FOXBOROUGH — Safe.
That’s the best way to characterize the Patriots’ selection Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft, taking Texas nose tackle Malcom Brown with the last pick of the night.
Brown is a safe pick on the football field — a 6-foot-2-inch, 319-pound defensive tackle who joins a rotation involving Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Dominique Easley. You look at Brown’s measurables, and you can’t help but make the Vince Wilfork comparisons. And like Wilfork, Brown is a versatile player who played all over the defensive line at Texas, playing nose tackle, defensive end, and even stand-up edge rusher in Charlie Strong’s defense.
“Played a number of snaps in a variety of spots,” Bill Belichick noted Thursday night.
Like Wilfork, who is now in Houston after 11 stellar seasons with the Patriots, Brown might not ever put up flashy sack numbers or make a ton of game-changing plays. But a lane-clogging defensive tackle — and one who is surprisingly quick on his feet and a good interior pass rusher — has a low bust rate in the NFL. It’s hard to be a total flop at defensive tackle, so the Patriots at least took a player at No. 32 that we can pencil into the lineup for the next four to five years.
And many draftniks had Brown going higher than 32 (the Globe’s mock draft had him at No. 23 to the Lions). So, the Patriots’ favorite buzzword was being tossed around social media by the pundits immediately after the pick — “value.” The Patriots supposedly got good value on Brown.
But Brown looks like a safe pick off the field, which in the wake of the Aaron Hernandez tragedy is as important for the Patriots as his on-field prognosis.
Brown doesn’t appear to have any significant “red flags” on his résumé. In fact, for one of the youngest players in the draft — he’s still only 21, barely old enough to legally celebrate with an alcoholic beverage on Thursday night — Brown displays impressive maturity.
In Brown, the Patriots drafted a player who is married and supporting a young family. His one-year anniversary with his wife, Faith, is May 14. He adopted her 4-year-old stepdaughter, Rayna, and the couple had their first child last August, a daughter named Mayah.
“I’m playing to support my family,” Brown said in February at the Combine. “I can’t just think about myself when I make decisions. It just gives me more motives. I’m not just playing for myself anymore.”
Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called Brown a “man among boys,” and certainly that is the reason the Patriots tabbed Brown. He’s a beast in the middle and he can clog run lanes — 38 run stops in 2014, the most of any defensive tackle in this year’s draft.
But Brown’s maturity and character clinched the decision. You’ll notice they took the family man over any of the “red flag” players still available, such as Randy Gregory or the suddenly-undraftable La’el Collins.
In previous years, the Patriots perhaps would have tried to trade up and select a “red flag” guy such as Marcus Peters or Shane Ray, who both went off the board before No. 32.
But the Patriots are still smarting from the Hernandez disaster, and aren’t in the mood for taking chances on guys with questionable characters — especially with the No. 32 pick, with a whole universe of players available for the taking.
“No. 1, he’s a great character guy,” Bedford said recently in an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal. “He knows who he is. He’s settled. He has children, and he does the little things right. When we’re not around, we know what he’s doing. Why? Because it’s important to him. He’s a family man. On the football field, he’s another coach. He was a great leader for us.”
After watching Brown and his wife support themselves and their two children last year — both were full-time students, Brown also played football, and neither had a job — the Patriots don’t have to worry too much about Brown getting into trouble or drifting aimlessly now that he’s away from the protective cocoon of college life.
“I think he did a lot of things that lend themselves to making good decisions, being loyal, committed, sticking with it, finishing the job, all that,” Belichick said. “I think that’s impressive.”
We’ll see if Brown can adequately fill Wilfork’s shoes. The Patriots have enough depth at defensive tackle where they don’t need Brown to play 70 percent of snaps right away, like Wilfork did last year. Brown will likely be brought in on short-yardage situations to stop the run, and given an expanded role over time.
Should the Patriots have targeted a cornerback to replace Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner? Possibly, although there are still several good players left on the board, and the Patriots hold four of the next 69 picks. There are still plenty of offensive guards for them to take in Day 2.
Brown certainly wasn’t the sexiest pick for the Patriots. But it was a safe one, all the way around.