Scott Fitterer

Latest On Sam Darnold

With the Panthers waiting until the Day 2 of the draft to add a signal-caller, Sam Darnold remains at the top of the team’s quarterback depth chart. His status as the No. 1 at the position may be temporary, general manager Scott Fitterer detailed recently. 

“Sam is the number one guy right now” he said, via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk“He has every opportunity to take it and run with it. We hope he does well. We’ve seen improvement already under [offensive coordinator] Ben McAdoo.” 

McAdoo publicly anointed Darnold the starter in the build-up to the draft, though he was quick to walk back his remarks in light of the team’s probability of selecting from this year’s underwhelming QB class. At the time, the Panthers only had Darnold and P.J. Walker under contract; that, and the desire to find a long-term franchise pivot led Carolina to trade into the third round and select Ole Miss alum Matt Corral.

Corral was part of the QB group which – aside from Kenny Pickett – fell considerably in the draft. Concerns related to his ankle injury and interview process turned some teams away from the former Rebel, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Carolina thinks highly enough of him, however, that Fitterer left open the possibility of him playing at some point in 2022.

Another factor in this situation is, of course, the possibility of a reunion with Cam Newton. The former MVP would provide a much more experienced option compared to the rest of the depth chart, though his arrival midway through the 2021 campaign didn’t help ease the team’s struggles. Overall, Fitterer emphasized that the top spot is far from an assurance at this point.

“We’ll see how it goes. [Darnold is] in the lead right now, but until someone really owns that position… it will always be up for grabs.”

Panthers Eyeing Extension With Brian Burns

One of the teams with a key decision to make with respect to fifth-year options was the Panthers. Not surprisingly, they officially picked up the option on edge rusher Brian Burns yesterday, but the team is hoping to have him under contract for much more than the next two seasons. 

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said during yesterday’s announcement “we have hopes of extending him beyond [2023]” (Twitter link via Joe Person of the Athletic). It had long been known, of course, that Carolina would exercise the option on Burns; likewise, it comes as little surprise that they would want to get a long-term deal done with the 24-year-old.

The 16th overall pick in 2019, Burns had an immediate impact during his rookie season. Despite playing less than half of the team’s defensive snaps, he registered 7.5 sacks. In the two seasons since then, he has taken his production a step further, with back-to-back years at 50+ tackles and nine sacks. He was named to his first career Pro Bowl in 2021.

Between those numbers and his age, getting a second contract done as soon as possible would make plenty of sense. His 2023 salary will be just over $16MM as a result of the option being picked up, which could provide a framework for a longer commitment. Burns will continue next season as an anchor of the team’s pass rush, along with the likes of Yetur Gross-Matos and the recently re-signed Frankie Luvu.

Panthers’ Draft Plan

Carolina’s draft plans are becoming foggier and foggier each day as the Panthers are either really running through all of their options or else they are throwing up one heck of a smokescreen. Supporting a rumor we posted almost two weeks ago, Carolina will host NC State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu and Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross this Tuesday for their 30 visits, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. 

Breer goes on to posit what many have deduced at this point from Carolina’s actions: if either of two of the Draft’s top offensive linemen fall to the Panthers’ first-round pick at sixth overall, Carolina would be expected to pounce at the opportunity to select them. This would fill a huge need at offensive tackle for the Panthers, but would leave another position need behind center unaddressed. The assumption is that, if the Panthers draft Ekwonu or Cross, they would address their need at quarterback by going after a veteran option like Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo.

This take seems to be diametrically opposed to multiple other takes we’ve heard in the last four days alone. On Wednesday, we heard that Carolina was considering trading their No. 6 overall pick to grab a few additional draft picks. Yesterday, we reported on rumors that “the consensus of the people in this league” is that Carolina is going to draft one of two quarterbacks: Malik Willis out of Liberty or Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh. Six hours later, we reported that the Panthers were reversing course on statements made in March about their lack of interest in Mayfield and, in fact, had the inside track to acquire the Browns’ quarterback.

That last report is the only one that lines up with Breer’s assertion from this morning. That could either point to some much anticipated clarification on the Panthers’ draft plans or it could be some expert mind-trickery by general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule. Sandwiched between the Giants’ two top-seven picks (No. 5 & No. 7), the Panthers’ draft needs are not far off from those of New York. So these mind-games could be targeted specifically at one franchise. Those early reports that Carolina would draft Willis or Pickett could’ve been aimed to put pressure on New York to take a quarterback with their first pick, increasing the odds that an offensive lineman like Ekwonu or Cross falls to them at six. Similarly, the increased reports that the Panthers want Ekwonu or Cross and will sign a veteran quarterback may be aimed to take that pressure off of New York, lulling the Giants into selecting an offensive lineman and giving Carolina more options at quarterback in the first round.

