Panthers No. 7 overall pick Derrick Brown had met with Carolina personnel throughout the pre-draft process. But he didn't know the extent of their interest until he answered the phone when the team was on the clock Thursday night.
"Had hopes, but I don't even know, man — it was uncertain and it became a lot more real when they said that I'm going to be a Carolina Panther," Brown said on his Zoom press conference following his selection.
Brown impressed general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Matt Rhule with his play, but really separated himself with his maturity off the field. Rhule cited Brown's decision to not only to come back for his senior season at Auburn, but also the choice to play in the Outback Bowl as reasons why Brown is a fit for what Carolina's brass wants the team to become.
"One of the great things about him though is we knew how serious he was about this. There's story after story. Coaches talk about he's one of the greatest practice players they've ever seen," Rhule said. "He's a consensus top-10 pick. He goes to play in the bowl game — the Citrus Bowl, it's not the playoffs. He's playing against the University of Minnesota.
"He plays every snap except for maybe a couple as his normal rotation. And there's a goal-line stand where he is playing as hard as he can, and to me that's what we need right now in this time. We need guys that are dedicated."
Brown said one factor in returning to Auburn for 2019 was the ability to finish his degree. He accomplished that, graduating with a marketing degree from the university's Harbert College of Business in December. But he also seemed to find it important to finish what he started as a football player. And once he made that decision, Brown says he never looked back.
"I never worried about getting hurt. I pushed through and just kept going and going and going, and trying to step up and be that leader that I always knew I could be," Brown said. "When it came time to decide to play in the Outback Bowl, it was never a question. My teammates elected me a captain so I was going to finish my season. They put me in a position to lead them, and I was going to finish and not cut the job short."
Brown seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, too, when asked how he would describe himself as a player.
"Everyone wants to say I'm a run-stuffer — well, I do it all," Brown said. "You can go back and watch my tape. I had the most sacks. The league I played in was a lot compared to the NFL. It's just one of those things where I think I'm a three-down player, and I'm not here to sit there and try to make everybody like me, but I'm here to do what I do."
Hurney and Rhule said they see Brown in the same way — a three-down player who can push the pocket in known-passing situations. And that's going to be important in the NFC South, which features high-level quarterbacks on the Panthers three opponents.
The defensive lineman has been working to become a better pass rusher, saying he feels like improvement in that area starts with "relentless effort."
"Then I think the next step is being able to put those tools in the bag," Brown said "Being in shape, being in the highest playing level that you can be, giving my best effort going forward, and just adding more tools to the tool bag when it comes time for me to be able to perform."
At this point, no one knows when NFL facilities will reopen and players will be able to get back to working with their coaches and teammates to prepare for the 2020 season. But whenever that time comes, Brown says he'll be ready. He's already purchased some makeshift weights just to keep up on his training.
And no matter what, he knows the choice to stay at Auburn for his senior year paid off.
"Best decision of my life," Brown said. "I got my degree in my hand and I was a top-10 pick. Can't ask for much more in this life."
View photos of Carolina's first-round pick, Derrick Brown, out of Auburn.