NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans rookie linebacker Jayon Brown might have made the play of the game Saturday against Carolina, even if it didn't show up on the stat sheet. His teammates refused to let him glow about it.
Brown dropped back in coverage, in between underneath and over-the-top crossing routes. A small bite at the short route led Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson to attempt to squeeze it over Brown's head to tight end Greg Olsen. Brown's instincts took over, he got deeper in his drop and leaped to tip the ball, which landed perfectly in the hands of Titans linebacker Justin Staples for an interception.
On the field, there were smiles and high-fives for Brown and Staples. On the sideline, the veterans let Brown hear it.
"They were clowning me for my vertical," the 6-foot, 226-pound Brown said. "They said if I jumped higher I could have picked it off. So I've got to get some hops."
It's a sign of respect for Brown and a little rookie razzing, the veterans promise, although they did mention his subpar 31½-inch vertical at the NFL combine. They know Brown brings something the Titans' linebacker room hasn't had in a while.
"They’re all like big brothers," said Brown, who has an effusive personality. "They’re role models for me."
Every week, Brown flashes his ability with an interception, a great pass breakup or simply consistent assignment football.
The 2017 fifth-round pick out of UCLA was labeled as an undersized coverage linebacker without the physicality or strength to keep up with the big boys. Two preseason games in, Brown has done more than hold his own.
"I'm not really surprised, but I'm pleased about all that he can do," outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "Everybody knew he could cover because of his speed, but his open-field tackling caught my eyes. He's been impressive. We're going to need him a lot this season."
The Titans plan to put a lot on Brown's plate this season, giving him opportunities as the top nickel linebacker, a key base-defense substitution and a core special-teams player. It's the life of a rookie who exceeds expectations, and he's handled it well.
Brown immersed himself in the playbook this spring and now he's just fine-tuning the details. Titans coach Mike Mularkey hasn't gone more than a few days without mentioning Brown's name in post-practice news conferences. He's neck-and-neck with cornerback Adoree' Jackson as the Titans' most impressive rookie.
"Jayon has shown that he can be an every-down player for you," Mularkey said.
Williamson added: "Very athletic, man. He’s got a knack for the ball. He’s got a good burst. He can get to the ball fast."
Brown is careful not to get big-headed at all the praise. While he's had a strong summer, Brown admits the NFL has smacked him in the mouth a few times during practice. He vividly remembers being badly beaten on a route crisply run by tight end Delanie Walker, getting turned around in a circle while defending running back David Fluellen in one-on-ones and getting destroyed by left tackle Taylor Lewan during a drill.
Late-round gems often separate non-playoff teams from contenders. Brown already appears to have the makings of one.