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Conviction: The inside story of the Panthers' 2023 NFL Draft
Go inside the front offices and the draft room to see how Carolina's draft class, led by Bryce Young, came together.
By Darin Gantt May 04, 2023

CHARLOTTE — Up front, you have to point out one thing for the record. When Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer, head coach Frank Reich, and owner David Tepper talked about the process that led to Bryce Young, when they said they went in with an open mind, that's the truth.

You don't spend the weeks in meetings, the untold thousands of dollars jetting people across the country to go to pro days, the sheer amount of time so many people spent on four quarterbacks (many quarterbacks, actually, including some free agents, but mostly those four), without wanting to do a thorough investigation.

But it was always Bryce Young.

You spend all those hours and months and thoughts and dollars to make sure you're right, because this decision is too important to mess up because you didn't want to put in the legwork.

But it was always Bryce Young.

Flash back to last fall, before Reich was even here. The Panthers were starting to show some life after beating Tom Brady and the Bucs to get to 2-5.

But even then, a couple of teams appeared to have a head start on the 2023 draft prep, and the NFC was still winnable, so it never really passed through their minds that the star quarterback at Alabama, the previous year's Heisman winner and consensus top player at his position, was going to be available to them.

So that next weekend, before the Panthers went to Atlanta and lost an overtime thriller, Fitterer and assistant GM Dan Morgan and vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman headed to Knoxville to watch Kentucky's Will Levis against Tennessee. After they beat the Falcons three weeks later to improve to 3-7, Fitterer and Morgan used the road trip to Baltimore to slide over to College Park, Md., to watch the Terps get carved up by Ohio State's CJ Stroud.

One of the televisions in Fitterer's office, the one to his left, eye level from his desk, always has game film on it. And last fall, it was often college film. As the year went on, you'd see more and more Florida tape in addition to Kentucky and Ohio State, as they started getting intrigued by Anthony Richardson. But seldom did you see a lot of Alabama on that screen. It wasn't due to lack of interest.

Asked during that stretch last fall if there was a quarterback in the following class they had "conviction" on, and Fitterer laughed.

"Yeah, Bryce Young, but it's not like we're going to be in a position to get him," Fitterer said.

At that point, they'd have had the third overall pick in the following year's draft. No one imagined him being anything other than first.

So they kept scouting, and the Panthers kept making things interesting. "We started winning, which is great," Fitterer said. "Let's just go to the playoffs this year, and let's do it." But a loss to the Bucs on the road in Week 17 ended their playoff hopes. A week later, they embarked on another intensive search for their next head coach, talking to nine guys and laying the groundwork for the next one.

A month later, Frank Reich was on the job, partially because of the promise of the staff he'd put together. He had a line on Jim Caldwell, the guy who taught him how to be a coach and was also Peyton Manning's position coach. He had thoughts about coordinators, but they talked to a lot of guys before they chose Thomas Brown, bringing that Sean McVay Rams offensive energy to the mix. Then they got Josh McCown to come coach quarterbacks, something he hadn't officially done other than when he was working with a kid named Drake Maye at Myers Park High.

That's a lot of manpower. And they didn't assemble it to not coach a quarterback.

As Reich and Fitterer started to get to know each other, the first order of business was figuring out how to find one.

Old free agents didn't seem to be the vibe. Not after the Panthers and Reich had spent most of the last five years cycling through rentals. The obvious call was to draft one, but picking ninth, there's no guarantee. And while there were some good ones who might be available in 2024 in UNC's Maye and Southern Cal's Caleb Williams, that seemed a little far down the road.

Because as good as Young was, the Bears ended up with the first pick despite having a decent young quarterback in Justin Fields. Their pick might be available. Waiting until next year would be more of a roll of the dice.

So the Panthers turned their thoughts to the now, and how to make now work.

"We've not won a bunch of games in the last few years," Reich said. "So how many years can you go? Can you keep putting off this thing to take your shot and get your guy? And part of the calculus is, do we have enough capital to be patient for another year? And then naturally, as a coach, you know, you're always optimistic. I mean, we're at nine right now. I'm sure I'm not planning on being lower than that next year.

