CHARLOTTE -- When the Carolina Panthers were deciding whether to pursue free agent defensive end Tyler Brayton this offseason, they went back to their notes from the 2003 draft. It's a good thing, because years of being jerked back and forth while in Oakland left him unable to show much on a consistent basis.
The Panthers hope the 28-year-old can show something far beyond the 6.0 sacks he's posted in five years, largely because they're going to leave him in a spot. With the Raiders, he bounced from position to position and back again, and never did any of them well enough to find a permanent and productive home.
"It's great," Brayton said with a huge grin when asked of his role in Charlotte. "That's all you want in this league, for someone to define your role and you just go out and do the best you can."
For the Panthers, that role's left defensive end. He's quite different from the guy who's been there the past six years (Julius Peppers), but when you hear personnel men describe Brayton, you hear a lot of the same terms they used for retired Panthers end Mike Rucker. He works hard, and plays smart. They talk about his use of leverage (despite his long-limbed and lean build), his natural sense of the game.
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Those are the things the Panthers saw when they decided to sign him to a two-year deal this offseason, hoping to tap into a misused resource on the cheap.
"We go all the way back to when we evaluated him coming out of college; he was a high draft pick that really never found a spot," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He played outside linebacker, defensive end, pass-rush defensive tackle, but we liked the way he played. We liked his heart, his aggressiveness, how he competed snap-to-whistle.
"He's a guy we're going to try to work into our system and see how it goes. So far it's been pretty good."
Of course, with his lack of stats, the best display of Brayton's on-field aggressiveness was from a moment he'd rather let go. Playing Seattle on Monday Night Football in 2006, a confrontation with Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens ended when Brayton kneed his opponent in the groin. He was ejected and later fined $25,000. The ironic part is that those who've known him for years laugh about it because it was so out of character for the mild-mannered Brayton.
"I guess I'll address this one time and one time only with you guys: How far in the past is that? Two or three years?" he said Monday. "It was just one of those things where football is an emotional game, and you can't let your emotions get the best of you. But they did on that night. Things got out of hand.
"For that I apologize. And I've apologized before. I'm just moving forward, learning from that experience and keeping my emotions in check."
He's been mentioned in the middle of other scenarios that sound bad but might not really be, particularly when he challenged then-teammate Randy Moss when he felt the star receiver wasn't putting forth full effort.
To the Panthers, those sorts of things are positives rather than negatives, as they point to the kind of something-to-prove competitiveness they look for in fringe free agents. Like they had with Rucker, they're looking for something of a clock-puncher opposite Peppers, especially now that the pass-rusher has moved to his more natural right-side assignment. On the left side, Brayton's going to be counted on to contain the run, but they think he has more burst than he's shown in the past. To take advantage of it, they also plan to use him as an inside rusher in nickel packages, but for the most part, the 6-foot-6, 280-pounder gets to play defensive end like he had coming into the league.
"Football's football," Brayton said. "When it comes down to it, you've got to be physical, you've got to be smart, and you've got to play fast. Sometimes people say it's not about the position, it's about the disposition of the player.
"But it definitely helps to get into a groove and know exactly what your role is."
It also helps that he's not saddled with the burden of such high expectations in Charlotte. That wore on him in Oakland, where he was viewed as a bust. It didn't help that he arrived after the Raiders made the Super Bowl in 2002, then followed with a 19-61 record during his five-year stint.
With the Panthers, he's enjoying the fresh start, and the chance to redefine himself on his own terms, and at his natural position again.
"Yeah, there's always a little bit of pressure (associated with draft status)," he said. "Any time you're out on that field, there's pressure, no matter where you came from. But I definitely felt pressure from myself that I wanted to succeed and push myself to be the best. When that didn't happen, when I didn't have personal success or team success, I took it pretty hard. So, I would say the pressure was more being put on by myself.
"I still put pressure on myself to perform every day, and got something to prove every day. This is absolutely a fresh start. We'll see how it works out, but right now there's nothing but positive feelings, it's a nice change."
n NOTES: Free agent acquisition D.J. Hackett sat out Monday's practice after reporting swelling in his knee after last week's work. The former Seattle wide receiver came here with a reputation for making plays, when he's well enough to. Hackett missed 31 games in four seasons with the Seahawks because of a variety of ailments. ...
First-rounder Jeff Otah practiced Monday for the first time, after he took off last week and minicamp to recover from a high ankle sprain.
Fox downplayed the absence, saying: "It was precautionary. If we were playing games, he'd have played."
"It feels good to finally get out there; things are faster than they were in college," Otah said. "You know what you're doing, but you've got to get it in your head a little faster and just react. ...
"It feels good to be out there today, can't wait for tomorrow."
Otah worked with the starters, replacing veteran Jeremy Bridges at right tackle with the first team.