Bill Belichick has his blind spots when it comes to the NFL draft, but defensive tackle is not one of them. Since taking command of the New England Patriots, Belichick has built his defensive philosophy upon controlling the defensive interior. In Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, Belichick has never really been without an All-Pro-caliber anchor at the heart of the defense.
Wilfork's offseason departure put that theory in jeopardy, but when Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown unexpectedly fell to the 32nd pick, Belichick got the fortuitous break he needed. No, Brown will not immediately reproduce prime-level Wilfork, when he was probably one of the three to five best defensive tackles in the league. Quite frankly, it's difficult to expect any draftee to produce at that kind of level.
But it's not necessarily asking too much of Brown to replicate Wilfork's 2014 level of play, which was nonetheless effective. Belichick's hybrid defense maximizes each individual's strength, but it always revolved around Wilfork's adaptability and willingness to perform the dirty work.
Time will tell if Brown can have a similar impact on the Patriots. Taking a deeper dive into Brown's game, let's try to pin down some more tangible short- and long-term expectations New England fans should have for the first-rounder.
Versatility Against the Run
Using the invaluable site Draft Breakdown, I watched cut-ups from three 2014 games specifically highlighting Brown. I charted his technique alignment on every one of those snaps and saw someone who was one of the most versatile defenders in the nation (for reference, here's a review of D-line techniques):
|Malcom Brown Technique Alignments*|
|Technique||Run Snaps||Pass Snaps|
|based on games reviewed at Draft Breakdown|
The distinctions between the 3-technique (outside shoulder of guard) and 4i (inside shoulder of tackle) are hazy, to be sure, and I mostly based those off how Brown played the snap. The former technique is famously known for explosive, penetrating defensive tackles (Ndamukong Suh, Warren Sapp, etc.), whereas the latter is fairly similar to a two-gapping 5-tech.
Nevertheless, Brown was fairly balanced in that Texas often asked him to alternate between controlling the B gap (between guard and tackle) or C gap (outside tackle). He didn't play nearly as much nose and 1-tech as I expected, though this is obviously a limited sample size. Nevertheless, the top thing I noticed was Brown's consistency against the run, whether in the 1-tech (Screenshot 1), 3-tech (Screenshot 2) or 5-tech (Screenshot 3):
What's unique about Brown is he doesn't necessarily win with freakish measurables. Yes, he is a hefty individual at 6'2" and 319 pounds, almost the exact same size as the 6'2", 325-pound Wilfork. But his 32 1/2" arms are somewhat even by defensive tackle standards, and he was not a top performer at any of the combine drills, per his NFL.com scouting report.
Instead, Brown uses active and powerful hands and an aggressive mentality to put interior linemen on the defensive. According to Pro Football Focus' Michael Mountford, Brown finished third in the FBS in run-stop percentage last season, behind only USC's Leonard Williams and Stanford's Henry Anderson. However, Mountford noted Brown's aggression is also a frequent liability, as offenses can devise schemes to wash Brown out of his gap:
Because he is so often looking to shed at the snap, he becomes a liability on down blocks where he isn’t able to use his hands or stand up blockers and regularly winds up forced into positions he doesn’t want to be in. At his best when he can see the offensive lineman coming towards him, Brown can whip his hands out of the way and cause his opponent to lunge and miss. In the pros he will be a player who either wins early or loses quickly, being forced backward at a rapid rate putting his linebackers in a tough spot to scrape over the top to make a play.
This was by far the biggest problem I noticed with Brown on tape, and is currently the biggest part of his game that separates him from Wilfork. Whereas the veteran is relentless in carrying out his assignments and maintaining gap integrity, Brown's proclivity to gamble for the tackle for loss makes him extremely susceptible to trap blocks. Take these two rushing plays, the latter of which resulted in an Oklahoma touchdown:
In fairness, many instances where Brown jumped the gap were 3rd- or 4th-and-short plays where a backfield stop was necessary (the Arkansas play above was an example of this). But the Patriots' "do your job" mantra won't tolerate that kind of high-risk improvisation on a regular basis.
