SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Earlier this week, I was given the task of naming the San Francisco 49ers' breakthrough player or unit a quarter of the way into the season.
I chose the Niners' special-teams unit, in part because it's a group that's on a record-setting pace for expected points added but also because, let's face it, that unit rarely gets the credit it deserves when it plays well.
But if someone had asked me to pick an individual player, the decision would have come down to two of the biggest players on the team: defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and right tackle Trent Brown. By now, you already know the type of impact Buckner has made. He was a top-10 draft pick, and his production, while encouraging, is certainly expected.
So let's take a moment to praise Brown for what is shaping up to be the kind of breakthrough season that is going to make him a very wealthy man in the near future.
Listed at 6-foot-8, 355 pounds, Brown cuts an even more imposing figure than Buckner but without the draft status. Brown was a seventh-round pick out of Florida in 2015 and was considered the type of long-term project that might never pan out.
With a rare combination of size and athleticism, Brown has always had the tools; he has just never put it together on a down-to-down basis. Until now.
"I think he's just working to get more consistent, and I think he has," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Trent's strength is his protection. He's a very big, long guy who's hard to get around. He can put together some very impressive clips and I think he's done a pretty good job for us this year, and I thought he did a pretty good job for the team last year, just watching him on tape.
"His whole deal is just trying to get better and more consistent. I think one hard thing about O-linemen is people don't really notice you until you miss. You can play a perfect game, but you have one bad mistake at the end of the game and it's a crucial sack, and then you played bad. The more consistent you can be -- which I think he will be the more he plays -- the more he's in this scheme, the more he can just be decisive in everything he does because he's a very talented guy. What I've been impressed with Trent since I've been here is I believe he’s working at it and I believe he's going for it."
While there's still a long way to go this season, Brown has begun to establish himself as a shutdown right tackle. Through four games, during which the 49ers have faced talented fronts in Seattle, Carolina and Arizona, Brown has allowed just five total pressures on 255 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
PFF, which grades every player based on extensive film review every week, has Brown as the starting right tackle on its "First Quarter All-Pro" team and the third-best tackle regardless of side when it comes to pass protection.
So what has been the key to Brown's early-season success?
"I really just feel more comfortable in the league, honestly," the 24-year-old said, "and in my ability and doing what I do."
Does that mean Brown was uncomfortable last season?
"No, not really, I was still kind of young," Brown said. "I didn't know what to expect every week because last year was my first time being a full-time starter. So this year, I'm just a little bit more comfortable. I know what I do well and I stick to my guns."
Blessed with immense size and long arms, Brown has learned that he's tough to get around when he sticks to the fundamentals. While some looked at him and wondered how he'd fit into Shanahan's outside-zone running scheme, Brown actually played in a similar system at Georgia Military College before moving on to Florida.
That system requires offensive linemen to have the athleticism to get to the second level, something Brown loves to show off to those who doubt him because of his size.
"I get to really show my athleticism on film," Brown said, smiling. "I get to really open up and run and people are like, 'Wow, that's a big guy moving.' It doesn't look like I'm just having to try super hard."
Indeed, Brown's big strides allow him to cover a lot of ground faster than one might imagine. The same is true in pass protection, where Brown said he has had to kind of figure out what works for him within the context of the offense. While some techniques are static across all lines, Brown has had to adjust a bit simply because of his size.
Having left tackle Joe Staley as a mentor on the other side has also been instrumental in Brown's development.
"Football is football," Brown said. "At the end of the day, whatever they ask you to do, you've just got to do it. Once you kind of get the game plan down, then you know what you do to kind of tweak your technique to their liking but still be able to help yourself out."
Since Brown is in only his third season, he's not yet eligible for a contract extension, though he will be after the season. When Denver pass-rusher Von Miller was in the Bay Area for joint practices with the Niners during the preseason, he offered plenty of praise for Brown. It was the second year in a row he has gushed about Brown.
Afterward, Niners general manager John Lynch joked that Miller was driving Brown's price up. In reality, Brown is the one doing so, and the 49ers are perfectly fine with that if it means he continues to improve.
"I'm polishing everything up," Brown said. "I'm definitely not going to get complacent. I'm not trying to be that one-hit wonder guy. I just want to keep establishing myself and keep getting better."