As a crowd gathered around Marshal Yanda’s locker one day after he’d been named to his eighth Pro Bowl, Orlando Brown Jr. sat at his locker just a few seats to the right and reflected.
He’d been named a Pro Bowl alternate in just his second year in the NFL and first full year as a starting right tackle. Just a few lockers down, the 35-year-old Yanda was asked about what his eighth Pro Bowl meant to him as he lauded his teammates and the organization.
Brown sat at his locker and, with two weeks left to play in the season and the Ravens at 12-2, expressed his displeasure with how he’d played of late.
“Obviously it’s an honor, but I’m not playing my best ball right now,” he explained. “I could work a lot harder in the offseason, and I will. It’s special to be honored by my coaches and peers, but in the long haul, I’m going to just continue to get better and continue to get better as a player.”
But Brown’s journey and work ethic didn’t start with this season, or even his rookie campaign in 2018. It started in Norman, Oklahoma, where the 6-foot-8 tackle joined a Sooners program without much direction.
“When he first got to Oklahoma, he was super overweight,” Mark Andrews, Brown’s former and current teammate, said. “He was soft, honestly, he’ll tell you that himself. He wasn’t very good.”
What Brown did have, however, was a knowledge of where he needed to go, and what he needed to do to get there.
“But he had a good mindset,” Andrews continued. “For a guy like that, that’s all you need. He’s got a ferocious mindset. When he steps on the field, he’s a completely different person. Throughout the years, that’s grown more and more.”
Brown entered Oklahoma weighing about 400-pounds and without much endurance to play consistently well for long stretches of time. Both Andrews and Brown’s offensive line coach at Oklahoma, Bill Bedenbaugh, recalled, ‘Freshman Friday’s’ where the Sooners would have the young members of the team scrimmage against one another. Brown started fights constantly those days.
“Coach (Bob) Stoops would stop him just because he’d start fights,” Bedenbaugh said. “Which, I loved the mentality, we just kind of had to hone it in.”
The mentality was there, it just took time for Brown to get there. Slowly, he got his weight down and after his first two years at Oklahoma, he became the key fixture at left tackle for one of the nation’s preeminent programs.
Alongside Ben Powers, also currently on the Ravens, the left-side of Oklahoma’s offensive line caved people in constantly and led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in the 2017 season.
“We just dominated our opponent to the best of our ability, play in and play out,” Powers said. “We approached it with that same mindset everytime walked to the line that we were going to put someone in the dirt.”
Brown’s physicality and stature on the Oklahoma offensive line led him to be considered by some as a first-round prospect in a loaded 2018 draft class for offensive linemen. It was his mindset that got him there.
“I think your mentality is the most important thing about being a good player,” Bedenbaugh said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt. When you’re at this level or that level, everybody has a lot of the physical traits that you need. What separates you is the mentality.”
Taking into account Brown’s size, and play, the player that walked onto Oklahoma’s campus as a freshman was totally different than the one that left campus years later. Brown weighed 50 pounds less and the personal foul penalties and fights were out of his system.
“If you would’ve saw him when he got here as opposed to when he left, you wouldn’t have thought it was the same person,” Bedenbaugh said.
After Brown declared for the draft, he had another obstacle to overcome: the NFL Combine. And there, Brown put forth maybe the worst combine performance of all time. His numbers were, objectively, terrible.
Brown has repeatedly said to watch the film instead, that that gives a better representation of who he was as a player in college. NFL teams sided with what happened in Indianapolis.
“In my mind, there’s no question who should’ve been the first tackle taken,” Andrews said. “It's just who he is as a person, who he is as a football player. How he plays with tenacity, there’s just no one else like it. Despite his combine and all that stuff, and all the people around the NFL want to dock him for that, that’s just a way to give him less money than he deserved.”
Because of his poor combine performance, the player everyone thought could be a first-round pick slid to the third round where he was picked by the Ravens in an increasingly infamous 2018 draft class. He was picked by the same team his late-father, also named Orlando, played for for six seasons.
Despite his fall, Brown kept working and set out to be one of the best tackles in the NFL.
“It was very important to him, he always had a goal of being the best player here and being one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL,” Bedenbaugh said. “It was really an impressive turnaround that you don’t see in a lot of people.”
Now, he’s one of the bookend tackles on the best team in football, the unit that recently broke the NFL’s record for rushing yards in a season.
Brown knows, however, there’s still work to do.
“Just a lot of different things, movement skills especially, finishing blocks better and really just being as consistent as possible in my fundamentals,” Brown said. “I’m still growing as a player, I’m not there yet, hopefully the top is a lot closer than I think it is.”
He’s started 16 games this season after having started 10 in his rookie campaign and has been a force on the right side of the offensive line next to Yanda.
It’s not the end of the line for Brown, undoubtedly, but it’s been an impressive journey from a freshman tackle in college with objectively a lot to work on, to a Pro Bowl alternate who says he’s still got a ways to go.
“He's a hard-working kid,” Yanda said. “He's a great kid. He loves football. He loves being a part of it, loves the camaraderie of the guys. I'm happy to play next to him. He's really improved in his second year and just taken that next step for sure.”
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