What's more curious is Brown doesn't really need to resort to such methods against the run. He consistently demonstrates the ability to stack-and-shed his man and carry out two-gap principles, even though his lower-body strength isn't ideal. Thus, one of Brown's biggest challenges will be striking the right balance between unleashing the disruptive game that sent his draft stock soaring last fall and pulling back to rely on his plus hands and ball awareness.
An Unrefined Pass-rusher With Upside
Though Brown produced six sacks and 13.0 tackles for loss last season, solid numbers for someone seen primarily as a run-stuffer, he didn't particularly stand out as an impressive pass-rusher to me on film. Even though he received plenty of snaps at the 3-tech spot, he never generated consistent pressure over the three games I watched. And during the small handful of snaps where Texas lined him up in a wide-9 technique, Brown appeared somewhat clumsy and unnatural moving around in so much space.
However, there are promising seedling here that suggest Brown could have the same positive pass-rushing impact Wilfork did, even if he's unlikely to ever pile up gaudy sack totals. For instance, Brown pulled out a nice chop-arm over move several times, which often threw his man off guard and resulted in instant backfield penetration:
Those flashes surprised me, so I went back and looked for scouting reports that might hint at Brown's pass-rushing upside. Sure enough, the National Football Post's Greg Gabriel also noticed these flashes, going relatively far in his praise of Brown:
While he doesn’t have great height (6’2), he is thick, strong and explosive. He is quick off the ball and reacts quickly to make plays...He flashes dominating ability, he just has to play with more down after down consistency.
He is a strong inside pass rusher, gets consistent pressure, and knows how to use counter moves. He has a good motor, plays hard, and is a good pursuit player. Even better, as a 21-year old rookie, he hasn’t begun to see his ceiling.
But saying Brown needs greater consistency in his pass rush is probably an understatement. In the games I saw, Brown was neutralized off the snap on the vast majority of snaps. Though he did generate pressure more than I expected, there were also plenty of snaps where Brown was the last man off the line and got left behind:
I don't have any data on Brown's pressure rate from last season, but his combine testing results aren't exactly promising in that regard. Even if you argue Brown's raw numbers should be worse because of his size, Football Perspective's Chase Stuart ran a series of articles measuring weight-adjusted performance at the combine. Even on a curve, Brown was average, apart from an impressive 40-time:
|Malcom Brown Weight-Adjusted Combine Rankings|
|40 Yard Dash||Broad Jump||Vertical Jump|
|Rank||32nd out of 260||110 out of 249||101 out of 250|
|via Football Perspective|
Then again, any significant pass-rushing production Brown provides would be a bonus. Though he might have three-down potential down the line, the Pats have the personnel to employ an enticing "NASCAR" package with Dominique Easley and three defensive ends from the group of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers and Zach Moore. For now, effective two-down production would be a strong start.
What kind of chance does Brown have at replicating that production? Every individual rookie is unique, of course, but I thought it might be helpful to look at two general player pools to get an idea of reasonable baseline expectations.