It’s a lot to follow and mostly going in circles, I know, but Carolina can afford to focus this much attention on their No. 6 pick because, with no selections in the second or third round, their second pick of the draft comes at the end of the fourth round slotted as 137th overall. While the scouting brass may have plans to acquire extra picks, their current situation makes their decision surrounding the sixth pick their most important decision of the offseason.

I honestly don’t know whether to tell you to expect things to get clearer or muddier as we get closer to the 2022 NFL Draft. The idea that Carolina is purposefully driving the narrative could even be proved false and we may find out that they truly have no idea what they want to do. Stay locked in as I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear out of Carolina in the next week and a half.

Panthers’ Plans At Quarterback

After losing out on the Deshaun Watson-sweepstakes, the Panthers have maintained that they still intend to add another quarterback to the roster, according to Nick Shook of NFL.com. In a press conference covered by Shook and Joseph Person of The Athletic, general manager Scott Fitterer laid out the team’s plans moving forward.

Answering the obvious question, quarterbacks Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker are still under contract and will be afforded every opportunity to earn the starting job moving forward. The issue there lies in the fact that they’ve already been given such an opportunity and the question of future quarterback is still being asked as a result. Fitterer did inform reporters that head coach Matt Rhule had talked with a free agent signing from last year, Cam Newton. On the matter, Fitterer said, “The thing with Cam, it’s gotta be a fit for us and it’s gotta be a fit for him, just as well. He’s looking for a certain opportunity. The door’s still open for us.”

The free agent quarterback market really cleared out after Watson’s trade to Cleveland. There are still some NFL-experienced options in the trade market, though. As of now, Fitterer asserts that they haven’t heard from San Francisco or Cleveland about Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield. Since phones tend to have the ability to both send AND receive calls, it stands to reason that the Panthers not reaching out to initiate conversations over the available quarterbacks is a reflection of their level of interest. Still, Fitterer claims that they are open to receiving calls from the 49ers or Browns. They do have the luxury of waiting, possibly even until after the Draft, as there doesn’t seem to be any urgent interest in Garoppolo or Mayfield.

The most likely path, and the one most desired by Fitterer, is through the 2022 NFL Draft. Rhule and Fitterer were in attendance for Kenny Pickett’s pro day workout at Pitt and Malik Willis’ workout at Liberty. Rhule went to Mississippi’s pro day to watch Matt Corral. The only reason they didn’t go the Cincinnati to watch Desmond Ridder is because they already worked extensively with the Bearcat quarterback at the Senior Bowl and Combine. They still sent a scout and two personnel executives, though.

Suffice it to say that the Panthers have made it extremely clear that they are taking a good look at this year’s quarterback class. With the sixth pick in the first round of the Draft, Carolina could very likely take a quarterback and very well may the first team to do so, giving them their pick of the litter.

Fitterer preached a philosophy of building a team around a young quarterback on a reasonably low contract, like the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson during Fitterer’s tenure in Seattle. The only issue with this philosophy is that Rhule’s seat is getting hotter with each loss. He may not feel he has the leash to develop a young quarterback surrounded by veterans. If Rhule feels like he’s in a win-now scenario, he may push for the team to trade for one of the more proven assets like Garoppolo or Mayfield.

The route that ends up getting taken in Carolina will likely say a lot about the alignment of Rhule and Fitterer, who arrived one year after the head coach. If the team makes a move to trade for a league veteran, Fitterer likely wants to give Rhule the tools to keep his job. If the teams sits pat and waits until the Draft to address the position, it could be assumed that Fitterer is willing to let Rhule test his luck in order to build a team around his own philosophy.

Haason Reddick Likely To Hit Free Agency

One of the most effective moves made last offseason was the Panthers signing Haason ReddickAfter a highly productive year in Charlotte, however, it appears he will be on the open market for the second straight year. 

As noted by NFL Network’s Cameron Wolfe (on Twitter), Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer “anticipates” the pass rusher testing free agency. He signed a one-year, $8MM deal with Carolina last March, ending a difficult four-year stint in Arizona and reuniting with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.

For much of his time with the Cardinals, the former first rounder was used as an off-ball linebacker. Only partway through the 2020 season did he step in for Chandler Jones as a pass rusher; he seized the opportunity, totalling 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. That earned him a contract with the Panthers to prove he could replicate his production.

That certainly ended up being the case. Reddick posted 68 tackles, including 12 for a loss, 11 sacks (which ranked tied for 11th in the NFL) and 18 quarterback hits in 16 games this season. The $8MM pact turned into a steal in terms of value, though the Panthers know they could be in need of a similar deal with another edge rusher soon.

