CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers had a decision to make with the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft — Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown or Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
The Panthers chose Brown, a 6-foot-5, 326-pound run stopper who they hope will upgrade a position ravaged in free agency and help free up other defenders to make plays by taking on double teams up front.
“We (ranked) them very close together obviously, but I think we believe that you start building from the front,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said of what he acknowledged was a difficult decision.
Simmons was drafted with the next pick, No. 8 overall, to Arizona. He was a strong consideration for the Panthers because five-time All-Pro Luke Kuechly abruptly retired after last season leaving a void at linebacker.
Brown was at home with his mother, brother, girlfriend and 1-year-old son when his phone began to vibrate on the table. It wasn’t like being in Las Vegas for the draft, but Brown said it was still extremely special because he got to spend the night with the people he loves the most.
“It’s a surreal moment,” Brown said via Zoom conference call. “There is no words to describe it.”
Brown played four seasons at Auburn and was a first-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-SEC selection as a senior, as well as a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy. He had 55 tackles and four sacks last season along with pass breakups and forced two fumbles.
The Panthers were in need of a defensive tackle after Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler left via free agency, leaving Kawann “KK” Short as the only returner at that position. Short is a two-time Pro Bowl selection but did not play last season due to a shoulder injury.
New head coach Matt Rhule said Short will be paired with Brown up front at the tackle positions as the Panthers begin to transition back to a 4-3 defense this season.
Rhule said the Panthers need interior defensive linemen who can “get in the face of quarterbacks” because they play in the NFC South, which features Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
“Those are guys that I have watched for a long time, and now I’m going to get a chance to go play ball against them,” Brown said.
“He has an ability to affect the quarterback area,” Rhule said. “He’s only just beginning in his ability to be a pass rusher. He has been a dominant, dominant run force.”
Hurney said he never thought Brown would drop to No. 7 after meeting with him face-to-face after the season.
However, when the Giants took offensive tackle Andrew Thomas at No. 4, it freed up Brown for the Panthers since the Dolphins and Chargers both had their eyes set on quarterbacks with the fifth and sixth picks.
Hurney said the Panthers view Brown as a “three down player” who is big enough to take on multiple blockers and free up others to make plays. They also like his ability to play the nose tackle when the Panthers want to use a three-man front.
“Derrick not only helps guys like KK and the rest of the line, but he helps Shaq (Thompson) and he helps the rest of the linebackers,” Hurney said. “He’s a big powerful player with a really good first step. … He helps against the run, but he also gets push up the middle” in the pass rush.
During his four seasons at Auburn, Brown had 170 tackles — 33 1/2 for a loss — with 15 sacks.
“He didn’t have the greatest stats, but he helps other players” make plays, Hurney said.
Said Brown: “Everybody wants to say I’m a run stuffer, but I do it all. You go back and watch my tapes.”
Brown joins a Panthers team in the midst of a rebuild. Carolina has parted ways with several other key players, including Kuechly, quarterback Cam Newton, tight Greg Olsen, defensive end Mario Addison and cornerback James Bradberry after going 5-11.
The last time the Panthers took a player from Auburn in the first round was Newton in 2011 — and he went on to earn league MVP honors in 2015 while leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
Carolina released Newton this offseason, replacing him with Teddy Bridgewater.
The Panthers are coming off back-to-back losing seasons, leading to the firing of two-time Associated Press coach of the year Ron Rivera with four games left in the 2019 season.
The Panthers entered the draft needing to upgrade their defense after losing nine starters from last year’s team that allowed 29.4 points per game, second-most in the NFL.