First, I'm looking at Patriots rookie defenders drafted under Bill Belichick. Using Pro-Football-Reference, I looked at each players' rookie year Approximate Value (AV), and how many games they started that season. For the purposes of filtering out the myriad players who don't make it in the league, only players who accrued at least 1 AV were included in this sample:
|Patriots Rookie Defenders, 2000-14|
|Devin McCourty 1-27||16||9|
|Eugene Wilson 2-36||15||7|
|Chandler Jones 1-21||13||6|
|Chris Jones 6-198||11||6|
|Richard Seymour 1-6||10||5|
|Ellis Hobbs 3-84||8||5|
|Vince Wilfork 1-21||6||4|
|Jermaine Cunningham 2-53||11||4|
|Logan Ryan 3-83||7||4|
|Tavon Wilson 2-48||4||3|
|Jarvis Green 4-126||4||3|
|Jonathan Wilhite 4-129||4||3|
|Alfonzo Dennard 7-224||7||3|
|Patrick Chung 2-34||1||2|
|Ron Brace 2-40||2||2|
|Duron Harmon 3-91||3||2|
|Dexter Reid 4-113||2||2|
|Dan Klecko 4-117||1||2|
|Asante Samuel 4-120||1||2|
|James Sanders 4-133||2||2|
|Antwan Harris 6-187||0||2|
|Myron Pryor 6-207||0||2|
|Brandon Deaderick 7-247||4||2|
|Brandon Meriweather 1-24||0||1|
|Ras-I Dowling 2-33||2||1|
|Terrence Wheatley 2-62||1||1|
|Guss Scott 3-95||2||1|
|Hakim Akbar 5-163||0||1|
|Jake Ingram 6-198||0||1|
|Leonard Myers 6-200||0||1|
|Mike Richardson 6-202||0||1|
|Willie Andrews 7-229||0||1|
|Tully Banta-Cain 7-239||0||1|
|via Pro-Football-Reference, min. 1 AV|
This isn't a list full of success stories, but it's fairly solid for an organization that is typically deeper than most rosters, making the rookie transition even more difficult. The Pats only unearth a rookie defender who starts at least half their games every other year, but they've had 10 accumulate at least 4 AV. Apart from Chris Jones, all of those players were drafted in the first three rounds, an indication of New England's success with early round draft picks.
I'll also hone in on Brown's specific position and look at all rookie defensive tackles taken in the first round over the last 10 years. Obviously this spans a wide array of player styles—Aaron Donald is entirely different stylistically from Brown, for instance—but it should serve as a nice broad benchmark. As in the last table, I'm looking at rookie year AV and total starts:
|Rookie Round 1 DTs, 2005-14|
|Player Year, Team||Starts||AV|
|Aaron Donald 2014, STL||12||11|
|Haloti Ngata 2006, BAL||16||9|
|Star Lotulelei 2013, CAR||16||9|
|Marcell Dareus 2011, BUF||15||7|
|Glenn Dorsey 2008, KAN||16||6|
|Dontari Poe 2012, KAN||16||6|
|Adam Carriker 2007, STL||16||6|
|Michael Brockers 2012, STL||12||6|
|Amobi Okoye 2007, HOU||14||5|
|Mike Patterson 2005, PHI||7||5|
|Fletcher Cox 2012, PHI||9||4|
|Brandon Graham 2010, PHI||6||3|
|B.J. Raji 2009, GNB||1||2|
|Dan Williams 2010, ARI||0||2|
|Peria Jerry 2009, ATL||2||1|
|Nick Fairley 2011, DET||0||1|
|Justin Harrell 2007, GNB||2||1|
|Sharrif Floyd 2013, MIN||1||1|
|Kentwan Balmer 2008, SFO||0||1|
There are a few busts, but for the most part, we have entrenched starters and players who turned things around after inauspicious starts to their careers (Nick Fairley, B.J. Raji, etc.). Over half of the players on this list turned in at least 4 AV seasons right away, while nine started 10 or more games.
Again, these are simply broad surveys that don't necessarily need to specifically pertain to Brown. But both broad player pools suggest Brown has a reasonable chance to contribute right away, and faces better-than-even odds at eventually turning in a productive career.
Of course, no player in either of those samples really produced at prime Wilfork level (apart from Donald, who is already staking his claim as a top-five DT in this league). So fans should prob tap the brakes on the Wilfork comps for 2015. Brown will most likely split time in base 4-3 and 3-4 sets with Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch, giving the Patriots more run-stuffing depth than they've enjoyed in years.
From there, perhaps he graduates into a larger role. Patriots fans are dreaming of a drool-worthy defensive tackle tandem of Brown and Dominique Easley, whose youth and stylistic contrasts could give the Patriots a foundational center of their defense for years to come. It might be years before that reality manifests itself, but the tape and statistical history both suggest a promising outlook for the post-Wilfork defense.