DE Brown bears weight of Panthers draft gamble
Sitting at 4-6, decimated by injuries and facing a brutal closing schedule, Carolina's playoff prospects look bleak. That only makes the scrutiny more intense for rookie defensive end Everette Brown. Because of him, the Panthers don't have a first-round draft pick next spring. "The move that they made during the draft was a big move," Brown acknowledged this week. Coming off a 12-4 season, the Panthers spent the offseason in a win-now mode. They returned all but one starter, then on draft day traded next year's first-round pick to San Francisco for the 49ers' second-round choice. With the 43rd selection, Carolina took Brown, the baby-faced, ex-Florida State star who immediately became a second-round pick with first-round expectations. "You need to realize that and know that's how they expect you to play right away," Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said. "He knows that." There was a reason Brown slipped to the second round. At 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, he's undersized for a conventional NFL defensive end. The Panthers liked him because new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks effectively used smaller, speedy ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in his old job in Indianapolis. Brown's NFL career began with him feeling worn down and weak. "It was an issue for me," Brown said. "People will always talk about the size difference and the size that I lacked. But for me, I didn't feel as strong as I needed to be. I didn't feel myself." Brown didn't crack the starting lineup, then missed a Week 3 loss to Dallas with a sprained ankle. He kept working in the weight room, however, determined to become the disruptive factor the Panthers planned on when making their big gamble. It's worked. As many rookies face exhaustion and a drop-off in play as they participate in the longest season of their lives, Brown feels rejuvenated. "I feel 100 percent better now than I felt the first game of the season, which is a little weird because my body never went through that before," Brown said. "But coach says on film I look totally different, I look stronger, I look more explosive. You want to be playing your best ball here at the end." Brown has only one sack, in an Oct. 11 victory over Washington. But he's been more of a factor in the past month. He has seven quarterback pressures in the past four games, and got his first start of his career last week against Miami with Peppers limited to passing downs because of an injured hand. Brown has played more on passing downs with Charles Johnson (pectoral) out last week and again Sunday at the New York Jets. "He has an excellent work ethic," coach John Fox said Thursday. "He's playing the run a lot more aggressively, a lot stronger. We always knew he had pass rush skills, but he's playing the run better." Yet there are still questions about the trade. Two games out of the wild-card chase and with New England (7-3), Minnesota (9-1) and New Orleans (10-0) still on the schedule, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. They need help in many areas, but a possible top 10 pick will belong to the 49ers. "I feel like I was able to come in and contribute," Brown said. "There's not any (more) pressure than I put on myself when I step on the field for practices, games to produce and be a force on the team." With 13 tackles and two forced fumbles, Brown may need to make a big leap next season. Peppers, the four-time Pro Bowl pick who said last spring he wanted to play elsewhere, will become a free agent again. The Panthers could put the restrictive franchise tag on him again, but would be forced to pay him a salary-cap busting one-year deal worth more than $20 million. "With the uncertainty of what's going to happen next year with Julius, he needs to kind of take on that leadership spot," Beason said of Brown. "He needs to take on that role where more is demanded of him and run with it." NOTES: LB Na'il Diggs (rib) missed his second straight practice Thursday, leaving the Panthers dangerously thin there with Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson out for the season. ... DT Damione Lewis (shoulder) was limited. ... DE Julius Peppers (hand), FB Brad Hoover (ankle), S Charles Godfrey (ankle) and RB Jonathan Stewart (Achilles') practice in full. ... Fox said it's possible they'll mix and match Godfrey, Chris Harris and Sherrod Martin based on situations and matchups as Godfrey returns against the Jets after missing four games.