Philly Brown could be the Panthers’ fastest receiver but he wasn’t close to that at the NFL scouting combine last winter.
Brown ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash in February – on the slower side for receivers – but he promises he’s faster than that. He said if he ran it this week, he’d be at least a 4.3.
“If you run a 4.3, I run a 4.1,” quarterback Cam Newton interjected three lockers down from Brown.
The two went back and forth about who was faster as if they were brothers, and there’s no doubt Newton likes his little brother.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Brown has become the Panthers’ speedster and deep threat in the second half of the season. The undrafted rookie out of Ohio State has transformed from a slot receiver to explosive playmaker since he came to Carolina, and he said it hasn’t been that difficult.
With the Buckeyes, Brown ran more underneath routes. He averaged 12.1 yards per catch in his four years at Ohio State.
The Panthers realized they needed a downfield threat after they did not re-sign Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency, and they quickly spotted Brown as that guy in training camp.
“You just run,” Brown said. “If you’re fast, with the help of (receivers coach Ricky) Proehl and people like (Jerricho Cotchery), it’s not that hard. The hard stuff is running the underneath stuff. The deep stuff … if you’re fast, you’re fast.”
The Panthers started Brown as their primary punt returner as he sat behind Cotchery, Kelvin Benjamin and Jason Avant on the depth chart. Brown had an up-and-down experience at punt returner, with 16 returns for 153 yards. But those stats were aided by a 79-yard return for a touchdown against Chicago, two weeks after he muffed a punt against the Steelers that resulted in a Pittsburgh touchdown.
Midway through the season, Carolina started phasing Brown out of punt returning and replaced him with the more sure-handed Brenton Bersin. It also allowed Brown to focus more on his receiving.
“I don’t think I was doing too much, I just don’t think I was putting 100 percent into both things,” Brown said. “Now that I’m just doing the one thing, it’s just so much easier for me to focus on that and grow as a player and receiver.”
Brown had 11 catches for 113 yards for an average of just more than 10 yards per catch through the first seven games of the season, but he suffered a concussion against Green Bay and was out for the next three games.
It was around that time the Panthers started giving more rookies opportunities. Carolina cut Jason Avant after Week 11’s loss to Atlanta and turned Brown into the true No. 3 receiver.
Since then, Brown has caught 10 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns. His average yards per catch has increased by 8 yards.
“I think he doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I don’t know what his numbers are but he brings a lot to us. His speed is a different dimension. He can really get down and take the top off defenses.
“He’s been huge for us as a rookie who came in with not a ton of expectation. He’s really carved out a pretty significant role in this offense and that’s a credit to him and how hard he’s worked.”
In the first 10 games of the season, the Panthers had 33 passing plays of 20 or more yards and Brown wasn’t involved in any of them. In the past six games, he’s hauled in three of 10 pass plays of 20 or more yards.
Brown has also been involved in the running game. The Panthers have used him on end-arounds late in the season, and he’s had three rushes of 13-plus yards in the past three games.
That’s how Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson has seen him mostly be used by the Panthers.
“Yeah, he’s pretty much their trickery guy, he does a lot of reverses,” Peterson said on a teleconference this week. “They put him back in the pistol sometimes, they move him around a lot to try to find ways to get him the ball and try to get defenses moving one way and Jonathan Stewart going another and you have Cam coming up the middle. So those guys have a lot of different things they do to try to confuse our defense.”