"I mean, everybody knows, you always have to be playing that game. You're not just in this draft; you have to be looking out a year or two. But you also have to factor in how full is the gas tank. Or do we need to fill up right now?"

"The fact was, we felt so strongly about the quarterback this year, right?" Fitterer said. "Like, even in our February meetings, where every scout had the same opinion on this guy. It never really changed. It just kind of held strong that way, right? That reinforced that we're doing the right thing."

Fitterer and the scouts thought a certain way in January. A new staff of coaches rolls in in February, and they initially think the same thing. The more they learned, the more sure they became.

They had conviction. They just didn't have the pick.

Then they went to the combine, and talked to all the quarterbacks. Also at the combine, NBC's Peter King, one of the most respected writers in the business, pointed out in his weekly column that Reich had only ever really coached tall quarterbacks. That led to two months of media hot takes and perhaps fueled a lot of misconceptions about the Panthers' intentions.

They were also talking to veteran free agent Derek Carr, who was both tall and looking for a new home, so he met with Tepper, Reich, and Fitterer in Indianapolis. While Fitterer was always going to explore his options, his focus was on drafting and developing.

That week in Indy, all the groundwork for trades was being laid with the Bears. With a lot of teams. There were no sure things.

They had conviction. They just didn't have the pick.

They eventually got it. After days of waiting on another deal to get to the second spot, the Panthers decided to go for it. It took about an hour. It was costly, two ones, two twos, and DJ Moore to get to No. 1. You don't give the Bears that kind of loot unless you have a conviction on a guy.

They had conviction. And now they had the pick.

Still, they wanted to make sure.

The deal went down on Friday afternoon, making it a happy hour indeed. But it was also a working weekend. Free agency started the following Monday, and in addition to signing all the players a quarterback would need, they were also planning some travel.

In a three-day span, from Mar. 22-24, there were pro days on college campuses for Stroud, Young, and Levis. Not only would they all go, they'd all go into full investigative mode. Tepper and his wife Nicole were in their plane. On another jet were Reich, Fitterer, Suleiman, Morgan, Brown, Caldwell, and McCown. College scouting director Cole Spencer and a collection of scouts were also flying separately. Everywhere they went, the plan was the same. Dinner the night before, go to the pro day, talk to as many people as possible, and gather as much intel as they could.

Stroud had the benefit of going first. They took him out for seafood in Columbus, Ohio (he had the sea bass and a strawberry lemonade). He and Nicole Tepper hit it off.

"He really made a connection with Nicole," her husband said. "He calls her Mama Tepp. He really does like Nicole. We had good meetings with him. You know, we all liked him.

After the workout (which was quite good), McCown laughed and challenged Stroud to a game of horse when he came on his visit. This was widely misinterpreted as an indication the Panthers were leaning his way. During the draft, body language experts all over the internet parse 30-second video clips on Twitter, and convince themselves of certain things.

Then they loaded up the planes (plural) and went to Alabama, and that's when everything changed.

They took Young to dinner at Evangeline's (he had the scallops, and a salad, hardly the kind of big meal you'd order if you were worried about being perceived as too small). But it wasn't the dinner order that confirmed to them he was different; it was the conversation.

The benefit of having so many people involved is that you get a number of different perspectives on a single event. A lot of the talk was about abstract concepts like leadership, or charitable interests, or the player's personal story. But there was also some granular football talk.

Caldwell — who, again, coached Peyton Manning, so he knows a thing or two about detail — asked Young about a particular play against Tennessee the year before.

"And he answered the questions, 'Well, I knew that when the defensive player did a certain thing, he would move a certain way, and when the other guy did this, he would do a certain thing,'" Tepper recalled, his mouth falling open at the level of detail. "And I looked at Frank's face, like, what? Who watches the tape that much? Now, I've seen this before only one time in my time around football. One person that will look at everything and study like that. Not only are you smart, and you have the fast processing speed, but you're putting in the time to know the other team that well, OK. Now, the only other person that I know like that is Luke Kuechly. So that's when you realize what you're talking about with Bryce Young.

