For the second straight year (and third in the past four years), the Patriots have invested a first round pick in their defensive line. This time, the new Patriot is Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who was regarded by many as a top 20 talent but slid all the way to the 32nd pick. The Patriots were reportedly negotiating a trade out of the first round with the Houston Texans, but nixed that idea when the Colts surprisingly passed on Brown, dramatically increasing the likelihood that he'd remain on the board for their pick. Instead, Brown will pair up with last year's first round pick, Dominique Easley, to form what Patriots fans hope will be a dynamic interior duo for years to come.
So, who is Malcom Brown and what does his game look like? I went to the tape to find out, watching all four of his 2014 game films available on DraftBreakdown.com. All four game films are below, followed by my immediate takeaways.
The Patriots have always been a "multiple front" defense under Bill Belichick, and thus have typically coveted versatility from their front seven players. It was clear from Belichick's post first round press conference that versatility was something that stood out in their evaluation of Brown, as he mentioned that versatility unprompted in his opening statement.
We] just sat there and watched a lot of names come off the board, but [we] feel good about our selection of Malcom [Brown] at 32. We’ll see how it goes. He’s a guy that’s played inside, on the nose, all the way outside to the five-technique, kind of everywhere in between. He’s been moved around a little bit: played a little more outside this year, a little in Coach [Charlie] Strong’s defense; a little more inside with the previous staff. He has plenty of snaps in a variety of spots. [I] look forward to working with him and [we’ll] see how it goes here tomorrow.
My film study of Brown didn't even extend beyond the 2014 season, but his versatility certainly showed up on film. I saw him play just about every spot on the defensive line in the four games I watched: 3 technique, 1 technique, nose and 5 technique. His role seemed to vary week to week based on the Longhorns gameplan, which is certainly something he can get used to in Foxborough. Case in point: the Kansas game saw Texas primarily use a 3-4 look, with Brown as an edge setting 5 technique defensive end. Contrast that to the Oklahoma game, which saw Brown work more on the inside on early downs, before flexing outside on third downs. The Oklahoma game actually saw Brown often work as a stand up rusher on third downs, which speaks to his incredible athleticism for a 320 pound man.
That versatility will suit Brown very well in New England, as Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia often come up with creative usages for their front seven. It's a trait he shares with Easley, who also lined up all over the defensive line at Florida (albeit in a much smaller body). Having those two on the defensive line will give Patricia/Belichick lots of options when it comes to week-to-week scheming.
Hand usage and leverage
The thing that jumped out on tape the most with Brown was by far his ability to use his hands to disengage from blockers. He understands leverage, and often starts a play by using his quickness to get good position, attacking half of his blocker. From there, Brown has a variety of club, rip and swim moves that he uses effectively to discard the blocker. Brown also has an uncanny knack for finding the ball-carrier once he has broken free from blocking, even in heavy traffic.
This stood out play after play on film, as the most common phrase in my notes was easily "disengages from blocker, finds ball carrier". Check out the 1:03 mark of the Oklahoma film, where he gets inside position, uses a club move to break free from the block, and tackles the ball carrier for a loss. At 2:49 in the same game, he controls his blocker and holds his ground before reading the play, shedding to the outside, and catching the runner for a short gain. At 7:02, he masterfully uses the guards down blocking momentum against him, tossing him aside before making the tackle for another stop.
Plays like these showed up consistently in all four games I watched. The 4:22 mark of the BYU game see Brown again use a blockers momentum against him, tossing the guard inside, using his quickness to get in the gap, and locating the runner for a stop. At 4:56, he takes on a double, recognizes the inside run, and breaks free to make the stop. At 2:14 in the Arkansas game, he crosses the face of the center and fights through an obvious hold to make the stop. At 3:07 in that game, he gets a good initial upfield push, but recognizes the inside run and breaks free back inside to make the tackle for a short gain. At 5:31, he attacks the guards outside shoulder before fighting back through the block to get back inside and locate the ball carrier.
Another way Brown's exceptional hand usage stood out was his consistency against cut blocks. Brown defeated every cut block I saw attempted on him in these four games, using his hands and quick feet to easily toss his blocker out of position. That's a skillset that will serve him well at the next level, especially against zone dominant schemes like the Texans and Broncos.
Another thing Belichick mentioned in his post first round presser was Brown's athleticism. Many took a look at his size (6'2", 320 pounds) and assumed Brown would be a successor to Vince Wilfork, but his quickness makes him a very different player. While Vince was built to hold his ground against double teams, Brown is at his best when allowed to attack upfield. Most of his impact came as a block shedding run defender at Texas, but he flashed some real pass rush ability with the Longhorns. It's a skillset that could continue to develop with more refinement at the NFL level, as his combination of quickness and hand-usage gives him significant upside.
For evidence, check out the 1:49 mark of the Arkansas game, where Brown is simply too quick for the center and powers his way into the backfield for a pressure. At 1:14 in the same game, he once again uses his quickness to get inside position on the center, before using a rip move to fully break free and chase the quarterback into a throwaway. At 7:34 in the Kansas game, he attacks the outside shoulder of the guard and forces him to over-commit before transfering his power back inside with a club move to break free and get another pressure. 6:38 in the BYU game sees him overwhelm the guard with power to the outside, forcing him to overcommit badly before beating him cleanly with quickness for the sack. On the very next defensive snap, he uses that quickness to get inside leverage on the center, sheds him with another club move, and gets a quarterback hit/forced fumble on the play.
Lack of Power
Despite his listed 320 pound playing weight, Brown is far from a prototypical two-gapping nose tackle. In fact, film study reveals power to be the biggest weakness of Brown's game. Brown was consistently overpowered by double teams on film, and at times driven back by single blocking when the right lineman got good position on him. The 6:32 mark of the BYU game sees him driven back by single blocking on the goal line, creating a gap the running back exploits for an easy touchdown, while the 3:40 mark against Oklahoma sees him absolutely bowled over by a double team.
One flaw that showed up time and time again on film was how blockers can often turn Brown's upfield momentum against him. There were multiple instances where Brown got quick upfield penetration, only for his blocker to use that to get an ideal angle to seal him off and create a running lane. The 2:59 mark of the Arkansas film is a good example, but plays like this were sprinkled throughout all four games I watched. Of course, this is a natural drawback to playing that kind of penetrating, upfield style, but it's something the Patriots coaches will surely work on technique-wise with him.
It's important to remember that, having just turned 21 in February, Brown is one of the youngest players in this years draft. He's a guy who clearly will benefit from a year or two in an NFL weight training program. He particularly could use some work on his lower body, where he has just average "anchor" power in his legs. On the positive side, Brown has the frame to add some weight room bulk without taking away from the quickness that makes him so dangerous. He could be productive as a rookie, but the real pay-off from this pick could come two or three years down the road, when he has the potential to become dominant.
While Brown's upside and value after sliding to the 32nd pick made him a no brainer from a Patriots perspective, his selection gives an interesting insight into the shifting defensive philosophies of Belichick and Patricia. Previous Patriots war room's might have favored Florida State's Eddie Goldman, a 330 pound mountain of a man who, like Wilfork, is built to two gap and hold his own at the point of attack against double teams. Brown is a dramatically different player, and the selection of him following Easley last year suggests the Patriots are shifting towards a much more aggressive approach with their defensive line. While they will always be a multiple front team, the current personnel is better suited to attacking gaps upfield than two-gapping and holding the line of scrimmage. It's an approach that should result in far more pressure, and an approach that will demand more from it's linebackers as far as cleaning up gaps against the run.