In the event Reddick, 27, lands a lucrative new contract elsewhere, Fitterer said “they’ll be happy for him“. While another deal in Carolina isn’t off the table, the team has other priorities, including in the secondary where Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore are both pending free agents. Despite Sam Darnold being under contract, the Panthers are also likely to be involved in the quarterback market.

Panthers Eyeing OL Trades

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer has made 13 trades since taking on the role in January (via Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer). If the GM has his way, his 14th trade will address the team’s offensive line issues. Fitterer told reporters that he’s called around about OL trades but hasn’t found a taker, noting that teams aren’t even willing to consider dealing their backups (via The Athletic’s Joe Person on Twitter).

[RELATED: Patriots Trade Stephon Gilmore To Panthers]

“I mean, it’s not like there are offensive linemen available,” the executive said (via Fowler). “I think every team’s in the same situation we are. … There’s just not a lot of offensive linemen on the market right now. No one’s letting them out (the door) — even their backups.”

Quarterback Sam Darnold was hit 11 times and sacked five times during Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys. If the Panthers have playoff aspirations, they’ll need to keep their starting QB healthy, and reinforcing the offensive line would certainly help.

As Darin Gantt of the team’s website points out, the Panthers were forced to play a pair of injured OLs (left tackle Cameron Erving (knee) and right guard John Miller (shoulder)) on Sunday. While some acquisitions would certainly help, head coach Matt Rhule seemed to indicate that improved health could solve the offensive line’s issues.

“I think a lot of it comes down to who’s healthy when we get to Wednesday,” Rhule said (via Gantt). “Those guys, while it’s not always perfect, they’re playing hard for us while they’ve been banged up. I appreciate the way they’re playing. We’ll see what we do moving forward this week, see who’s healthy, see who’s available, and take full stock of where we are.”

Panthers Hire Former LB Dan Morgan As Assistant GM

Dan Morgan is heading back to Carolina, this time in a front office role. The Panthers announced that they’ve hired the former Pro Bowl linebacker as their new assistant general manager.

The 2001 first-round pick spent the first seven seasons of his career with Carolina, including a 2004 campaign where he made his lone Pro Bowl appearance. He ranks 12th all-time in Panthers history in solo tackles, finishing his Panthers career with 284. Morgan also had a standout performance in Super Bowl XXXVIII, finishing with a game-high 18 tackles in a three-point loss to the Patriots.

Following his playing career, Morgan joined the Seahawks front office, where he had an opportunity to work alongside current Panthers GM Scott Fitterer. As Morgan told the team website, Fitterer served as a pseudo-mentor as Morgan became acclimated with his front office gig.

“He was very helpful to me when I first got there,” Morgan said. “All those guys were really good with me early on, but he took me under his wing when I was new and was willing to let me pick his brain about college scouting and what he did.”

Morgan eventually moved on to Buffalo, and he had served as the Bills’ director of player personnel (alongside former Panthers assistant GM and current Bills GM Brandon Beane) since 2018. Ultimately, Morgan’s familiarity with the Panthers organization probably gave him an advantage during the hiring process.

Fitterer had recently been ramping up his search for an assistant GM. Eagles director of player personnel Ian Cunningham, former Colts interim GM Jimmy Raye III, and former Panthers tight end tight end Jeff King were also considered for the role.

Matt Rhule To Control Panthers’ Roster

The Panthers ended their expansive GM search by hiring longtime Seahawks executive Scott Fitterer. While this will be a key jump for the veteran personnel man, he will transition from one organization where the head coach has considerable power to another.

Matt Rhule confirmed he will have control of Carolina’s roster, though the second-year HC indicated Fitterer will obviously have tremendous responsibilities in this area as well.

I think in terms of on the contract, a lot of those things probably rest with me,” Rhule said, via Darin Gantt of Panthers.com. “But that’s not something I’m real interested in. I think it’s kind of a formality. Scott’s here to run the personnel. He’s here to build the roster. He’s here to establish the draft process. I think some things are written into the contract, but I think we’re going to work collaboratively and work together.”

Fitterer likened this situation as a Seahawks-esque partnership, where Pete Carroll and John Schneider work in tandem. Though Carroll maintains final say, which led to the Lions considering a Schneider pursuit earlier this year.

In the beginning, Pete was really in charge. But through no egos and the collaboration and the trust and the deep conversations they’ve had, Pete has opened up, and it’s really a partnership. It’s really a marriage between the two, and I’ve never seen an argument between them,” Fitterer said.

They can challenge each other; they can have discussions. But in the end, they’ve always been in lockstep, and I think that’s important for a GM and a coach to have. That’s what I think it’s going to be like here. Matt’s been great so far, and it’s only going to grow from here.”

