Texas' Malcom Brown is the top interior defender available in the 2015 NFL draft.
Forget Washington's Danny Shelton. Worry about Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips a little later in the first round. Florida State's Eddie Goldman doesn't quite fit the bill.
USC's Leonard Williams, of course, will have something to say about the previous assertion, but he almost falls into his own category as a talent that transcends scheme after primarily playing defensive end (or 5-technique) in the Trojans' system. He also owns enough natural athleticism to play end or tackle in the NFL.
Brown, though, was overlooked this past season because of the Longhorns' continued mediocrity on the gridiron. It wasn't hard to notice him when Texas games were viewed with a more critical eye.
The defensive tackle exhibits four key traits—size, athleticism, technique and production—that not only make him one of the top defensive line prospects but a potential top-10 pick too.
The overall emphasis in this year's class has been placed on the edge-rushers and rightfully so due to the sheer amount of talent at that particular position. But NFL teams place a heavy emphasis on a much harder to find quality—the ability to collapse the pocket and rush the passer from the interior. Those are truly rare commodities.
A team's best athletes usually aren't lining up at defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. Those players are generally considered run defenders who can be taken off the field in sub-packages against the pass. Brown is a rare exception.
Brown is a bear of a man at 6'2" and 319 pounds. He is stout at the point of attack, but he also claims one of the quickest first steps among those down linemen available in April's entry draft.
“Love his size," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said, via the Akron Plain Dealer's Nate Ulrich. "He’s stout versus the run. He can push the edge, push the pocket. Started his final 27 games, I believe. Married with two kids. Everything kind of fits. He’s a low-risk investment and a really good football player.”
The reason why Brown is both good against the run and able to rush the passer is twofold.
First, the defensive tackle uses his hands very well. It's a lost art for some defensive linemen trying to enter the NFL ranks.
Brown isn't an immovable wall along the middle of the defense, but he is adept at getting off blocks.
Texas faced the Arkansas Razorbacks in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl at the end of last season. Arkansas' offensive line is pound-for-pound the biggest in all of football. Brown wasn't overwhelmed though. He was one of the few Longhorns who actually showed up to play that night.
Below is an example of exemplary technique that helped Brown make a play:
At the point of contact, Brown clearly shot his hands first, got them inside and extended his arms. He was also playing with a flat back to help maintain a strong base. The defensive lineman was in complete control of the situation.
Brown then recognized the draw play and worked across the face of the offensive lineman:
The defensive tackle proved strong enough to throw the guard to the side, slide off the block and get one arm around the oncoming runner. Brown made first contact and helped bring down the running back.
Everything developed in the defensive lineman's favor, because he was able to use his hands properly from the onset of the play.
While viewing the contest, there were instances when Brown could be driven back slightly, but he also attempted to split double-teams by dipping his outside shoulder or kept blockers away from his feet by shooting his hands and giving ground to gain ground. These are the little things that can separate a talented defensive tackle from one that eventually becomes a productive professional.
It isn't simply about technique, though.
Brown combines technique with an above-average short-area burst. His first-step quickness provides a natural advantage over most offensive linemen.
Of the 18 defensive linemen over 300 pounds that ran at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, four posted a better 10-yard split than Brown during the 40-yard-dash portion of the workouts. Only one of them—Iowa's Carl Davis—weighed as much as the Texas product.
Brown's 1.75-second 10-yard split places him within the range of the top defensive tackles selected during the previous five drafts.
|Combine workouts among top DTs (2010-2015): 10-yard splits|
It was clear that opposing offensive linemen struggled with his quick-twitch ability.
Another example can be provided from Texas' recent bowl game:
Arkansas's center blocked back to replace the pulling left guard. Brown already beat him off the snap and forced the center to take a poor angle.
Brown easily cleaned off the block with a rip move that forced the running back to step up and try to slow down the 319-pounder bull rushing right at him.
Clearly, the running back wasn't capable of stopping Brown:
The defensive tackle didn't get a sack, but he stopped the Razorbacks from scoring a sure touchdown because he was able to get penetration and disrupt the entire play.
Brown is a good all-around athlete too. His combine workout didn't register as one of the top efforts, because defensive tackles compete with defensive ends and hybrid pass-rushers. But it was a solid workout overall.
At nearly 320 pounds, the defensive lineman ran a 5.05-second 40-yard dash, 7.84-second three-cone drill, 4.59-second short shuttle and posted 26 reps on bench press.
The Texas native meets all of the physical requirements necessary to be an early draft selection. He also produced at the level expected of a top talent.
Defensive tackles generally live through unheralded careers, because they are often asked to do the grunt work over the long haul. Glory is generally reserved for the linebackers and defensive backs who prosper based on the dirty work that's being done up front. Some interior defenders can transcend their lot in life and become more.
Brown—a finalist for the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior linemen—actually produced as much over the past two seasons as Shelton, who is often lauded for the amount of plays he made as a senior and is considered a potential top-10 pick.
Orangebloods.com's Alex Dunlap noted that Brown wasn't too shabby either in the production department:
Once the two both became full-time starters in 2013, Brown's production didn't pale in comparison to Shelton's. In fact, the Texas defensive tackle proved to be a more consistent player.
|Statistics (2013-14): Malcom Brown vs. Danny Shelton|
|Player||Total tackles||Tackles for loss||Sacks||Deflected Passes||Forced fumbles|
The difference between these two particular prospects battling for interior supremacy is their versatility, or lack thereof.
Shelton is considered a true nose tackle, while Brown can play along the entire defensive line. The Texas product may project best as a 3-technique (the defensive tackle shaded to the outside shoulder of a guard), but he played all over the Longhorns' defensive line, including 3-4 end.
“Yeah, you can put me anywhere,” Brown told the Houston Chronicle's John McClain at the combine. “I already know how to play the positions. I played end, stand-up end—all that last year. I played nose (tackle) the previous two years, freshman and sophomore years. I can do it all.”
Versatility adds value. Due to the NFL's 53-man roster, the more a player can do, the more valuable he is overall.
Also, a player's off-the-field habits are more pertinent today than ever considering the current landscape of the league.
"It seemed as if teams asked more questions about me off-the-field than on-the-field to be honest," a recent participant at the combine told Bleacher Report.
There are no such concerns with Brown. He is considered a "clean" prospect with nothing to worry about beyond his on-the-field performance. He shows up, works hard and isn't spending his night life anywhere else but at home.
McClain provided more details to Browns' life:
As a mature prospect, who actually entered the draft a year early, Brown's priorities are obvious. The ability to provide for his young family comes first.
“It just gives me more motivation,” Brown told the DetroitLions.com's Tim Twentyman. “I’m just not playing for myself anymore. I’m playing to support a whole family. I can’t just think about myself when I make decisions. I can’t be like, ‘you don’t need to go hard this play.’”
Accountability is more important than ever in a league that is currently embattled in multiple public relations nightmares. While there are franchises that are still willing to take chances on certain players because of their talent despite off-the-field concerns, a prospect with Brown's potential and background makes him an enticing option early in the draft process.
As many as six defensive linemen could be selected within the first 10 picks of April's NFL draft. Brown should be one of them.
The defensive tackle presents size, athleticism, versatility, accountability and the ability to provide an interior pass rush. It's a rare combination not often found among interior defenders.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.