Derrick Brown [1296x729]
Derrick Brown [1296x729] (Credit: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire)

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CHARLOTTE, N. C. -- New Carolina Panthers general manager Dan Morgan has done his best to avoid comparisons with his predecessor. That he and Scott Fitterer remain great friends is one reason. That he was a part of the decisions as Fitterer's right-hand man that led to a change is another.

But the comparisons will come.

And a good place to start is the recent extension Morgan and executive vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis got for 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown.

Fitterer traded away 2017 and 2018 first-round picks Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore. He couldn't get an extension done last year with 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns, and in 2022 he turned down two first-round picks for the edge rusher.

All of that played a role in Fitterer's dismissal and left Morgan with the tough decision to send Burns to the New York Giants this offseason for second- and fifth-round picks.

So extending Brown was critical for Morgan's start at rebuilding a roster and culture around draft picks the way most successful organizations do, the way the Panthers were built when Morgan went from a first-round pick in 2001 to a member of a 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl.

Brown's four-year, $96 million extension with $63 million in guarantees sent a message to the rest of the locker room that the organization is serious about keeping its own.

But as happy as Brown is with his extension and plans to use some of it to build the backyard pool he wished he had when drafted in the middle of the COVID pandemic, there's still caution in his voice when it comes to the direction of the organization.

When asked what message his deal sent after seeing his self-proclaimed "lifelong brother'' Burns traded, he responded, "It is what it is at this point. I'm excited to hold my place here and just keep working.''

When asked about concerns he may have had that the team wasn't committed to its homegrown talent when Burns followed in the path of McCaffrey and Moore, Brown simply said, 'I'm not going to answer that one.''

You can't blame Brown for being cautious. As exciting as change can be, he's been through more than his fair share since being the seventh overall pick in 2020.

Dave Canales is his third head coach.

Outside of plans to build a pool, the most excitement Brown showed during his Wednesday Zoom call came when asked about Carolina retaining defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and his staff.

"Getting Coach E back was a huge thing for me,'' Brown said.

But there is reason to be optimistic. While Carolina struggled to get sacks and turnovers in 2023, it finished fourth in total defense with 293.9 yards allowed per game.

The loss of Burns has been offset by the addition of three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney (31), coming off an impressive 9.5 sack season with the Baltimore Ravens. Carolina also added D.J. Wonnum, who had a career-high eight sacks last season for the Minnesota Vikings, to play opposite Clowney

So there's the potential for the pass rush to be better, particularly with Carolina adding A'Shawn Robinson to play opposite Brown.

"It sounds exciting right now,'' Brown said. "But I don't want to put anything out there until we get ready to hit the grass.''

Evero agreed this isn't the time to gauge what the defense could be.

"But the one thing I will say is I'm really, really, really excited about the group of guys that we have right now,'' he said. "We know that we've got a lot of good football players, talented football players, but also just the football dialogue.

"The football dialogue that we have right now is at such a high level from all the different position rooms.''

That the Panthers will hit the grass with Brown locked down long-term is important. He's coming off a 2023 season in which he set a record for tackles by a defensive lineman with 103, only five fewer than he had in his previous two seasons combined.

He's finally living up to the expectations the organization had for him coming out of Auburn, where he was the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year his senior season.

Evero saw Brown's growth from a year ago on Thursday when he stuck his head into the defensive line meeting room.

"[Defensive line coach Todd] Wash will ask him a question about a technique and Derrick is in there coaching it up,'' he said. "It's just amazing to see the growth that this young man has had.''

One could argue adding production and a huge contract to the leadership qualities that always have been there makes Brown the new face of this defense, even though Brown still gives that distinction to inside linebacker Shaq Thompson.

That in a way makes him the face of what Morgan, Canales and Evero want the team to be.

"The message about Derrick is great guys that are talented players that work hard and do things the right way get rewarded,'' Evero said. "And that's exactly what happened.''