Oftentimes rookie general managers make mistakes by reaching for players or draft players based on need instead of taking the best available player on the board. Heck, sometimes they make trades that don't necessarily make a ton of sense and end up getting the raw side of the deal. This is not the case for new Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer who handled the 2021 NFL Draft like a 10-year veteran.
His experience in Seattle under GM John Schnieder certainly benefited him. He learned the tricks of the trade of what it takes to be not just a GM but a successful one. Instead of drafting Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Fitterer and the Panthers elected to go with South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. They made it very clear prior to the draft that they were interested in one quarterback which many believed to be Fields. When the Panthers passed on him, it shocked a lot of people despite recently trading for Sam Darnold. Maybe their No. 1 QB was Trey Lance who went No. 3 to the San Francisco 49ers. Or maybe Fitterer was stating the obvious that there was a quarterback in this class that they liked and it being the one guy they couldn't touch - Trevor Lawrence.
Would Fields have been an upgrade of Darnold? Maybe but that's to be determined. Instead of drafting a young quarterback, creating controversy at the position, and potentially damaging Darnold's trust and confidence in the front office, they decided to draft a player that can help this team right away on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin were signed in free agency to bolster the corner room alongside Donte Jackson but Jaycee Horn is their long-term solution. Jackson is on the last year of his rookie deal and the Panthers may decide to move on from him if he can't stay healthy. Bouye has yet to return to his Pro Bowl form so there's no guarantee that he's going to be the answer. Initially, I thought it was a mistake to pass on Fields and/or Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater. As I watched the rest of the draft unfold, the selection grew on me.
Heading into the 2nd round, all eyes were on Carolina selecting an offensive lineman, preferably a tackle. Instead of making their original pick they decided to not only trade down once but twice in the 2nd round before taking LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. - a guy they had high on their draft board.
Fitterer was wheeling and dealing all weekend long moving down the draft and accumulating picks, then selecting guys who were sliding down the draft but were high on Carolina's big board. They got tremendous value out of Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard (4th round), Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon (5th round), and Alabama offensive guard (6th round). All three were players that could have easily gone on day two of the draft but Fitterer was patient and let the board fall to him instead of chasing after players.
As good as Fitterer did in his first draft, much of that can be attributed to the moves he made in free agency which essentially addressed every need that they had heading into the offseason. By doing that successfully, it allowed Fitterer to take the best player available on the board and made them flexible. The offensive line is a perfect example of that.
As previously mentioned, the offensive line was one spot that needed more depth and they were able to achieve that by drafting BYU offensive tackle Brady Christensen in the 3rd round and guard Deonte Brown on day three. The signings of veterans Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein in free agency opened up the door for Carolina to focus on other positions with their first couple of picks.
This may not be a playoff-caliber roster right this second but Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer are on the right track to turning the franchise around.
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