Carolina Panthers GM under a ton of pressure heading into first NFL Draft

New Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is not unlike any other first-year front office head. That was made more than clear earlier in the spring when Carolina dealt away three draft picks for struggling young former New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.

By now, it’s well known that Panthers owner David Tepper wanted to upgrade at quarterback. He was pushing for a blockbuster Deshaun Watson trade prior to north of 20 women accusing the Houston Texans star of sexual assault.

The Panthers also reportedly offered up the eighth pick in the coming 2021 NFL Draft for Matthew Stafford before he was dealt from the Detroit Lions to the Los Angeles Rams.

The overriding theme here is that Fitterer finds himself under a microscope in his first NFL Draft as a general manager after coming over to Carolina from the Seattle Seahawks. The pressure is on him big time.

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Carolina Panthers will be evaluated by Sam Darnold trade

Carolina Panthers trade for Sam Darnold
Jan 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass against the New England Patriots during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no surprise that Fitterer wanted his own guy under center after Teddy Bridgewater struggled in a starting role last season. Giving up two picks (second and fourth) in 2022 and a sixth-round selection this year was a pretty high price for the Panthers to pay.

Darnold, 23, just did not pan out as the Jets’ starter after they made him a top-three pick back in 2018. He threw just 45 touchdowns against 39 interceptions while boasting a 13-25 record in 38 starts.

The hope for Carolina is that a change of scenery helps Darnold rebound after three lackluster seasons to open his career. In all reality, the Jets’ coaching situation with the recently fired Adam Gase did not do help the USC product. Boasting an offensive-minded and highly-respected Matt Rhule, the Panthers are in a much better situation to help Darnold.

Then again, this trade was more than risky. Not only did the Panthers give up three valuable draft picks, they have already picked up the $18.58 million option on Darnold’s contract for 2022. This comes with Bridgewater slated to count $22.9 million against the cap in 2021.

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Carolina Panthers’ first-round decision

Devonta Smith, Carolina Panthers
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Selecting eighth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, recent rumors suggest that the Panthers are open to trading down. They are apparently not sold on Trey Lance or Mac Jones with said selection and will likely avoid quarterback.

It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to look at moving forward. By making the decision to avoid a quarterback in what promises to be an historical class as that position, the Panthers better be prepared for comparisons. If Darnold struggles in 2021 and one of those signal callers exceeds expectations with a team like the San Francisco 49ers, it will not be a great look.

In terms of trading down, Carolina’s disinterest in a quarterback could be helpful when it comes to recouping some of the draft capital they lost in the Darnold trade.

Even that’s a risky proposition for Fitterer and Co. Carolina has needs along the offensive line, at wide receiver and at all three levels of the defense. Trading down could mean missing out on top offensive tackle prospects in Rashawn Slater and Penei Sewell as well as top wide receivers in that of Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

Again, comparisons will be drawn if the Panthers pass up on the possibility of selecting these four players while taking a lesser prospect in a trade-down scenario.

Yeah, the pressure is squarely on Scott Fitterer in his first NFL Draft as the Carolina Panthers’ general manager. It will be something to keep an eye on come Thursday evening in Cleveland.