CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Derrick Brown’s one-year-old son could be heard screaming in the background on Friday night as the Carolina Panthers defensive tackle launched his first foundation event.
The Panthers' first-round pick was holding a Halloween-themed party, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown was home playing dad to son Kai Asher and daughter Kenzley Ray, born last month.
“It really sucks, but we’re in the middle of a crisis so we’ve got to do what we can to stay healthy," Brown told ESPN.com by phone. “We’ve just got to keep pushing."
Brown’s push through the pandemic has been eventful, to say the least. In April, he was selected No. 7 overall by the Panthers and first-year NFL coach Matt Rhule. In July, he proposed to longtime girlfriend Tayla Main.
In September, he began his NFL career with a 29.9 grade by Pro Football Focus that ranked him 154th out of 155 defensive linemen after two games. He didn’t win any of his 27 pass-rushes and wasn’t much of a factor in stopping the run, which was his forte coming out of Auburn.
In a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, Brown had two costly penalties -- unnecessary roughness in the first quarter that led to a touchdown and a hands-to-the-face penalty in the third quarter on third-and-11 -- that earned him a Monday trip to Rhule’s office.
Brown kept pushing.
In a Week 4 victory over Arizona, PFF gave Brown a grade of 89.1 that ranked first among rookie defenders and fourth among defensive tackles. His five tackles for loss after that game ranked first among rookies and third in the NFL with stars such as Joey Bosa, T.J. Watt and Akiem Hicks.
Heading into Sunday’s game against New Orleans (3-2), Brown is living up to everything the Panthers (3-3) believed he could be when they chose him over Clemson linebacker/end Isaiah Simmons.
“He has a lot of ability that a lot of people don’t have," Carolina defensive tackle Zack Kerr said.
Now Brown feels the need to push harder.
With Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short out for the season with a shoulder injury, Brown is the centerpiece of Carolina’s front four.
His ability, in the words of defensive coordinator Phil Snow, to “re-create” the line of scrimmage with his inside push has enabled the Panthers to find more creative ways of pressuring the quarterback. The Panthers rank 11th in total defense with one of the youngest units in the league.
That inside push will be particularly important against Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday.
“It’s going to be major, especially because of that height difference," middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “You know Drew, he wants to be able to stay in the pocket, toss the ball and be comfortable. You get the inside with DB the way he’s playing, you definitely get a chance to move him off his spot."
Brees is 6-foot and weighs slightly over 200 pounds. Brown is 6-5, 326 pounds.
Brown wasn’t able to use his size to his advantage in the first two games. He played hard, as is demanded, but not in an effective or productive way.
That changed in Week 3.
“He’s getting off every play and he’s using his hands a lot better," Snow said. “He’s re-creating the line of scrimmage by getting off on the snap. You’re seeing that productivity now because of that."
The productivity has surged the past two weeks. Brown had no quarterback pressures and a 2.6 percent pass rush win rate in his first four games. He recorded a pressure on a 6.4 rate (three in 47 pass-rush snaps), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
His win rate has been 17.2 the past two weeks. Only former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who was picked second in the draft by Washington, has a better win rate among qualified rookie linemen during that time.
Only 19 of the league’s 110 linemen who have played 50 snaps have a better win rate than Brown during that time.
“DB has been playing awesome," Whitehead said. “He’s played in the SEC [Auburn], but the rigors of playing in the NFL, every week, weekend, week out, everyone is good. His technique has to be on point. He gets it."
Brown has a ways to go to reach the level of the Rams' Aaron Donald, but he’s tied with the perennial All-Pro for first among defensive tackles with six tackles for loss.
To get to Donald’s level, Brown has to not just push the middle of the pocket but collect sacks. Donald already has 7.5 this year. Brown is looking for his first.
That’s one reason Brown can’t point to one play that stands out.
“I’m still looking for it," he said.
Rhule simply is looking for his emerging star to be more consistent.
“That’s the thing ahead of him, is just continue to master what he’s doing so he can play without thinking," he said. “He comes every day with a plan on how to get better, and that’s why you see him improving so much."
Brown never has been more comfortable in his personal life. His top goal in life was to be a father and shape the lives of his children the way his parents did his.
He’s excited about what his foundation might do to help kids through his partnership with Project Universal Love and The Family Institute for Health and Human Services Inc.
He’s just sorry he couldn’t dress up in his big “Mickey McQueen" costume and take his son to the event as a smaller version.
He’ll push for that next year.
“A lot of adversity this year," Brown said. “You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep coming forward every day and do something to get better."