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Carolina Panthers
Inside the Draft Room: Pieces fell into place
A deep look at the small moments and the year-long process that led the Panthers to Ikem Ekwonu and Matt Corral, among others.
By Darin Gantt May 05, 2022
Photographs By Chanelle Smith-Walker

IN A DARK AND KIND OF HARD TO GET TO ROOM, THANKS TO KENNY CHESNEY — At 8:46 p.m. last Thursday night, there was a wave of cheering and clapping, fist-pumping and maybe a few four-letter words (the happy kind) coming from around a hundred people in a curtained-off hallway, which a small army of staffers had transformed into mission control in the weeks before.

At 10:55 p.m. the following night, there was another crescendo, this one a lot longer-building.

Usually to get that kind of noise, you have to be a few feet away in the seats of Bank of America Stadium during a game or a concert.

But last Thursday night, they weren't waiting for kickoff or for the lights to come up on a headliner, but for the left tackle they've dreamed of for a decade to fall into their laps. Friday night, it was for a lot of tension and phone calls to result in a new quarterback rolling into town.

The mood was good, not because either player is a sure thing, but because a group of people who generally think in worst-case scenario terms was witnessing perhaps the best-case scenario unfold.

For the Panthers to land Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick last week, and then swing a trade for Matt Corral in the third, it took a few strokes of good fortune (which football types seldom expect). And also a lot of legwork, months of watching film, weeks of phone conversations, and a long couple of hours of waiting patiently and letting it happen.

But the story of the draft didn't begin on the 300 level of the stadium, in the part of the building blocked off behind the stage for Saturday night's Kenny Chesney show (with security guards making sure everyone belonged there). The story of last weekend happened a moment at a time over a long time, from a hurried and sweat-drenched phone call from a Raleigh parking lot in August, to an eye-opening pregame workout in Oxford, Miss. on a cool November Saturday night.

And all the work of all those people could probably be best summed up in what seemed to be a daydream, poolside and relaxed at a perfectly sunny and luxurious Florida resort, when someone dared to imagine what it could be if they got to write the script themselves.

March 29, The Breakers resort, Palm Beach, Fla.

"Who would I draft first?" — Scott Fitterer, as he sits back in a chair and smiles in the Florida sunshine.

During a draft, you usually see general managers and head coaches on TV. They're easy to spot, and familiar faces. But drafts aren't made-for-TV game shows, they're the product of over a year of planning, and dozens of hands on the rope. Scouting takes a lot of people.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is quick to thank all the coaches and scouts who helped prepare them for this year's draft, including director of college scouting Cole Spencer.

Spencer, in turn, deflects credit quickly, saying that if you want to know the true hero of the first night, you should talk to national scout Jared Kirksey.

Kirksey, in turn, deflects credit quickly, saying that if you want to get back to the start of the long path that led the Panthers to Ekwonu, you should start with pro scout Lee McNeill.

McNeill's one of the younger scouts in the department, and occupies the first room on the left as you walk down the hall of the Panthers' football offices. It's not one of the larger offices.

But as it turns out, he's probably been scouting Ekwonu longer than anyone in the building.

McNeill was part of the inaugural football class at Charlotte, with the former Porter Ridge High quarterback redshirting in 2012 before the 49ers' first season in 2013. When his playing days were over, he interned with the Panthers for a few months before taking a full-time job in football operations and recruiting at his alma mater in 2017.

And in those offices at the campus off Highway 49, they were hoping they might have a chance at Ekwonu one day, too.

Of the Ekwonu twins who were starring at nearby Providence Day School, Ikem was not the one getting the most attention. That was his brother Osita, now a linebacker at Notre Dame. Ikem was something of a late bloomer, the bigger of the two, but less noticeable. But you could tell there was plenty of raw material there.

So for a school still trying to build a program, getting either one of the local stars would have been a windfall.

"The funny thing is, his twin brother was the bigger recruit," McNeill said, thinking back to 2017. "So Ickey was always a guy we wanted to get on at Charlotte. He wasn't getting a ton of attention at first, so we tried to get him on quick, but it wasn't long after that he had bigger and better things."

Once Ekwonu started getting ACC offers, Charlotte knew it was out of the game. McNeill remembered, though. So when he was working as the Panthers' BLESTO scout (part of a league-wide scouting program that collects data for all teams), Ekwonu was someone he remembered.

