CHARLOTTE – It's a half hour before the 2016 NFL Draft begins, and the Panthers' war room is relaxed. The occupants know they're settling in for a long first round.
The reigning NFC Champions are picking 30th, and patience is required.
General manager Dave Gettleman, about to orchestrate his fourth draft for the Panthers, is chatting with the scouts, recalling former teams and former players – a typical conversation at any time of year for the longtime talent evaluator.
There is banter throughout the room about which quarterback will be taken first overall, and head coach Ron Rivera is reminiscing about his playing days at California.
There's playful ribbing among longtime colleagues who have spent significant time together over the past few months constructing the draft board.
The room is built around the board. It takes up an entire wall, floor to ceiling. The positions are listed in vertical columns and players are ranked in those groups with first-round grades, second-round grades and so on.
Gettleman, Rivera and director of college scouting Don Gregory have seats at a desk directly in front of the board. Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson and team president Danny Morrison are seated beside them.
Assistant general manager Brandon Beane and director of pro scouting Mark Koncz are at a desk behind them. Phones used to communicate with other clubs are placed next to both.
Scouts, team doctors and athletic trainers are seated at long tables on each side of the room. Additional support staff are scattered around the room, each with a role to play in updating the board and league-wide selections as the picks come in.
Equipment manager Jackie Miles, the man stationed at the team's table in Chicago, updates the room on what's happening on the draft floor.
As the first 10 picks unfold, there's plenty of movement. Gettleman is rotating around the room, eliciting laughter with his famed Yiddish.
Beane takes a couple calls from teams, but nothing substantial just yet. It's early.
After performing a series of mock drafts, the Panthers have a pretty good sense of who will come off the board in the first 15 picks.
Once those picks are made, it starts to get interesting.
The phone is ringing more frequently as three wide receivers come off the board with picks 21, 22 and 23.
At this point, the assistant coaches make their way in, watching the proceedings from the side.
Gettleman, Rivera and Beane quietly discuss some trade offers that have come through. It's 10:40 p.m. The room is quiet, and the tension is increasing.
After Cincinnati selects cornerback William Jackson III with the 24th pick, the three televisions broadcasting the draft are muted.
Gettleman stands in front of the board and grabs everyone's attention. There are a handful of prospects in conversation for Carolina's first-round choice.
National scout/senior college scout Jeff Morrow, college scout John Peterson and assistant director of college scouting Ryan Cowden are called on to provide a quick assessment of each prospect in consideration.
Then, the respective position coach and coordinator offer their takes. Lastly, Gregory and Rivera share thoughts.
It moves quickly, and Gettleman absorbs all the rapid-fire information. He wastes no time identifying the primary target.
Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler is the top player remaining on the board. Defensive line coach Eric Washington and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott both spoke very highly of him. He's got tremendous size and power, can play all three downs and can disrupt the quarterback.
"If Butler is there," Gettleman says, "we are going to take him. He's too talented. He fits us too well."
Meanwhile, Beane and Koncz are working the phones feverishly. The calls are coming left and right. In total, seven teams inquire about the 30th pick.
The clock is ticking, and they must evaluate the trade offers and communicate them to Gettleman, who is pacing deliberately in the center of the room.
Carolina's first choice is Butler, but if he's gone, a solid trade-down offer could very well be the next option.
Now the Packers are on the clock with the 27th pick. It could be a defensive tackle. It could be Butler.
The only sound in the room comes from the ringing of phones and the squeaks from large leather chairs.
Green Bay's pick is in. The Packers select defensive tackle Kenny Clark from UCLA.
Just two picks remaining before the Panthers are on the clock. The crown jewel of any draft class – the first-round pick – is coming down to a hectic few minutes. All the time invested, all the games scouted, all the film reviewed – it culminates with this. You can feel the energy building in the room.
The 49ers take Stanford guard Joshua Garnett with the 28th pick.
The phones haven't stopped ringing.
With the 29th pick, the Cardinals select defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche.
Carolina is finally on the clock.
"He's wired right, he's humongous, he's athletic," Gettleman says. "Get him on the phone."
It's 11:23. Miles' voice comes through on the speaker phone to confirm the selection. "Vernon Butler, defensive tackle, Louisiana Tech."
"Put it in," says Gettleman.
A round of applause erupts in the room. Rivera, McDermott and Washington depart to speak with the 323-pounder who will bolster their interior rotation.
There are handshakes all around. Then Gettleman walks over to Beane and Koncz.
"I kinda felt bad," he jokes. "You guys were banging on those phones!"
All eyes are now on the televisions as commissioner Roger Goodell makes the announcement and Butler takes the stage.
"He's a big human being," Gettleman says with a grin as he watches Butler.
As Gettleman and Rivera leave the room to address the media at the press conference, they walk down the hall alongside Mr. Richardson, who watched quietly as the round unfolded.
The head coach shared a message with the owner about the newest Panther.
"He's just starting to scratch the surface."