Film study. The last game in which I watched Knighton closely was the 2013 AFC championship when he was dominant as a disruptive presence on Denver's line against the Patriots. I was curious to see if that same level of disruptive play was evident last year in Washington. Coaches tape from three games, at different points of the 2015 season, were watched: Week 1 vs. Miami, Week 12 vs. Dallas and the wild-card round of the playoffs against Green Bay.
Knighton's role. Washington used Knighton as a two-down player. He would often be on the field on early downs, before coming off in obvious passing situations. Reflective of this, he played 23 of 56 snaps against Miami, 19 of 58 vs. Dallas and 33 of 75 against Green Bay. A few games during the season, he hardly played (11 snaps vs. New Orleans in Week 10; and 12 snaps vs. the Giants in Week 11).
Physical makeup and alignment. Knighton is listed at 6-foot-3 and 354 pounds. He is a wide-body presence who most often aligned shaded on the center. In short yardage/goal-line situations, he could be found head up on the center, while there was an occasional time in which he aligned as a 3-technique over the outside shoulder of the guard. In Washington's base scheme, Knighton wasn't utilized the same way Vince Wilfork was in New England from 2004-2014. Knighton was more likely to penetrate at the snap, whereas Patriots defensive tackles are usually required to two-gap by getting their hands into offensive linemen and attempting to control them by playing the run first before pushing the pocket. How Knighton adjusts to that change will likely play a large role in the level of success he has in the scheme.
Power and play recognition are strengths. From a pure traits standpoint, Knighton's size and power are two of his best assets. That power was tapped as part of the field goal block team. Like any defensive linemen, when his pad level rises in the run game, some issues arise and that seemed to be a struggle at times early last season, perhaps because of conditioning. Knighton's ability to recognize screen plays and quick passes to the flat was a positive that showed up multiple times (e.g. tackling Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry on a 4-yard pass), as his effort was evident in playing to the sideline when necessary. He is not a disruptive penetrating presence on a consistent basis, but there were flashes in which he beat the center in front of him (Mike Pouncey, Travis Frederick or JC Tretter in this film study) occasionally at the snap.
Projected role with the Patriots. Knighton projects as the No. 3 player on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, which means he would likely rotate into the game the same way Akiem Hicks did in 2015. That three- or four-man rotation has been a recent staple of Bill Belichick's coaching approach, which helps keep the big-bodied defensive tackles from wearing down. Similar to his time in Washington, Knighton would likely come off the field in sub packages in favor of a more penetrating presence, such as Dominique Easley. If Knighton uses his size and power to help clog things up inside, he will give the Patriots primarily what they are looking for. Anything from a pass-rush perspective would be a bonus, as that isn't a big part of Knighton's game.