Schools McNeill would visit on his rounds usually kept a list of preferred underclassmen to point scouts towards, putting certain guys on the radar. Ekwonu wasn't necessarily one of those in the spring of 2020 at N.C. State, but there was still something about him.

So McNeill, then an entry-level scout who provided the building blocks of information that others make decisions on, dutifully filed a report on the sophomore guard, whose curiosity stood out to him.

"He was just so interested in the process, wanted to know everything," McNeill recalled. "He was more eager than anyone we interacted with all spring. Just wanted to know what he could do to get better, how he could become an NFL player, just so interested. A ton of questions.

"I was so impressed with how eager he was. I mean, he was a good player there at the time, and getting buzz, and he kept asking how to get better, and I thought that was really cool."

But underclassmen aren't really a focus for scouting departments, and the reports you write on them are the preliminary work, so more senior scouts can filter out potential destinations the following fall.

So that report sat in the system for a few months, existing just to enter it into the record, until it was time for others to act on it.

For Kirksey, that time was the middle of August, when N.C. State was in training camp mode. It was sweltering that day in Raleigh, as it generally is, not the kind of day when you necessarily enjoy being outdoors. But in what could be kind of a routine practice, Kirksey saw things he knew he needed to tell others.

As soon as Kirksey arrived, State's director of student-athlete welfare and pro liaison D.D. Hoggard suggested that he keep an eye on this junior they were moving from guard to tackle.

"He said wait 'til you go to practice. We have this underclassman you need to put eyes on," Kirksey recalled. "You go to practice, see them come out on the field, he's one of the first ones out there. You're like, 'Wow, who is this monster of a man who is telling everyone to do this, making sure all the checks are right, make sure to bring your helmet to warmups?' He was one of those guys who, as soon as he steps on the field, he was in charge. And he wasn't a part of the trio of captains. But he was their lead dog, and you could feel that on the field.

"There's a certain measure of a man, you can always tell he's the man. You see an offensive lineman, when he walks on the field, everybody perks up. You could tell he was their tone-setter. He brings the mentality, their culture."

And then practice started.

"It was a hot day, you could tell he was already lathered up as soon as he went to practice," Kirksey said. "From the minute they went to inside run, this guy was, excuse my language, kicking the s--- out of everybody.

"I remember getting off the practice field, sweating profusely, because it's the middle of August. I remember getting in the car, my first visit here, the first visit of the year, thinking, 'Is it too early to say this guy is going to be a really, really, really good player?'

"At that point I hadn't seen any game tape, was intending to hit the South Florida game, one of the first games of the year. But that day, I got on the phone, and I was like, 'Cole, you need to come see this guy.' On the phone, he was like, 'You sure?" I said, 'This is one of those ones you want to go see before September hits.'"

Cole Spencer was aware of Ekwonu, of course. Scouting directors spend most of their time on that year's players, but always have to think a year out to be truly prepared. So he had Ekwonu on his list, but wasn't sure how high he'd be.

Upon Kirksey's recommendation, he moved N.C. State a little higher in his schedule of trips to campuses, and the same way Kirksey did with him, sent what he saw up the food chain to vice president of player personnel Pat Stewart.

"I shook his hand, didn't get to talk to him a whole lot," Spencer recalled of his first interaction with Ekwonu. "Just hearing coaches talk about him, hearing the staff rave about the kind of person he was, the worker he is. Seeing his leadership on the field. He leads the pre-practice stretch. Seeing the energy he brought, that was evident. Walking off the field, and you start watching the tape, he was my favorite player, instantly.

"I called Pat before I had even left the parking lot. He stood out like a sore thumb, man. I loved him."

Of course, while all this scouting is happening, there's also a football season going on. Fitterer's the guy at the top of the department, and he has to be as worried about the season unfolding in Charlotte while the scouts are out on the road.

And what he's seeing back home is obviously a concern. While scouts are crisscrossing the country, filing over a thousand reports that get whittled down to 800 or so, which are discussed in meetings, which get turned into a draft board of 156, Fitterer has a different set of numbers in mind.

