This is the fourth in a series of four stories explaining the Panthers' primary options at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft, and why each of them makes a degree of sense leading up to the first round Thursday night. Sunday covered the possibility of drafting a pass-rusher, Monday was about the quarterback decision, and Tuesday we addressed the need for an offensive tackle.
CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have a lot of choices to make with the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The prudent choice might be not to choose sixth at all.
With a large gulf between their first two picks (sixth and 137th) after trades last year, the Panthers will otherwise be sitting idly by during an important portion of the proceedings.
General manager Scott Fitterer called the range between 25 and 50 "the meat of this year's draft," but the Panthers don't have anything there.
At least not yet.
Fitterer's phone keeps ringing this week because of the swap meet he turned last year's draft into.
The Panthers traded five times that weekend, which led to an 11-man draft class for a team trying to build with young players. A year ago, the plan was to add fiber to a roster and a salary cap that had grown top-heavy, so young players with smaller contracts were a necessity. Sending this year's third-rounder to the Jaguars in a deal for cornerback CJ Henderson was an extension of that plan, as getting a former top-10 pick for what would have been the 70th pick this year could still prove to be advantageous.
If they don't make a move, the Panthers will have a long break after the sixth pick, with nothing to do but watch their draft board dwindle until Saturday.
Director of college scouting Cole Spencer said the Panthers' board of players with draftable grades includes 156 players. So by the time they use picks 137, 144, and 149, they'll be getting near the bottom of the pile (though every team's board is different, so there will likely be a few names remaining when they pick 199th and 242nd).
Fitterer insisted this week the need for bulk was not the same this year, and that he wasn't going to trade just to trade. If the right prospect is there when the sixth pick comes up, he said he wouldn't hesitate to use it. But that sentence includes a pretty significant if.
If the top three tackles go in the top five picks, the Panthers have a decision to make. While Fitterer said there were a couple of quarterbacks he'd be confident in taking at six, that doesn't necessarily mean they're ranked as top-10 prospects. They could also go with defensive help, depending on what falls.
Or, he could pick up his phone and move down and add picks.
Considering Fitterer's ties to Seattle (he trained under Seahawks GM John Schneider and the two remain close friends), many have wondered about the possibility of moving back to the ninth overall pick, and adding a second-rounder or something in a future draft. But the Seahawks have a similar list of needs, and if they're moving up, it's likely for an offensive tackle or a quarterback as well.
So the question for the Panthers would be, are they willing to take a lower-graded offensive lineman and a quarterback later in the draft or take a single, higher-rated player? The latter would require another move in trade or free agency, but there are options available at both positions (such as tackles Duane Brown and Eric Fisher).
That difference is being discussed as we speak, as the final hours of draft prep become a game of this-or-that, with owner David Tepper joining the discussion with Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule and the rest of the scouting staff.
It's a complicated math problem, for sure. And Fitterer also took pains to say that he wanted to protect future picks, so he doesn't find himself in a similar shortage again.
But Fitterer has also developed a reputation. He walked into the job here declaring he'd be "in on every deal," and his counterparts around the league have taken him at his word.
That's why the phone's still ringing, and they're still meeting, discussing how far they'd move, if they'd move at all.
View AP photos from the NFL Draft's setup work in the heart of Las Vegas.