Panthers GM Scott Fitterer dishes on trade for top draft pick, rookie QBs and free agency
The Carolina Panthers have had a busy March.
First, the Panthers made a massive pre-free agency splash, trading wide receiver DJ Moore and a quartet of premium picks to the Chicago Bears for the first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.
From there, the Panthers went on a measured spending spree in free agency, adding the likes of safety Vonn Bell, quarterback Andy Dalton, tight end Hayden Hurst, running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver Adam Thielen on the open market.
General manager Scott Fitterer has had a full plate of work during the past two weeks. On Monday, he took a brief pause from his offseason wheeling and dealing to explain his reasoning behind the big moves.
Here are some takeaways from Fitterer’s chat with the media:
It took two weeks to pull off the blockbuster trade
Fitterer said his discussions with Bears GM Ryan Poles began at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. The duo had a meeting in a hotel room and then met “a couple of times” in the lobby of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as prospects worked out. Fitterer said he spoke to other teams within the top eight picks with the intent of trading up for a quarterback.
The price to trade up would have been expensive regardless of the Panthers’ landing spot in a trade-up scenario. According to Fitterer, the price of quarterbacks in free agency played into the cost of moving up in the draft as well because of the demand for rookies on cheap contracts was so high.
When the Panthers returned home from Indianapolis, the conversations continued with Chicago. The two sides went over different scenarios through the course of three or four days before pulling the trigger, according to Fitterer.
“We found a spot (in value) that worked for both of us,” Fitterer said. “They wanted a certain amount of compensation. There were things we didn’t want to do, so had to work through that. But, we are able to get there and get the deal done.”
Ultimately, the Panthers traded the ninth and 61st overall picks in this year’s draft, a 2024 first-round pick, a 2025 second-round pick and Moore to Chicago to land the top selection in this year’s class, essentially granting them their choice of quarterback in April.
“We wanted to put ourselves in position to get a quarterback,” Fitterer said.
Fitterer said it was tough to move Moore in the deal.
“You never want to — especially someone like DJ,” Fitterer said. “You do your best not to (trade players), but the price of this No. 1 pick was too expensive to give up all of these picks and everything else to get there. So, unfortunately, we had to give up DJ, who was a great member of our team, did a tremendous job for us, great locker room guy. It hurt, but we had to do what we had to do to get in this position.”
The Panthers refuse to tip their hand on QB
Fitterer and head coach Frank Reich brushed off questions about their preferences at quarterback. While Reich compared those “secrets” to the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, he also acknowledged there was little reason to play smokescreen games at the No. 1 overall pick.
Still, the Panthers want to keep their options open as they enter the pro day stage of the evaluation process. Reich said he expects the top quarterback prospects to come in for “Top 30” visits. Fitterer said he will be at the pro days for Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Florida’s Anthony Richardson over the next 10 days.
While a lot has been made of Reich’s history with taller quarterbacks, Fitterer said that the coach has never signaled height as a trait of importance to him. Reich later admitted that he had a high grade on Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson when he was coming out of college.
Alabama’s Young at measured 5-foot-10 and 204 pounds at the scouting combine. Some of his critics have been vocal about Young’s small stature, but the Panthers are refusing to rule out the Crimson Tide quarterback publicly.
Reich went as far as to say that all four of the consensus top quarterbacks will make an impact in the NFL.
“At the combine, I said, ‘if you’re going to go up, you better have conviction,’” Fitterer said. “And we have conviction on players at that top, that we feel good about. .... I’m not gonna go into it — we feel good about being in this position.”
Fitterer said trading up to No. 1 takes out the “unknown factor,” because the team can take who they want without interference. The GM also said teams haven’t reached out about possibly trading up with the Panthers now in possession of the top pick.
The roster has been built for this moment
Even before the new staff arrived in Carolina, Fitterer had put a plan in place. The Panthers had spent the past couple of years building up the defense. Last offseason, they worked heavily on the offensive line.
That design was about putting pieces in place for the right quarterback. The Panthers wanted to eventually drop a franchise quarterback into a contender-ready roster, according to Fitterer. So, after trading for the top pick and re-signing center Bradley Bozeman, Fitterer went to work on the seemingly neglected area of the roster: the offense.
First, the team signed Dalton to mentor the eventual eventual No. 1 overall pick. After adding experience to the QB room, the team went about surrounding the position with skill players. The Panthers signed Hurst, Sanders and Thielen to be go-to weapons for Dalton and/or the rookie this season and beyond.
Thielen, in particular, was brought in to be a tone-setter in the locker room. According to Fitterer, Thielen signed a three-year deal because he wanted to see the rebuilding process through the finish line. The 32-year-old former All-Pro has a commanding presence and his leadership will be important the rebuilding offense.
The Panthers have used free agency to fill major needs so they don’t have to force moves — beyond quarterback with the first overall pick — during the draft.
According to Fitterer, more moves could be on the way, as the team is still negotiating with wide receiver DJ Chark, who visited the facility last week. When asked if Fitterer could possibly return to the trade market to acquire more draft picks, the GM said he wasn’t looking to trade anyone on the roster as of now.
Shaq Thompson is a team-first player
Veteran linebacker and returning team captain Shaq Thompson took a major pay cut last week to remain in Carolina.
According to Over The Cap, Thompson went from having an $12.3 million base salary in the final year of his previous contract to signing a two-year deal worth $12.6 million in base value.
Fitterer applauded Thompson as one of the most selfless people he had met. Reich called Thompson’s contract decision a “team-first move.”
Fitterer said he had a “man-to-man” conversation with Thompson last week before the two sides agreed on the extension. Reich also spoke with Thompson for more than hour before the deal was done. Both men spoke about Thompson’s desire to remain in Charlotte with the franchise.
▪ Fitterer said there was a discussion about the possibility of going after Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. However, he was seen as an expensive option, and Panthers executives preferred to focus on the draft instead.
▪ Fitterer said keeping the 39th overall pick — the team’s original second-round pick — was very important to the Panthers in the deal with Chicago.
▪ Fitterer acknowledged that the Panthers plan to discuss a contract extension with defensive end Brian Burns after the draft.
▪ Character played a big factor into who the Panthers targeted in free agency, according to Fitterer.
▪ Fitterer said the Panthers aren’t concerned about Thielen’s age because he’s so technically sounds. Thielen’s game isn’t about speed, so the team isn’t concerned about him losing a step and falling off in efficiency. Fitterer said Thielen is best in the slot, but he has the versatility to play in all three spots.
▪ Linebacker Frankie Luvu is seen as a player who can move around from inside to outside linebacker, per Fitterer.
▪ Safety Jeremy Chinn is viewed as a player who can play “big” nickel corner and “dime” linebacker. While he might only be a sub-package player right now, Fitterer said Chinn is valuable to the defense and the team.
▪ The GM mentioned that the Panthers could look to draft an inside linebacker and vertical speed receiver in April.