Things started going poorly for the Panthers in Week 3 when Christian McCaffrey and Jaycee Horn were hurt in Houston, and another one of those cascading moments happened the following week in Dallas. Left tackle Cameron Erving got whacked in the shoulder, and was struggling to play through it. He got through that game, but something wasn't right. The following week, the Panthers flipped Taylor Moton from right tackle to left so rookie Brady Christensen didn't have to make his first career start in the most pressure-filled position on the line. That was a short-term fix, but also part of a larger trend. The Panthers would start 13 different combinations of offensive linemen in 17 games last season. It went about the way you'd expect with that kind of instability. So fixing it was obviously a priority. That's why Fitterer spent some early free agency money on guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman. But left tackles are harder to come by, and unless you want to pay a fortune for one, you need to draft one. And if you draft one, you better be prepared to draft one early.

But as last fall wore on (and on and on), Fitterer thought about left tackles a lot. There were some answers in free agency, and it was tempting to plan for one. But still, the cost.

Meanwhile, back on the road, the legend of Ekwonu continued to build, with every ACC defensive lineman he pancaked.

In the fall, draft speculation generally centers on a couple of establishment names, because groupthink takes over and echo chambers are real. Alabama's Evan Neal was that guy this year, the consensus pick whose name gets repeated until everyone is convinced he will be the top player at his position. And he could have been. He's massive and great at football, and played at the highest level in the SEC.

Ekwonu eventually got mentioned among the top names in this class, but it was a slower build, like an indie band that eventually hits it big, that has a legion of fans who were content to be outliers at first.

"He's always been like the scout favorite," Spencer said of Ekwonu. "We all knew about him on the road. Once it gets to the higher levels, the GMs start watching. That's when the hype starts to get ramped up. But he had been one of the scout favorites going into the fall. The guys who watched him really liked him.

"It takes time, because GMs are busy doing other stuff. I think once they see him, that's when it really starts to build."

8:24 p.m. April 28, The Bellagio, Las Vegas.

"With the third pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select, Derek Stingley Jr., defensive back, LSU." — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

That was the moment the Panthers began to suspect this whole thing might actually work out, and the moment Fitterer pivoted his chair to the left to high-five head coach Matt Rhule. Moments later, chief administrative officer Nicole Tepper was there, fist-bumping Fitterer and hugging Rhule.

To get one of the three tackles they had rated highest on their board, the Panthers knew they needed three non-tackles to be taken in the top five. When the Texans took Stingley, that was the third one, after pass-rushers Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson went first and second.

They would have been happy with any of the three top tackles (including Neal and Charles Cross), based on their extreme need at the position. They didn't allow themselves to dream yet, though.

The Jets were on the clock next, and helped the cause considerably when they took Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner, meaning the Panthers would actually have to choose which tackle they wanted, rather than wait to fair-catch whichever one the rest of the league punted to them. It wasn't a sure thing until the Giants turned in their pick, though.

Everyone knew the Giants needed a tackle, and with the fifth and seventh picks, they were armed to get one. They could have had their choice at that point, but they needed a pass-rusher as well. But they also knew the Panthers were in the market for a tackle, so it became a cost-benefit analysis for the Giants. Ultimately, they surrendered their agency in the tackle market so they could take Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux at five, rather than risk that the Panthers would trade six to someone else who would.

But as much as the Panthers would have liked to have sprinted to the podium — it all worked too perfectly — they waited.

Fitterer had assistant general manager Dan Morgan make a quick call to Seattle GM John Schneider, just in case. The Seahawks, picking ninth, also needed a tackle. If they wanted to overpay for the right to take one sixth, and give up next year's first-rounder and some other stuff for the privilege, the Panthers were obliged to listen. But the Seahawks weren't in the mood to move up, they never really are, so the Panthers were on the clock for real.

The decision seemed clear, but with 10 minutes to kill, there was still time for a little fun.

A draft room is a tight place at times. People have prepared for months for this night, and developed strong opinions. You can fall in love with a player when you watch that much tape of him, and get so many glowing reviews.

But at 8:42 p.m., Rhule scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it, and called offensive line coach James Campen to the front of the room. Campen marched up, unfolded the paper, read it, and nodded.

The name on the paper was not Ikem Ekwonu's.

"We kind of had to mess with him a little," Rhule said at the end of the night.

When he realized this, Campen laughed along with the joke. But it was also a special moment for the veteran line coach, whose reputation was built on taking a lot of mid-round picks and turning them into greater wholes.

"It hit me, no question," Campen admitted quietly after things settled a bit. "You just don't expect something like this to happen."

All the months of research, all the digging, and all the hoping left the Panthers with the tackle they wanted most.

