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Frank Reich: Panthers "in driver's seat" with first overall pick

Frank Reich

CHARLOTTE – Frank Reich recalled conversations he has had following an active last two weeks with owner David Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer. While the trio discussed the Panthers' free-agent acquisitions and current roster makeup, they felt good about the situation created for an incoming rookie quarterback.

Carolina will be taking one with their recently acquired first overall pick in this year's draft, so the goal was to surround him with as much help as possible.

"(We) really feel like we're putting this guy in a good position, with some of the pieces that we've signed," Reich said in Monday's press conference, his first since the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

Everything started rolling when the Panthers traded up with the Bears for the No. 1 pick, sending wide receiver DJ Moore as part of the package for their choice from the top quarterbacks in this year's class.

From there, they got to work. As it stood Monday afternoon, Carolina's free agency haul included tight end Hayden Hurst, wide receiver Adam Thielen, and running back Miles Sanders. They've brought back center Bradley Bozeman too, returning the starting lineup they ended last season with and found success in, and added veteran guard Justin McCray late last week to the room.

"If you're going to go with a young quarterback, you have to have a running back. You have to have the tight end. You have to have the receivers," Fitterer said. "We feel like we have the offensive line. … Everything we've done the last couple years, is build a defense, build an offensive line, so when we get to that position, we can drop someone in.

"We're in that position right now, but what we wanted to do in free agency is surround that person, and then go into the draft not having to force anything. We don't want to have to take a certain position at 39 just because (we) didn't take that position. We want to take the best player available."

The Panthers like the spot they're in as much as they like the spot they've created for a new rookie. Reich, who complimented the analysis and navigation by Fitterer and Tepper throughout the trade talks, said he saw more opportunity than pressure associated with the draft's top selection.

"Is there more pressure with that? I guess so," Reich said when asked if there's more to consider when evaluating for a No. 1 pick over a No. 9 pick, where Carolina was originally slotted. "But I don't feel it like that. I feel more freedom. We can actually get the guy that we want. We can take the time. We're in the driver's seat."

Fitterer confirmed they'd be taking trips to visit all four of the consensus top four quarterbacks at their pro day workouts throughout the next two weeks – Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), Anthony Richardson (Florida), and Will Levis (Kentucky). The Panthers will also bring all four of them to Charlotte, four of 30 total visits allocated before the draft, per Reich.

"At the combine, I said if you're going to go up, you better have conviction; and we have conviction on players at the top that we feel good about," Fitterer said. "We're still going through the process right now. Obviously, we have our ideas. You're not going to make a move like (the trade) without having pretty much cemented. … But we do feel good about the group up top."

Reich echoed the sentiment.

The Panthers are in that proverbial driver's seat, and Reich doesn't appear inclined to rush the process.

"When you've got the number one pick, the thing is, we don't have to play games, right?" Reich said. "I mean, it's not like we're trying to fool anybody. What we're trying to do is take all the time we can on the evaluation. Do we have inclinations? Do we have feelings? Do we have evals kind of written out on paper and in our minds? Yeah, we all do.

"There's a lot of conviction, as Scott said, on some of these top quarterbacks. The old adage, 'Don't make a decision before you have to' – we're going to take every second every day, or every hour every day, to make this decision. And we've still got plenty of time left."

– As for what the Panthers will be specifically looking for in their next quarterback? Reich didn't feel the urge to divulge too many specific details, opting for a "playmaker" descriptor. 

But he wanted to clarify that he wouldn't be placing a height restriction on the role.

Reich has primarily worked with taller quarterbacks – including Peyton Manning (6-foot-5), Philip Rivers (6-foot-5), Nick Foles (6-foot-6), Andrew Luck (6-foot-4), and Matt Ryan (6-foot-4). 

That doesn't mean he's opposed to drafting a quarterback on the shorter side (i.e., 5-foot-10 Bryce Young), and he wanted to make it clear that he had a positive outlook on Russell Wilson when he came into the league in 2012. 

"You don't have to read anything into that," Reich said with a laugh. "But I don't mind telling you that I had a high grade on Russell Wilson. But don't read anything into it. I'm just saying that because – all these people are putting this label on me that I only work with big quarterbacks. Don't read anything into that."

– Fitterer and Reich complimented Shaq Thompson's leadership following the veteran linebacker's reworked contract. Thompson has been a Panther since they drafted him in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Fitterer expressed gratitude for Thompson's "team-first" decision and said he had a high level of respect for him. Reich agreed and said Thompson's "maturity and leadership" stuck out in their early conversations.

"He's a team leader, one of the most unselfish people I've been around, and he wanted to be here," Fitterer said. "It's important for him to be in Carolina. He loves Charlotte; he loves the Panthers. What it came down to, we had a conversation. We sat down in the stadium, and we just talked man-to-man, and said, 'Hey, listen, what do you need? This is what we need.' We worked through it."

Follow along with Hayden Hurst through the facility as he met staff and coaches and officially signed his contract to become a Panther.

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