Panthers on track to have NFL's youngest defense in past 10 years

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The last time Carolina Panthers first-round pick Derrick Brown joined a defense with as many new pieces as he’s around now, the tackle was entering his freshman season at Auburn in 2016.

“We finished in the top 15 in the country," Brown said.

That season, Auburn finished seventh in the nation in scoring defense a year after finishing 54th. The jump in overall defense was considerable, too, from 71st to 28th.

A major difference between what Brown faced in 2016 to now was that Auburn had six returning starters. The Panthers have only four, and one of those -- Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short -- spent most of last season on injured reserve.

Auburn four years ago also didn’t have to deal with a pandemic that shut down offseason workouts and a preseason in which players have to wear monitors that go off if they are within 6 feet of each other for longer than 10 minutes.

So the likelihood of a big jump at Carolina seems like a long shot.

“I’m still trying to learn the playbook,” Brown said. “So trying to get my mind right on that first. Before I can even play fast, I’ve got to be able to learn everything and not be cautious.”

Brown will be a part of what likely will be the NFL’s youngest defense in the past 10 years.

Youngest by far.

The average age of the projected defensive starters will be 23.45 if second-round pick Jeremy Chinn beats out Juston Burris at strong safety and there are no other surprises. That’s three years younger than last season's average (26.63) and four years younger than the NFL average (27) since 2010.

Even if Burris wins the safety job, the average age will be 23.81.

Either way, that would represent the NFL’s youngest defense since 2010. Cleveland’s 2018 starters averaged 24.8.

That typically is not a formula for success. The Browns ranked 30th in total defense, 31st in first downs allowed and 21st in points allowed per game in 2018.

On top of that, the Panthers won’t have any preseason games to work out any bugs. It puts them in an unenviable place.

“I feel like I’m missing the experience,” Brown said.

The Panthers had plenty of experience last season and still struggled, ranking 31st in points allowed and last in rushing touchdowns allowed with 31, eight more than any other team.

That made it easier for first-year coach Matt Rhule to move on from veterans such as defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Mario Addison and Kyle Love and safety Eric Reid. The team also lost middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the heart and soul of the defense, to early retirement.

The Panthers replaced them with free agents and draft picks, the first time in modern NFL history a team used all seven picks on defense.

Cornerback Donte Jackson, who started 10 games last season after starting 10 as a rookie in 2018, doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.

“I mean, beyond the new faces, we have a lot of guys willing to compete and get out and make a difference to this defense," said Jackson, a former second-round pick out of LSU. “New faces don’t matter as long as everybody comes in ready to work."

The attitude and work ethic the first few weeks of camp are what Rhule likes about this defense. He also admits the lack of experience is a challenge.

“Most of us learn from failure way more than success, right?" Rhule said. “We don’t even have preseason games, so we have to do it from practice. We just need time and experience. We just need to keep playing together.

“The good news is we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football."

Rhule mentioned Short, Jackson, cornerback Eli Apple, safety Tre Boston, ends Stephen Weatherly and Brian Burns, and linebacker Shaq Thompson.

They all have NFL experience, some at a high level. They don’t have experience playing together.

Having Brown and Short inside should help.

“Big, dominant defensive linemen make it easier, you know," Rhule said with a laugh. “You can help guys in coverage. Derrick, you draft somebody [No. 7 overall], you expect them to be good, obviously. But seeing him live has been outstanding."

Burns, who has beefed up to 255 pounds to play more end in a 4-3 scheme after playing a lot of outside linebacker in a 3-4 last season, likes what having Brown and Short inside could mean for his sack totals.

“They’re going to take up a lot of attention and hopefully I’m going to have a lot of one-on-ones on the outside," he said, noting his goals for 2020 are “kind of confidential" after having 7.5 sacks as a rookie.

Predicting goals, because of the youth, is almost impossible. That’s why the goal of first-year NFL defensive coordinator Phil Snow is to play fast and be ready for anything.

Having everybody on the same page might not happen overnight as it did for Brown & Co. at Auburn. It might take half a season. It might take another offseason of additions with free agency and draft picks.

“I haven’t played with Derrick yet," Short said. “But just seeing him around, and what he’s done from the day he got drafted to today, he’s just put himself in position. Guy’s willing to work. Guy's willing to do whatever it takes to help out anybody.

“As far as the double-teams, who knows? They might just double-team him and try to leave me one-on-one, so I don’t know. We just got to be ready."