You'd love to credit hard work, but sometimes it's luck.

And even though he's one of the junior members of the staff, McNeill knows that truth already.

"You don't really find those guys," McNeill said. "They find you."

"OK, what's next? — Rhule, many, many, many times over the years.

There was a tangible relief when the Panthers drafted Ekwonu, but it was also only half the weekend's job. As much as they were looking for an answer there, they were also intent on finding a quarterback. That turned out to be more complicated than watching teams pick other guys ahead of them.

"The reality is, we were coming out of the weekend with a quarterback, one way or another," Fitterer said this week. "We just didn't know how at the time."

Only one quarterback went in the first round at all, when Pitt's Kenny Pickett went 20th overall to the Steelers.

That left four names among the top group of their draft board at the position, but there were a number of other options.

For months — years really — the Panthers have been at the center of speculation and actual trade talks about a number of quarterbacks. When they were sitting back on Friday night, entering the evening without a pick but with a sense of urgency regardless, that remained true.

Calls were made, both about potentially trading up, and also trading for guys already in the league. Fitterer's not going to get into specific names, but Friday night, there were conversations about more than one veteran quarterback they could have acquired in trade.

But those draftable guys were also an option, so there was a two-handed poker game happening.

Watching quarterbacks fall made the rookies more valuable than ever, because that meant they were cheaper. Corral's four-year contract will pay him around $5 million, total. The veterans they were considering make many times more this year alone. So watching teams get nervous about keeping expensive veterans on the roster drove their values lower and lower. As many scouting reports as you file, finances matter in football, too, as you have a finite amount of cap room to build a team. So to trade for a veteran would likely mean cutting some veterans.

For all the phone calls being made and received from outside the building, there were as many discussions inside as well. Every decision impacts another, so you have to have coaches in the room, personnel guys, as well as the numbers people. The draft might be a scout's event, but vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman is sitting in his chair on the second row for reasons that go beyond calling in trades to the league. You can work with salary cap numbers, but the cap is a part of every calculation.

As Friday night wore on, there were plenty of discussions, held at various levels of emphasis.

"It can get tense at times in there," Fitterer said. "There's a lot going on at one time."

Ultimately, none of the player trades that were discussed reached the kind of consensus to get traction, so it was back to the board.

And the longer they stared at it, the more anxious they got.

As quarterbacks dropped and dropped, the tension in the draft room grew and grew. When Malik Willis went 86th to the Titans, it hit another level.

Fitterer is a tactile drafter; his hands are busy the entire time. Often they have a phone in them, or are scribbling potential trade terms on a note card. But he also keeps a purple stress ball and a fidget spinner on his desk to occupy them otherwise, burning the nervous energy the same way a fourth-grader might.

But throughout Friday night, Fitterer also kept those hands busy, with a gentle wave downward, urging patience as things fell into place.

Someone would call with what seemed like a good offer. "Let's wait," he'd say. They'd call back a few minutes later, wanting more, hoping a needy GM would panic and overpay. "Let's wait," Fitterer would say, with that same palms-down motion that became a theme throughout the night.

They weren't going to trade next year's first. They really didn't want to trade next year's second. Eventually, they'd trade next year's third-rounder and a fourth to get to 94 to take Corral.

It was a long day of waiting and watching, of deliberating and debating, but at 10:55 p.m. on Friday night, hours after Chesney's sound check could be heard in the adjacent hallway, they got their guy.

Now, they just have to see if he can play.

Pregame, Senior Day. Oxford, Mississippi, Nov. 20, 2021.

Later that night, the Rebels would beat a 2-9 Vanderbilt team, 31-17, in an otherwise uneventful game. Corral threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception.

Panthers area scout Robert Haines walked into the draft room Thursday night dressed for a party, even if it was one he wasn't sure he'd get to attend.

Scouts live a business-casual-at-best lifestyle, wearing a lot of team-issued athletic gear. When they're getting dressed up, it's jeans and an untucked button-down. But draft weekend is a big deal, and people show up for work Thursday dressed at levels that tend to slide throughout the weekend. By Saturday, there were some normal polos in the room and a few team t-shirts, but Haines walked in Thursday night wearing a crisp navy blue sport coat that fit like it wasn't bought straight off the rack, a distinctly fashionable choice.

Nice jacket.

