MINNEAPOLIS -- Malcom Brown began his career with impossible-to-reach expectations in New England.
The Patriots declined their team option on Vince Wilfork's contract in March 2015. Less than two months later, Brown was drafted in the first round.
Brown, like Wilfork, came out of college as a 320-pound defensive tackle. Like Wilfork, Brown fell to the Patriots in the back half of the first round despite projections that he'd go higher. The presumption was that Brown would be Wilfork 2.0.
But through two seasons in a two-gapping system that differed vastly from the style he played at the University of Texas, Brown hadn't quite lived up to that reputation. He was good. Very good at times. But he wasn't Vince.
But now, three seasons in, people know what to expect from Brown. While he may not be Wilfork in his prime, he's an excellent run defender who has the ability to occasionally flash as a pass-rusher. In 15 games this season, including playoffs, he has 30 run-stuffs to go along with three sacks, a quarterback hit and 14 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Despite dealing with an ankle injury mid-season, this was likely Brown's best and most consistent year as a pro.
Brown represents one half of his team's top defensive tackle duo, along with Lawrence Guy. As a first- and second-down player mostly, he's been relied upon to take on heavy workloads when the plan is to snuff out opposing running backs. Against the Jaguars and Leonard Fournette in the AFC title game, for instance, Brown played 57 of a possible 73 snaps and helped hold the Jags to 3.2 yards per carry.
He'll have an opportunity to further create a name for himself among Patriots fans in Super Bowl LII, as the Eagles have a bruising running game that features LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. Brown was listed with a foot injury last week and missed practices on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He returned to practice on Sunday, however, and has explained that he was not at all concerned about his availability for the Super Bowl.
Brown indicated to NBC Sports Boston last week that his absences could be explained by the fact that he needed to receive some extra treatment. The Super Bowl was always in play, though, he believed.
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Why might Brown factor in as a crucial piece in the matchup with Philadelphia? Under coach Doug Pederson, the Eagles run many of the same type of horizontal-stretching plays featured in Kansas City under Pederson's mentor, Andy Reid. The reason Philly power backs have had success in that scheme is due in part to the fact that the offense can get defenders spread thin across the field, limiting the bodies to crowd the box and smother big-bodied runners.
Against the Eagles, then, it will be critical to have Brown (and Guy, and Ricky Jean Francois, and maybe even Alan Branch . . . ) available to them. Those players are adept at taking on double-teams and covering for their teammates at the second level if there is a motion or an offensive alignment that has taken them away from the middle of the field.
Former Patriots coaching assistant and Ringer analyst Mike Lombardi said last week that he's picking the Eagles to beat the Patriots because "What the Eagles do is they make you defend the width of the field and they can attack you inside with their power, whether it's Blount, Ajayi, whoever they have as their back."
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"They can attack you inside," Lombardi added. "Those run-pass options become a problem. They're Kansas City with more skill players."
Fortunately for the Patriots, it looks like they won't have to plan for that style without Brown. He may not be Wilfork, but no one is. He's one of the two best they have at that position, and if he can help his team with another ring -- his second in as many seasons -- he'll have carved out a place in Patriots lore all his own.