"The leadership, the hard work. It's great to be smart. But if you don't put in the work, that much detailed work, to know that sort of stuff. That's special, though."

Tepper was watching Reich when Young was breaking down his process of identifying opponent tendencies.

"Just the reaction around the table," Tepper recalled. "Frank's eyes go wide; it's like holy s---."

If they had conviction before that dinner, it might have been cemented that night.

But that was just the beginning of what they learned in Alabama.

View photos from Alabama as Bryce Young worked out for NFL coaches and staffs at his pro day.

The next morning, the lot of them headed to the palatial Crimson Tide football facility.

Tepper, Reich, and Fitterer were among the ones who met with Alabama coach Nick Saban. They've had some success there, so having NFL types roll in isn't new for them. And among major college programs, Alabama is also known as the most welcoming to scouts and coaches.

In a related note, Panthers area scout Robert Haines recalled the first time he met Young. It was the week before they played Tennessee in October 2021, the Thursday before that crucial game. Because the quarterbacks room is the nearest to the practice field and because he was told to make himself at home, Haines ducked in there to watch film. Around 2:30 that afternoon, Young came in. Generally, a major college quarterback (or even a minor college quarterback) two days ahead of a big game would have told the scout to beat it and would have been within his rights. "He apologized for interrupting, and told me to sit down," Haines said, laughing. "Anybody else would have told me to get the hell out. But he asked me if there was anything I needed and said I could just stay there and work."

Then they watched Young throw some footballs. But at that point, they kind of knew.

"The pro day was kind of that moment," Fitterer said.

"Really, by the pro day, we had a pretty good idea," Reich said with a nod.

There were more pro days. They went to Kentucky and did the same level of research on Levis.

Then they took a break for another flight, heading back to the Biltmore for the owners' meetings and a chance to reset. Fitterer and Morgan and Suleiman's wives made this trip — "She packed my bag for me while I've been gone for a week," Fitterer said as he waited with his wife, Cherish, at baggage claim in Phoenix. "She's clearly the No. 1 pick in this draft" — and the meetings gave them a chance to catch their breath.

They'd go straight from there to Gainesville, Fla., to watch Richardson. Again, in a vacuum, he did enough to grab their attention.

He has fewer reps than all the other top prospects and time on task matters. Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour theory has practical applications. But my god, is Richardson talented, and if you were going to put someone with that kind of ability anywhere, a staff like this is the place you'd put him and feel good about the outcome.

But as much as they liked other quarterbacks, they all liked that one guy even more.

Bryce Young

Last Monday, Fitterer went to Reich's office and finally asked which quarterback he liked. They had held off asking each other their preference so they didn't contaminate the process.

"That was about a five-second conversation," Fitterer said.

With the big decision made, the draft day itself was almost anticlimactic and definitely more relaxed than last year, when they were pacing and sweating and hoping left tackle Ikem Ekwonu would fall to them at six.

The televised portion of the draft started around 8 p.m. At 6:26 p.m., Fitterer was feeling relatively loose and was willing to write Young's name on a sticky note, recreating the scene from the movie Draft Day. He didn't add a "no matter what" underneath the name, but he really didn't need to. It was implied.

About an hour later, the draft room was packed, the two U-shaped rows of tables filled with decision-makers and scouts and coaches and doctors and staff. Reich was slapping hands, saying, "let's go, fellas," ready to coach, even though his first play was scripted. It was so tense at 7:45 p.m. that the GM of the team with the first pick walked around to the other side of his table to snap a picture with the Teppers since Dave had taped a "Happy Birthday Mom" sign to the back of his monitor so the TV cameras would pick it up. Everybody was in a good mood.