Panthers owner David Tepper indicated he sought an experienced exec who could help Rhule while he acclimates to the NFL. Fitterer having worked with Carroll as he transitioned back to the pro game was a factor in the hire as well, Joe Person of The Athletic tweets. The Panthers gave Rhule a seven-year, $63MM deal in 2020, so it certainly makes sense they will entrust him with their biggest decisions.

Fitterer stopped short of committing to Teddy Bridgewater as the Panthers’ 2021 starter, though the new GM was not specific regarding many players. Fitterer did say he sought a quarterback “who could win with the game on the line in the fourth quarter,” and as ESPN.com’s David Newton points out, Bridgewater was 0-8 in games in which he had a go-ahead or game-tying drive chance on the final possession.

The Panthers are set to make a run at Deshaun Watson, if the Texans make him available. They also have the No. 7 overall pick, putting them in position to draft Bridgewater’s eventual successor.

Trade-downs may well be coming to the Panthers soon. The Seahawks have consistently used their late-first-round draft perches to move down and accumulate capital. Fitterer said a line of demarcation between drafts’ top-tier and second-tier prospects usually falls around picks 16-18 and that there are not major talent disparities between players who fall between Nos. 25-40 on respective big boards (Twitter link via Person). This approach, which will not apply this year considering the Panthers pick seventh, will come not long after the franchise went five drafts (2013-17) without ever trading down under Dave Gettleman.

Panthers To Hire Scott Fitterer As GM

Scott Fitterer surfaced late in Carolina’s GM search, but he is now expected to be the team’s new GM. The Panthers intend to hire the Seahawks executive to succeed Marty Hurney, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero (on Twitter).

Fitterer, whom the Seahawks promoted in September, interviewed twice for the Panthers position this week. He joined a host of candidates in a wide-ranging search but is in line to team with Matt Rhule to oversee Carolina’s rebuild effort.

The Panthers brought in Fitterer, Titans exec Monti Ossenfort, Chiefs staffer Ryan Poles and 49ers VP of player personnel Adam Peters for second interviews this week. Fitterer has hovered on the GM radar a bit longer than the rest of this contingent, and the Seahawks’ VP of player personnel will receive a chance to lead another NFC franchise’s front office.

Fitterer has been with the Seahawks for nearly 20 years, predating John Schenider and Pete Carroll‘s arrivals in beginning his run with the franchise in 2001. The Seahawks promoted him to co-player personnel director in 2015 and gave him a new title last year. Fitterer was involved in the Jets’ GM search in 2019, along with the Chiefs’ and Colts’ search processes in 2017. That year, Fitterer also interviewed for the 49ers’ GM job that went to John Lynch.

Alongside fellow Schneider lieutenant Trent Kirchner, Fitterer helped the Seahawks become Super Bowl champions and two-time NFC champs during the 2010s. Rhule is locked down via seven-year contract, so it would not surprise to see Fitterer receive a six-year deal — which would match Rhule’s through-2026 accord — as Carolina continues a rebuild that began last year.

GM/HC Notes: Colbert, Panthers, Jets, Smith

Here is the latest from the GM/head coach carousels. Five GM vacancies and seven HC openings remain as of Wednesday afternoon.

  • Before making his way to Pittsburgh, Kevin Colbert spent many seasons in Detroit. The Lions have been connected to making a push for a Colbert Motor City return, but they have not asked the Steelers for permission to interview him, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweets. The Steelers gave Colbert an extension last year. After working with the Lions throughout the 1990s as their pro scouting director, Colbert has been with his hometown Steelers since 2000.
  • The Panthers continue to go through second interviews. After meeting with 49ers exec Adam Peters and Titans staffer Monti Ossenfort again this week, Carolina brought back Chiefs assistant player personnel director Ryan Poles and met again with Seahawks VP of football operations Scott Fitterer. Poles is one of a few Chiefs execs to receive interest this offseason, while Fitterer has been on the GM interview circuit for a few years. The Seahawks promoted him in September.
  • The Jets finished up Robert Saleh‘s second interview Wednesday but appear set to identify more finalists soon. They want to speak with Titans OC Arthur Smith again, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports (on Twitter). The Jets are not alone in pursuing Smith, who has interviewed for six HC jobs thus far. The Falcons are also high on the second-year OC.
  • Although Brian Daboll has not completed quite as extensive an itinerary as Smith has, he has impressed the Jets. Gang Green is high on the third-year Bills OC, according to Ralph Vacchiano of SNY. Daboll met with the Jets on Sunday. He cannot meet with the team in person until the Bills’ season concludes.