Back in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and made the 2020 NFL Draft a virtual event, general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Matt Rhule attended the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. There they met with Derrick Brown — the first of a few meetings between the organization and the Auburn product in a process that ended with Carolina selecting Brown at No. 7 overall on Thursday.
Hurney and Rhule met with Brown at the NFL Combine, too. And then Hurney met with Brown at Auburn's Pro Day on March 6 — before the rest of the Pro Days were canceled. But that first meeting left a lasting impression on both the Panthers head coach and general manager.
After making Brown the first pick of Rhule's tenure as head coach, Hurney said it wasn't necessarily any one thing Brown said back in Mobile, but instead how he made the two feel throughout the conversation.
"When he walked out of the room, we both shook our heads and said, 'Wow,'" Hurney recalled Thursday night.
As for Rhule, it was the manner in which Brown talked about his defensive line coach at Auburn, Rodney Garner, that left a long-lasting impression.
"The thing that he said for me, was that he kept talking about his D-line coach, and how much his D-line coach meant to him," Rhule said. "And I really believe that one of the ways you be successful — people who are successful in life, they're usually very grateful people. They're appreciative of the people who have been in their lives, appreciative of the opportunities. They don't look at everything as negative, they look at it as positive.
"And when he talked about his defensive line coach — here's a guy getting ready to make a bunch of money and he's talking about how much this man's impacted his life. I said, that must be a great defensive line coach — Coach Garner. And at the same time, I also said, 'This is someone who really gets it.' It really kind of grabbed me."
Aside from his play, Brown's character is what kept him on Hurney and Rhule's radar throughout the winter and spring. But pairing his effectiveness on the field with his character was part of why both the general manager and head coach thought they might not have a chance to pick him up at No. 7.
"Honestly, every time we met with him — I met with him after the season — I really didn't think he would make it to seven," Hurney said.
And so according to Hurney, this was a case of a player being the most talented and being the best fit for the team. And while the Panthers did consider trading back, Brown's availability took that off the table.
"We had some calls before and during, but really the way it fell I think for a lot of teams — not only for us but for other teams behind us — I think they were kind of intrigued with the opportunities they had," Hurney said. "But when Derrick was there, I think Matt and I, we felt very strongly about taking him."
Plus, Rhule noted that offensive coordinator Joe Brady found Brown the most difficult player to game plan against in the SEC last season when Brady was coaching at LSU.
When the Panthers made their selection at No. 7, dynamic former Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons was also still available. Asked why Carolina went with Brown, Hurney said the Panthers had Brown and Simmons graded close together. But part of what separated the two was the shared philosophy between coach and GM of building the team from the interior. And Brown has the ability to help all three levels of the defense with his strength and versatility as a defensive lineman.
"I think what Derrick does is, Derrick not only helps guys like KK (Short) and the rest of the line, he helps Shaq (Thompson) — he helps the linebackers," Hurney said. "He's a big, powerful player who's got a real good first step. We think he's a three-down player."
Rhule said while the Panthers are more likely to play a 4-3 base defensive front, Brown's versatility gives the team options. And Rhule praised Brown's ability to play all along the line, which can make him effective not just against the run but also the pass.
"I think what we need to do, especially now that we're getting KK healthy, is have some interior guys that can really get in the face of the quarterbacks in this league. You have three established quarterbacks in the NFC South, so I think just having a guy with his arm length — I think it's like 34, 35-inch arms — that's an ability to keep offensive lineman off him, an ability to affect the quarterback area. And I think he's only just beginning in his ability as a pass rusher.
"He's a guy to us that allows us to go to three-down, four-down (linemen) — he can be a nose, he can be a three-technique. He's even gone out and been a five-technique," Rhule added. "Big men that can move like him are versatile, so we can use him all around the front."
Generally, Rhule and Hurney were so effusive in their praise of Brown that this was clearly a player they'd targeted for a long time. And now, they'll have Brown to help construct a successful scheme.
"He is a really good piece to add to our defense and start building our defense," Hurney said.
View photos of Carolina's first-round pick, Derrick Brown, out of Auburn.