on this defense that have gotten better since they’ve come through here."

The players around Brown have not been all that has changed. He began his NFL career playing outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme under then-coach Doug Marrone. Brown shifted to middle linebacker in coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman's hybrid scheme in 2015, then to inside linebacker when Thurman, Rex Ryan and his brother Rob Ryan ran a 3-4 system in 2016.

McDermott tapped Brown as his middle linebacker this past season in a 4-3 scheme run by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

"I really liked the 4-3 scheme, back to doing that, having fun with the guys," Brown told ESPN. "I think it was a good fit for me. So hopefully they think it was a good fit as well. I don’t really know how things are gonna go. But I had fun last year and hope I can continue."

Brown said he would welcome the chance to re-sign with Buffalo before free agency opens March 14. How Brown is valued on the open market remains to be seen. While his tackles have increased each of his four seasons, Brown has not recorded an interception since 2015 and has three total in his career. He also has two career forced fumbles and one sack.

In comparison, Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley had two interceptions and three forced fumbles this past season, Kuechly had three interceptions and one forced fumble, and Wagner had two interceptions. All three were voted to the Pro Bowl.

Brown attributes his lack of sacks to him rarely being assigned to pass rush, but he contends he is better in coverage than some might think.

"People want to say, ‘liability,’ and all that stuff, but if I was a liability, if I’m the offensive coordinator, I would throw at me every third down and every time in the red zone. I haven’t given up a touchdown since my rookie year," he told ESPN. "You want to say I’m a liability, but if I had four more interceptions, they wouldn’t say that. So it’s just all about getting those numbers.

"The ball needs to bounce my way a little bit more than it has. I need to catch it when I have the opportunity. That’s the biggest thing. When you have interceptions, there’s a difference. All it takes is a few plays and it shows you can be a playmaker out there. ... Being smaller and stuff like that can help me to get to those plays and help me run a little faster to get there."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brown is the NFL's second-leading tackler since entering the NFL in 2014. His 504 total tackles on defense are second only to Wagner, with 518, and among good company: Kuechly ranks third with 498, Tampa Bay's Lavonte David ranks fourth with 481 and Mosley is fifth with 469.

"When you’re one of the top tacklers in the league, I think it says something," Brown told ESPN. "Everybody wants to say, ‘They're all the way down the field,’ and all that. But you got to tackle them eventually or they will just score."