Illinois’ defense was first in the FBS in points allowed (12.3) and second in yards allowed per game (263.8). Not impressed? They were also tied for the fewest passing touchdowns conceded (eight) while snatching the most interceptions (22).
By all metrics, they were a soul-crushing unit, and one player who deserves much of the credit is safety Sydney Brown. While CB Devon Witherspoon receives most of the NFL Draft hype from the Fighting Illini secondary, Brown’s scouting report highlights a player worthy of early-round capital.
Sydney Brown NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Safety
- School: Illinois
- Current Year: Redshirt Senior
- Height/Weight: 5’10”, 211 pounds
- Length: 31 1/2″
- Hand Size: 10 1/4″
Football runs in Brown’s (and his twin brother Illinois RB Chase’s) blood. His father, Darren Isaac, played for three seasons in the CFL. Originally from London, Ontario, Canada, Brown transferred to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal High School in Florida prior to his junior year.
In his two seasons there, he racked up 132 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and one forced fumble. But Brown wasn’t just a football star. He finished as a state finalist in the 400m, 4x400m, and 4x100m during his senior year.
As a three-star recruit, Brown decided to take his talents to Illinois, where he became a defensive mainstay for his entire career. Outside of four missed games due to injury (two each in 2019 and 2020), Brown started in 51 of the 52 games he played.
And he saved his best for last, recording six INTs (second most in the nation), seven PBUs, 59 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one sack last season. As you’d expect from such a season, the accolades rolled in for Brown: USA Today second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), and invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
Sydney Brown Scouting Report
After showcasing his skill set at the Senior Bowl, Brown continued his dominant pre-draft run by incinerating the Combine. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash (fourth among safeties), hit 23 reps in the bench press (second), and jumped 10’10” in the broad jump (second) and 40 1/2″ in the vertical (third).
During the season, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema compared Brown to two-time NFL All-Pro Bob Sanders, who he coached at Iowa, and their size and athletic measurables certainly match up. Bielema also added, “Sydney is one of the signal-callers for one of the best defenses in the country.”
Bielema could’ve taken it a step further. Brown is one of the best safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft class. And his scouting report explains why.
- Vastly experienced in multiple roles as a five-year starter (700+ snaps in the box, slot, and deep safety).
- Owns a compact, well-built, maxed-out frame.
- Patient vs. the run, has the flexibility to dip under blocks, can flow gap to gap, and can wretch down blocks from TEs and OTs reaching beyond their center of gravity.
- Explosive linear athlete with impressive closing burst.
- Physical, downhill thumper — able to lay bone-crushing hits over the middle.
- Possesses special-teams experience that buoys his ability to contribute from Day 1 (punt return, punt coverage, and field-goal block).
- Instinctual with good reactive athleticism.
- Showcased ball skills with 10 career INTs (six in 2022), routinely playing through opposing pass catcher’s hands.
- Effective blitzer up the middle or crashing around the edge.
- Easily knifes through gaps, meeting unsuspecting ball carriers before they reach daylight.
- High energy defender that keeps his head on a swivel in coverage, always looking for work.
- Quickly rotates to deep zones from the box and is good at disguising coverages from the slot, feigning a zone-drop look before squaring up in man coverage.
Areas for Improvement
- Despite starting five years, he only had one season of dominant production/tape (2022).
- Nearly 18% missed-tackle rate during collegiate career (per PFF) — shorter length limits open-field tackling, occasionally leaves his feet too early, and his big-hit mentality forces him to lower his head and take some improper angles.
- Can overpursue passes, leading to yards after that catch — will run to where the ball was instead of where it was going.
- Not especially fluid and can be clunky flipping his hips/changing directions (notably did not test in the three-cone or short shuttle).
- Quicker athletes can give him trouble in man coverage, and he doesn’t have the height/length to matchup vs. NFL TEs.
- Doesn’t have the size to take on blocks in the box — will be washed out by NFL linemen.
- Sometimes presses too wide vs. outside runs, allowing cutback lanes.
- Inconsistent in his catch technique in coverage — WRs can throw off his arms, rendering him off balance.
Illinois S Sydney Brown Current Draft Projection
As you may have noticed, there is a lot to like with Brown’s scouting report, but he isn’t a perfect prospect. Still, while his size and length will drop him down some teams’ boards, I believe he has a versatile enough skill set that every franchise could use his services in the secondary.
Whether primarily deployed as a slot defender or split-field safety, Brown has the physical tools defensive coordinators can get creative with. He’ll never be a true tight end eraser, but he isn’t afraid to bring the fight to bigger-bodied pass catchers.
MORE: 2023 NFL Draft Big Board
Due to his quantifiably elite athleticism and tantalizing production last season (given the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league), I’d be surprised if Brown lasted until Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft. It’s far more likely he’ll hear his name called sometime in Round 2.
Brown’s football journey has taken him from Canada to Florida to Illinois. Although he doesn’t know where his next destination will be, he’s already booked a one-way ticket to the NFL — and his twin brother is right there with him.
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