At 8:07 p.m., the entire coaching staff (coaches are usually nearby for consult but not in the draft room the entire weekend) filed in and stood along the walls. It's a big coaching staff. It was densely packed in there.

At 8:10 p.m., the Panthers were officially on the clock. They had 10 minutes to decide. They could have picked instantly (I mean, Fitterer wrote the name on a blue sticky note about 100 minutes earlier), but the NFL typically makes the team picking first wait a few minutes to call in their pick as the draft coverage gets going.

With five minutes and 59 seconds on the clock, at 8:14 p.m., Fitterer was ready to make the call to the league. Then they call Young. Executive administrator Claire Stokes hands the phone to Tepper.

"You remember in Arizona at the Super Bowl? I told you we were going to pick a quarterback this year," he said into the receiver. Then he hands the phone to Reich, who says a few words before it's Fitterer's turn.

"This has been a long process," the GM said to his new quarterback. "Just come here and be you; that's all we need."

At 8:19 p.m., the announcement is made. Applause fills the space, and then Matthew "Los" Delgado, who is in charge of, among other things, the aux cord and the remote controls for the seven TVs in the room, cues up "Sweet Home Alabama." It was celebration time.

At that point, the Teppers and Reich and Fitterer head out into the stadium in the rain to join the 7,000 partygoers there to soak in the atmosphere. Then there's a quick press conference while picks five, six, and seven come off the board. Perhaps a snack. By 9:10 p.m., Reich, Fitterer, and Morgan are back in place in the room, jackets off. The formalities were over, and it was time to get back to work.

The Panthers didn't pick again until 39, which would happen around 8 p.m. on Friday. But it's Fitterer, so you never know. They knew they needed a pass-rusher, and there were a few they liked, one in particular. When his name was called by another team, there were some audible groans and frustrated sighs. They were hoping one might fall to the range that made it feasible to trade up, but they had multiple targets. There was a lot of discussion about the position as a whole, with coaches coming in and out of the room. Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero liked several of them but seemed fond of a later-round guy, DJ Johnson of Oregon. So they waited.

By 11:50 p.m., the room was breaking up, coaches and scouts filtering away into a short night because there were two more days of this. The first round was over, and they hadn't acquired a pass-rusher.

"All right, we got the first pick," Fitterer said, almost as if he was reminding the room that the most important work happened over the previous three months and four hours.

View photos of the Panthers decision-makers after they selected Bryce Young first overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Friday morning came quickly. Coaches huddled over monitors in quiet offices, watching film of other guys for the rest of the weekend.

Young rolled into town around lunch; there was a party and a press conference and photo shoots. But then it was time to get back to work, and he spent some time with coaches. He got his iPad with his playbook (football IT support manager JD Rast had it cleaned, loaded, and put in a case and ready for him within two minutes of his selection Thursday night). The process that led to his selection was a long one, but so is the process of mastering the material. So Young was getting started.

There wasn't as much of a crowd in the room for the second and third rounds, but there was a quiet observer in the corner as they started to prepare for the next two rounds. NASCAR driver Ty Dillon, a friend of Fitterer and Morgan, was there to watch.

Dillon lives here in town, but he has a job that keeps him away most Sundays in the fall. "Usually around Week 12, I'm able to get to games," he said before the draft got back underway. "I love it." He's also fired up about Young and noted the similarities between young drivers who graduate from lower series to Cup racing to the college to NFL transition.

"When guys come up, it usually takes about a year or a year and a half to get accustomed to the next level," he said. "You can tell the ones it's important to them; they're the ones who prioritize doing it the right way all the time."

By the time Dillon said that Young was already in Panthers gear, iPad in hand.


There was some mild drama Friday night. The run on pass-rushers the night before left them without one, so they refined the target list for 39. After Ole Miss receiver Jonathan Mingo impressed them during his visit, he was definitely on the list. There were some other players considered, but this one lacked the same kind of anxiousness as other picks. By 7:42 p.m., Mingo was on his way here, Tepper telling him a story about the endorsement he got from Panthers legend and NFL Network analyst Steve Smith. By the time former Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart announced the pick at 7:46 p.m., Rast was already loading Mingo's iPad, so he would be ready to work whenever he arrived.

