Panthers say Matt Rhule, David Tepper and GM have a draft plan

Carolina Panthers team owner David Tepper, right, speaks with general manager Scott Fitterer at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in January.  Fitterer said Tepper has a voice in roster moves he, coach Matt Rhule (not pictured) and the team make.

Carolina Panthers team owner David Tepper, right, speaks with general manager Scott Fitterer at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in January. Fitterer said Tepper has a voice in roster moves he, coach Matt Rhule (not pictured) and the team make.

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers kicked off the week by showcasing their organizational alignment days before selecting (or trading) the No. 6 picks in the 2022 NFL draft.

On Tuesday, general manager Scott Fitterer, college scouting director Cole Spencer and assistant general manager Dan Morgan sat side-by-side and answered thirty minutes of questions from Charlotte media via Zoom.

In his opening statement, Fitterer ensured he and head coach Matt Rhule are “very aligned” while they’ve gotten to know each other over the past 18 months.

It’s a buzzword, but alignment between the coaching staff, the front office and ownership are vital for an organization to function properly.

Considering Rhule was hired in January 2020, and Fitterer was brought in 373 days later, the 2022 draft marks an important milestone in Fitterer and his staff’s first full season. Over the past year, Carolina allocated time and resources to revamping its evaluation and drafting process in anticipation of this weekend.

“After the draft last year, Matt Rhule, Pat (Stewart), and myself, we got together and we decided, ‘Hey, what’s the best way to do this? How can we improve this?’ ” Fitter said. “So we sat down, we talked about building up our staff, building up our library, and also modernizing our scouting system.”

Fitterer took these ideas to owner David Tepper, who greenlit a scouting revamp. Carolina hired Morgan, Spencer, national scouts Jared Kirksey and Tyler Ramsay, plus additional scouts and interns, adding valuable experience and brainpower. Compared to last year, the Panthers will have two or three times more player reports.

All this helps validate their final draft board, which features 156 players, according to Spencer. The new scouting system will not be fully implemented until spring but the key pieces are in place.

“It really helps us be confident about how we built this board. And building the board is the most important thing we do. It drives every decision that we make during the draft,” Fitterer said. “Whether we trade, whether we pick, whether we move into next year and get picks, it’s very important for us to have that board right and stay true to it on draft day.”

All of this sounds functional in theory but the Panthers must stay true to their process for true alignment to exist. Without hearing from Rhule or Tepper, Fitterer’s words represented the organization’s plans for this weekend.

Fitterer said there are a couple of quarterbacks he’d be comfortable selecting at No. 6. (He’s likely alluding to Liberty’s Malik Willis or Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.) Similar (if not more) comfortable options exist among the tackle class. Evan Neal (Alabama), Ikem Ekwonu (NC State) and Charles Cross (Mississippi State) are all worthy of a top-10 selection and fill a need.

Expect Carolina to use its first pick on either a quarterback or tackle. The team will also consider defensive linemen Kayvon Thibodeaux and Travon Walker if available but neither satisfy their glaring offensive needs. And with no picks between selection No. 6 and No. 137, Carolina does not have the luxury of drafting the best available player regardless of position. Only Miami and Las Vegas (five) have fewer selections than the Panthers’ six picks.

Despite such few picks, Carolina will not go out of its way to recoup the Day 2 draft capital it traded last year in separate deals for cornerback CJ Henderson and quarterback Sam Darnold.

“We’re not gonna be so focused on recouping those picks,” Fitterer said. “We view CJ Henderson as our third-round pick this year. So we don’t want to make the mistake of just moving around to move around.”

In a shift from previous practices, the Panthers will also have more patience in protecting their future draft picks. Fitterer said teams have inquired about trading for their 2023 picks or later but Carolina is not interested.

Fitterer views draft capital as the foundation of team building. Drafting, developing and re-signing your talent is the most cost-effective way to build a winner. Fitterer learned that while working in Seattle for nearly 20 years, where he was a part of drafting Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.

Carolina should let Fitterer and his evaluators cook. The more control and final say he has allows more time for Rhule and his staff to coach.

But Tepper remains the ultimate wildcard. He was hands-on in the team’s failed purist of Deshaun Watson. Fitterer said Tepper is “very involved with what we do,” with the caveat that he would never hijack a decision.

Fitterer made clear the Panthers have a detailed plan at quarterback. As The Charlotte Observer reported Friday, Carolina will not explore a trade for quarterbacks Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garppolo prior to Round 1. Carolina may even wait until early next week before re-exploring its veteran quarterback options.

“We’ve talked about it since the season; we want to stabilize the quarterback position. We need consistent play out of that,” Fitterer said. “I sat down with Sam yesterday, and we talked about everything. We need to help him out as well. We need to help him out with the offensive line. I think we’ve done a good job keeping DJ Moore here and Christian McCaffrey, and surrounding him with talent, so he doesn’t feel like he has to make every play. And we do have to protect him.”

Darnold is aware the Panthers will add a quarterback soon, another example of Fitterer practicing front-to-bottom alignment.

The Panthers sound buttoned up. Thursday, it will start to become clear if Fitterer’s vision comes to fruition.

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Cleveland.com/the Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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