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Carolina Panthers sign Pro Bowler Derrick Brown to multi-year extension. Why it is vital

This offseason, the Carolina Panthers aimed to fortify their defense by keeping the unit’s young, promising core of playmakers together. And while that turned out to be an ambitious goal, as free agency’s melee quickly proved, at least one key defender is staying put.

Derrick Brown, the record-setting defensive lineman who earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2023, agreed to a multi-year contract extension with the Carolina Panthers, the team announced on Friday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that it is a four-year, $96 million extension that includes $63.165 million in guaranteed money.

The move helps stabilize a defense that was quite good in 2023 and that will undoubtedly look a bit different in 2024 and beyond. Brown’s return comes after the Panthers traded away star pass rusher Brian Burns — who is reportedly being paid $30 million a year by the New York Giants — and after several other defensive departures, including that of breakout interior linebacker Frankie Luvu, veteran safety Vonn Bell and veteran defensive back Donte Jackson. (The team, in response, added pass rushers DJ Wonnum and Jadeveon Clowney, as well as a bunch of other young talents.)

Brown’s return is good news for the Panthers’ defense. General manager Dan Morgan, at the NFL Scouting Combine, said the team would look to extend Brown at some point during the preseason, adding that “Derrick’s a great player, great person, and he embodies what a Panther is.”

The 6-foot-5, 269-pound Brown led the league in tackles among defensive linemen with 103 in his first year under defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who has been retained for 2024 as the Dave Canales regime begins. Brown’s big year last season made him the first DL to reach the 100-tackle threshold in a season, according to Stats Pass, which started keeping the stat in 1994. The record was previously set by Miami’s Christian Wilkins, who notched 98 tackles in 2022.

Before Friday, Carolina was projected to have about $3 million in 2024 cap space according to Over The Cap. Brown’s extension should free up some cap space; the 2020 draft pick, on his old deal, had one more year left on his rookie contract plus a one-year team option after that, and was owed about $11.7 million in guaranteed money in 2024.

Brown is now among the top-paid defensive linemen in the league. His $24 million per-year average is behind only Chris Jones of the Chiefs, Christian Wilkins of the Raiders and Justin Madubuike of the Ravens, according to Spotrac.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Derrick Brown smiles at his teammates following a series against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, January 7, 2024.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Derrick Brown smiles at his teammates following a series against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, January 7, 2024.

Analysis: Why bringing Derrick Brown to Panthers is so big

It’s no secret that Brown is among the best run stoppers in the NFL. His league-leading tackles number substantiates that. His teammates and coaches echoed that sentiment throughout the season, too — particularly after he was “snubbed” initially from the NFC Pro Bowl roster, an honor that values pass rushing numbers over everything else.

What’s less publicized but equally important? His versatility.

Brown’s breakout season in 2023 came after Evero arrived and implemented a 3-4 defense, a departure from the 4-3 scheme that Brown saw steady success in for his three prior years. His evolution was impressive. He hit career-high season totals in tackles, run stops and quarterback hits with three games remaining, and that resulted from a system that called for him to react to the block first — run or pass — before transitioning into his pass rush.

But that’s not to say his presence in the 4-3 scheme was middling. The 2020 first-round draft pick out of Auburn, in fact, told reporters at one point late in the 2023 season that he thought he impacted the game more in the 4-3 scheme.

Even if there was a hint of false modesty in there, it was revealing nonetheless.

“To be honest, I feel like I played better last year,” Brown told reporters before his Week 16 matchup with Jacksonville in December. “But it’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve been able to be a big part of the defense and, you know, just do my job.”

The fact that he’s shown an ability to be proficient at multiple facets of the game — and in multiple schemes — aligns with the Panthers’ thinking that he was too valuable to not lock down quickly. It also is an encouraging sign for a Panthers defense whose coordinator is regularly in the mix for head coaching opportunities. (Morgan alluded to that possibility at the NFL Combine: “I don’t think it’ll be long before (Evero) is a head coach.”)

“I just think getting familiar with that (4-3) defense (in 2020-22), being able to control where the ball was going in the middle, that was a lot different,” Brown said. “I mean, I feel like I’m doing well in this defense, too, but I feel like this is really my first time getting my feet wet in this defense. So do I think there’s another level I can go to in this defense? I do.”

Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown, center, celebrates a sack against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, January 7, 2024.
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown, center, celebrates a sack against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, January 7, 2024.

Derrick Brown is a first-round pick the Panthers couldn’t give up

Another important point to consider when contextualizing what Brown’s return means: He will not be part of a troubling Panthers trend of developing their first-round picks with aplomb and then letting them peak elsewhere.

Examples of this are littered everywhere in the NFL. Think Christian McCaffrey in 2017, who was a legitimate MVP contender and was an overtime period away from leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl. Think DJ Moore in 2018, who had a career year in Chicago this season. Burns provided the latest instance, when the 2019 first-round draft pick and fan-favorite headed for the Meadowlands this free agency.

In all of these departures, the Panthers saw something in return. (Whether or not those returns were enough is a different story.) But there is something to be said about the Panthers choosing to hold onto someone they molded — and not waiting until the lure of free agency to negotiate (read: Frankie Luvu). It also sends a signal to the rest of the league, perhaps, that stars will be taken care of in Carolina in this new front-office generation.