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Not for the faint of heart: Pro Bowlers weigh in on facing Derrick Brown

Derrick Brown

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tristian Wirfs still remembers the first game he faced Derrick Brown. It was mid-September 2020, the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were facing off in an early season matchup, and the two first-rounders—Brown and Wirfs—were testing the mettle of what would become a twice-a-year fight between divisional rivals.

It took little time at all for Brown to make an impression.

"He's a freak of nature," Wirfs said simply.

Wirfs lets out a scoffing laugh as he delivers the description, knowing even after all this time, the label doesn't even really encompass what can't ever be fully described.

"I faced him, it was our rookie year, playing at home and I remember—he might remember, he got a penalty on it, he got a hands to the face call," Wirfs made sure to add, "but he was just bull rushing me, he kind of looped out, just started bull rushing me. But he's like pressing me back and I remember he ran me right back into (quarterback) Tom (Brady).

"I felt Tom hit the back of my helmet and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I hope I didn't hurt Tom.' He's just a dog, … he's so athletic, so explosive and at his size, that combination is just rare."

Derrick Brown, Tom Brady

Brown made a few impressions that rookie year and the next, that still make some of the league's most tenured offensive lineman rock back on their heels and let out a whistling breath of begrudging admiration.

"I actually played him for the first time back in (2021). I think it was a Thursday night game," Houston Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil recalls. "That's when I realized he was strong as hell. I mean, that was his rookie year, and (he was) strong as hell, explosive, good instinct, great player."

In the three years since, Brown has become only more explosive, instinctual, and strong. It's a unique combination that sent him to Orlando this year for the 2024 Pro Bowl as one of the NFC defensive linemen. Originally a first alternate, Brown replaced Aaron Donald at the annual gathering of the league's best players.

That means the top NFL's top offensive linemen are there too. And those O-linemen can all agree on one thing; facing Derrick Brown is not for the faint of heart.

"He's just like a big strong dude. And he's got good quickness and then good moves," Colts guard Quenton Nelson explained. "He's got a lot of ways where he can win and the scary part is like, he's still getting better. He's still a young guy in the league."

Nelson's teammate, center Ryan Kelly added: "I think the combination of strength and quickness, I feel like definitely plays in to his attributes and he's got a big motor too. So, any time you can combine those three things, it makes him pretty dangerous."

When a game wrecker sets up shop in the trenches, the game plan—on paper—is "easy," according to Tunsil.

"The center slides his way," Tunsil said. "Can't stop a player like that. Got to double-team him every chance you get."

It's the execution that becomes more difficult.

"Their defense they (the Panthers) play, obviously for being one of their best defensive players, (opponents are) going to double-team him a lot," Kelly pointed out, "so for him to produce that much production is very impressive."

That much production this past season was to the tune of a record-setting 103 tackles. He bypassed the previous record of 98 tackles by a defensive lineman, set by Miami Dolphins lineman Christian Wilkins in 2022.

"It's kind of insane that he was able to do what he did," Wirfs said, pointing out twice that it's not even an interior lineman record. "It's across the board."

The record for Brown came during a downtrodden season for the Panthers, while the club went 2-15. It meant a conundrum of emotions for the third-year, former first-round pick.

"It's hard to lose those many games, that was tough for us," Brown admitte, before heading out to his first Pro Bowl practice. "And as a unit, I think, especially on defense, we wish we could have done better. I just think to be able to be here and be able to reap this benefit myself. That's pretty awesome. But I mean, it's attributed to so much other stuff that went on from the defensive side of the ball."

While Brown will respectfully remain humble and effusive about the record, those who were the victims in his path this past season are quick to brag on him.

That's impressive," Tunsil said. "I never thought I'd see it. That's the type of player he is."

The format for the new-age Pro Bowl means a defensive lineman is largely insignificant during the flag football game that replaced the former sort-of-full-speed Pro Bowl game. Instead Brown, along with other D-lineman in Orlando, will take part in a variety of skills challenges. What matters though, is that Brown was invited to Florida not for what he could do in a flag football game, but for all he did game after game for 17 weeks this past season.

And all he did was dominate.

Take a look at photos from Dan Morgan and Dave Canales' introductory press conference.

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