"Brand new," Haines replied. "And I wasn't the only scout at SouthPark Mall buying clothes this morning either."

He was prepped for business, and ready just in case.

But his report on Corral had been filed months earlier, after watching a nondescript game against a perennial SEC doormat. He hadn't seen Corral play live this fall, and this wasn't exactly a chance to see him in a high-pressure situation.

But he wasn't there just to see the game. Just like when McNeill and Kirksey and Spencer were watching Ekwonu dominate in practices, Haines wanted to see how Corral reacted to those around him in all the other settings that matter.

"He had one of the most impressive pregame workouts I've seen," Haines said, laughing a bit because, as a veteran of 21 years of doing this, he knows that can sound a little ridiculous. "I know it's just on air with teammates, but it was awesome. You could tell he had been coached well.

"He was the first one out there, first of all. Was out there with some of the younger quarterbacks, and he was the one who led them out of the tunnel. He was in a full sweat two throws in. And this was Vanderbilt, last game of the year. Senior night, parents there, all that. But he was just dialed in. You could see that look in his eye; he was focused. It was impressive."

The Panthers liked Corral during the pre-draft process, a lot. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was a fan, because of Corral's quick delivery, the quickest in this class. But he also has a vibe about him, a way of drawing teammates to him, when he makes plays and even when he went down with an injury in the Sugar Bowl.

"He's a leader," Haines said of his reports on Corral through the fall. "Guys were drawn to him in the summertime when they're out there on their own."

And as the Panthers came closer to the end of a night without picks, coaches were drawn to him as well.

It was worth filing away that around the 70th overall pick on Friday night, around 9:40 p.m., after a lot of the veteran trade talk had come and gone, McAdoo went to the front of the room and sat next to Rhule.

As Fitterer said, they were likely to come out of the weekend with a quarterback, no matter what, and every decision gets talked through in detail. So when it was time, they wanted the trusted voices nearby.

It was more than an hour later when they took Corral, a long day ending with a flurry of activity, everybody a little drained, but satisfied with the result.

Saturday was a lot of the same. The Panthers were hoping to move up in the fourth round for a couple of players, in particular, one of them Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith. They did that deal, tried to do a few others, but eventually reached a point where their ammunition was spent. For all the moves they tried to make, they eventually did the conventional thing by actually using the 189th, 199th, and 242nd picks (though they had chance to accept veteran players in exchange for the 242nd shortly before they were on the clock, but passed).

"They should really make this round two minutes per pick," Rhule said at 5:28 p.m., as the seventh round wore on.

There were a lot of tired people in that room, many of them with plans to step around the corner and see Chesney later that night.

They were kind of exhausted. But they had also done a lot of work already.

March 29, The Breakers resort, Palm Beach, Fla.

"Who would I draft first?" — Scott Fitterer, as he sits back in a chair and smiles in the Florida sunshine.

It's a reasonable question, if a hypothetical one. Usually, it's the kind of thing a GM would avoid answering at all cost. There's no upside in getting caught on the wrong side of one later, if circumstances change.

And maybe it was the setting, a palatial resort, in the shade by the pool. By every empirical measure, a perfect day in a perfect spot. It's not necessarily a world Fitterer is accustomed to moving in, a former college player and longtime scout, used to the long hours and car rides and Courtyard-if-you're-lucky hotels on the frontage road of an interstate.

Fitterer knew that day in March he had a chance to get the position he wanted, if not the specific player, but there was no guarantee of either.

Picking sixth, nothing is guaranteed.

So the hypothetical allows you to strip away the external factors, to focus on what you'd want if things were perfect. Which, at that moment, by the pool, with the ocean lapping against the rocks a few feet away, they kind of were.

A month from now, if you were picking first instead of sixth, do you know who you'd want?

"Yeah," Fitterer said behind his sunglasses, an easy grin creeping across his face. "It would be the tackle. I would go Ickey, the local guy. Not only is he a good player, he brings the mentality that we want, that toughness, that edge. Probably him."

The word probably was a bit of a hedge, but you could tell he didn't mean it that way. He mentions a few other players, noting that they'd be excellent choices any team would love to have. But in a perfect world, he keeps coming back to one guy.

"Yeah," he said with another nod. "It would be Ickey."

And a month later when things fell perfectly, that's just how it worked out.

View photos of Panthers coaches and personnel leaders inside the draft room on Thursday night of the 2022 NFL Draft.

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