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Malcom Brown could be Patriots’ next breakout star

August 9, 2016 GMT

FOXBORO — Terrance Knighton already knew. Soon, the rest of the NFL will catch up.

Defensive tackle Malcom Brown is in line to be the Patriots’ breakout player of the year after his impressive rookie season. The 2015 first-round pick quickly became an important voice in the locker room this offseason, and he has been the team’s most dominant interior presence to this point in camp.

Knighton studied Brown’s work last year, and the 30-year-old instantly recognized the youngster’s potential.

“I always study defensive tackles,” said Knighton, who joined the Patriots this offseason as a free agent. “Being a rookie last year, you can see he was playing a little slow because he wasn’t quite sure, but he was making a lot of plays because he was a good player. Now that the game has slowed down for him, I expect him to be one of the better D-tackles in the league.”

Brown led all Patriots defensive tackles last season in playing time (46.5 percent of the snaps), and there’s no question he is in position for even more in 2016. While Knighton, Markus Kuhn, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine have rotated into the starting lineup, Brown has been a mainstay. The others are essentially competing to be Brown’s sidekick.

The Texas product has deserved that perch atop the depth chart and could conceivably garner as much as 70-75 percent of the defensive snaps if all goes smoothly. That would help him build on a rookie season when he amassed three sacks, one quarterback hit, six pressures, two fumble recoveries and three drawn holding penalties.

“If they throw it at me, I’ve got to be prepared,” Brown said of the uptick in usage. “I’m getting my conditioning right, stay in shape and be ready for whatever they give me.”

But Brown isn’t on the verge of a breakout season just because of his physical attributes. His teammates have gushed over his knowledge of the defense, and the new guys should know. Because Branch routinely skips voluntary offseason workouts, Knighton assumed he’d have to take command of the defensive tackles, but he was pleasantly surprised to see the way Brown handled himself and commanded respect.

Brown, who turned 22 in February, corralled Knighton, 30-year-old Kuhn and 27-year-old Frank Kearse when they arrived at Gillette Stadium and showed them how to handle their business. The veteran additions are much older, but they go to Brown with questions, whether it’s about a particular call or technique.

“I’ve played around DeMarcus Ware, Peyton Manning, guys like that,” Knighton said. “Being around those type of guys, hearing (Brown) talk football, I knew he was a knowledgeable guy. When I first got here, I was just trying to get a feel for everybody, and I realized he has such a grasp of the playbook by how he talks and how quick he plays. I just try to learn as much as I can from a young guy and also try to help him with some things that I’ve seen around the league.

“He definitely has more knowledge beyond a guy who has only been in the league for one year.”

Brown will still almost certainly be overshadowed by defensive teammates like Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Jabaal Sheard, but his presence will help generate some of their success. That’s the simple nature of the position.

But as Knighton displayed during the 2013 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, it’s still valuable to have a takeover force in the middle of the line. Brown is working his way toward that type of impact.

“Things have started to slow down for him on the field,” Knighton said. “You can see it on film. He doesn’t have any wasted movements. He doesn’t have the big eyes like most young guys do. The game is becoming easy for him.”

Brown has cherished this offseason for a number of reasons. He has thoroughly enjoyed his responsibility as a locker room leader, perhaps even paving the way for a future captaincy, and it’s naturally easier for him to focus after a full year in the system. Brown also returned to Texas to work out with his fellow former Longhorns, and he also spent time at the gym with his wife.

With everything more familiar to Brown, he should soon introduce himself to those who might not know his name. Yet.

“I don’t really want to look too far ahead,” Brown smirked. “I believe in the process of getting there. I’ve just got to continue to work. If I want to be there, I’ve got to work every day to get there.”