CHARLOTTE – It’s 8:03 on Thursday night, Day One of the 2017 NFL Draft, and general manager Dave Gettleman and assistant general manager Brandon Beane are waiting anxiously for the clock to finally start on the Cleveland Browns.
Gettleman leans into the phone to chat with equipment manager Jackie Miles, who mans Carolina’s draft table in Philadelphia.
“Jackie – tell the commissioner to get this show on the road,” Gettleman says.
“Hurry up and wait,” says Beane.
Last year, when the reigning NFC champions had the 30th overall pick, everyone in the war room knew it was going to be a long night before there was any action for the Panthers.
This year is a different story.
The Panthers own the eighth overall pick, and the intensity is in the air from the start.
In addition to Gettleman, Beane, Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, head coach Ron Rivera and director of player personnel Don Gregory seated at the table directly in front of the board, the room is full of scouting and support staff.
When the Browns officially go on the clock with the first overall pick, there are only two assistant coaches in the room – offensive coordinator Mike Shula and running backs coach Jim Skipper. They know that they have reason to watch closely.
To no one’s surprise, the Browns select Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the first pick.
“He’s rare,” Gettleman says aloud.
Then Miles’ voice comes through on the speaker phone.
“The 49ers could be trading this, guys... It looks like Chicago.”
It didn’t take long for the first big surprise of the evening.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gettleman says.
The Bears, who originally had the No. 3 overall pick, swap with the 49ers and select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky from North Carolina with the second pick.
“Wow,” Rivera says. “Wow.”
Moments later, San Francisco submits its selection -- Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas.
The Panthers were very high on Thomas, a disruptive defensive lineman with the ability to play inside and out. He was one of the top players on the board. And they’re not surprised to see him go to San Francisco.
“He’s a baller,” says someone from the corner of the room.
The Jaguars are up next. They take another one of Carolina’s top-ranked players, Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette. It’s no secret the Panthers were impressed with the bruising power back.
As soon as Jacksonville submits the pick, Gettleman calls for all the assistant coaches to enter and the doors to be shut.
There are only three teams ahead of the Panthers, and it’s time to narrow down the options for No. 8.
Gettleman tells the room three players are in discussion – LSU safety Jamal Adams, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey.
The necessary scouts and assistant coaches provide their rapid-fire assessments of each player. Beane, Gregory and Rivera each offer their take.
Adams and Howard are highly thought of. Opinions in the room suggest both players need some refinement, but they both bring physicality and immediate impact to their respective sides of the ball.
The McCaffrey evaluations, however, are glowing.
“He’s a great football player. Has Luke Kuechly’s DNA. Just an overall great fit,” Beane says.
“He’s a touchdown waiting to happen,” says Skipper, the soft-spoken, longtime running backs coach.
“Off-the-charts instincts,” says Shula, who is entering his fifth season coordinating the offense. “So many ways we can use him, so many things he can do. A lot of production and points.”
Says Rivera: “He’s perfect for our offense.”
The room simmers on the three identified targets with Tennessee on the clock. Gettleman is the only one moving. He paces up and down, side to side.
Finally, the No. 5 pick is in. The Titans take Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis.
“We needed that,” Gettleman says.
“That,” Gregory says, “was a wildcard.”
Safe to say the Panthers didn’t predict that during their internal mock draft sessions.
The No. 6 pick is in. The New York Jets take Adams off the board.
Only one team stands in Carolina’s way. The Los Angeles Chargers hold the seventh overall pick.
Gettleman immediately turns to the scouts: “What do the Chargers need?”
“Wide receivers,” he’s told. “Maybe the safety, Malik Hooker.”
Before the draft began, rumors circulated that the Chargers were very interested in McCaffrey. This, coupled with how close the Panthers are to being on the clock, creates tension and silence in the room.
The Chargers submit their pick. It’s Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams.
Before he can even breathe a sigh of relief, Gettleman tells the room, “We’re going to go with McCaffrey.”
The phone rings. Gettleman’s executive administrator tells the room a team is interested in acquiring Carolina’s pick. She is quickly instructed to tell them there will be no trade.
Instead, the Panthers place a call of their own. Rivera and Shula make their way to a side office to chat with the newest Panther, who is watching the draft with his family in Colorado.
“Did we get Christian on the phone? He’s alive? Turn it in,” Gettleman says.
Richardson is relieved. McCaffrey spent considerable time at the team owner’s home during a pre-draft visit. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson came away convinced he would be a tremendous addition.
A round of applause engulfs the room. Wide receivers coach Lance Taylor, who coached McCaffrey and the Stanford running backs for the last three years, flashes a big smile and a fist pump.
“You get to coach your boy!” Gregory tells him.
“Is he going to live with you, Lance?” Gettleman jokes.
Tucked away from the celebration, Shula and McCaffrey are wrapping up their phone conversation.
The 20-year-old’s enthusiasm brings a smile to Shula’s face.
“You’re going to make us better right away,” Shula says. “We know how you work. We know what the game means to you. We’re going to score a bunch of touchdowns now, right?
“You and Cam are going to be a great combination.”