The Panthers weren't scheduled to pick again until 93, but as the names came off the board, it became clear they might need to make a move. The column with outside linebackers was getting thin, and Johnson's name was beginning to stick out, with empty space above and below him on their board. They knew the coaches liked him, too.

Around that time, Fitterer got a message that caught him off guard. It was from NC State guard Chandler Zavala; just checking in. An unorthodox move on his part, but he's not the first college guy hoping to make a connection with a strategically-timed after-dark text. Zavala was definitely on the board, and a consideration at 93, but the law of supply and demand dictates that guards are more readily available than pass-rushers.

And pass-rushers are even more expensive when they become free agents. As they were considering trade proposals, Fitterer spun around to ask Suleiman the latest on a couple of older players. The answer was quick; their agents hadn't come off their previous asking prices.

So Fitterer got on the phone with Steelers GM Omar Khan and quickly made a deal. The 93rd pick and 132 to get to 80. Fine. Took about as long to execute as it took you to read that sentence. It wasn't ideal; they only had six picks to begin with and are running short next year because of the trade for Young. But the coaches had a conviction on Johnson, and conviction goes a long way.

Even after making that pick, they still hung around to the end of round three, considering going back up to get someone, maybe Zavala. Ultimately, they held tight, and Fitterer and Reich went upstairs at the end of the night to talk about adding players at two high-value positions. Before they left, Fitterer told the scouts and coaches in the room to be ready to roll by 10 a.m. the next morning.

At 9:15 a.m. the next morning, Young was walking out of the weight room wearing team-issued gear. It's not unheard of for draft picks to hang around after the Day 1 meet-and-greet, but it's not common either. He had a flight home Saturday night and then won't return until May 11, when rookies check-in for their minicamp. He had a limited amount of time here. He was using it.

Meanwhile, Evero was upstairs getting ready for the third day of the draft. He and senior assistant Dom Capers had advocated for Johnson, and it worked. The draft industrial complex wasn't as high on the pick, but they're confident they can develop him. "Wade Phillips told me one time, if you like a player, take him, don't worry about where he's drafted," Evero said.

At noon, the draft resumes, and it's a short day. The Panthers have two picks. They use the first one on Zavala, making him wait until 114. You can't just hit up an NFL team with a late-night text and expect it to work immediately.

They have one pick left, . . . Or do they? There are many calls on Day 3 of the draft, teams moving up and down, targeted strikes based on particular players. But the Panthers board is pretty thin. College scouting director Cole Spencer only had around 155 names on the final board, which made sense since the Panthers' final scheduled pick was 145. But they listened to and initiated a few calls, considering moving up or back. They passed on a chance to move down and pick up a seventh-rounder. At 2:07 p.m., they called Florida State safety Jammie Robinson. This draft was over. It was time to breathe.

The longer they thought about this decision, the easier it became.

Everything about Young was convincing.

The showing up early. The staying late. The manners. The mannerisms. The endorsements from coaches. Mostly the film. If you only watched film, that was enough to make this decision. Often, football people overcomplicate things. Sometimes, the answer is simple, and it's staring you in the face.

Tepper thinks back to a fancy Super Bowl party in Arizona when he met Young and was impressed with his focus, composure and demeanor.

"I mean, we're in the VIP section, and he's standing there in his T-shirt drinking his water bottle," Tepper recalled, mentioning the scores of famous people and models and things that made this anything but a normal scene. "And he's just hanging there, a really normal sort of guy."

In a celebration of excess, Young emanated responsibility. He's there having a good time, too, but in control.

That's what the Panthers are hoping for.

They didn't spend all the time, money, picks, and effort to be left on the side of the road.

They were looking for someone to take the wheel.

They're pretty sure they found him.

View photos of Bryce Young's arrival to Charlotte.

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