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Dan Morgan, Brandt Tilis
Months of prep, moments of action
Inside the first draft room with Dan Morgan and Brandt Tilis, the Panthers made a lot of long-term decisions, and they made them in a hurry.
By Darin Gantt Jun 17, 2024
Photographs By Kenny Richmond

CHARLOTTE — Things happen fast in a draft room, once they eventually happen.

One phone call, 20 seconds in duration. Maybe 15. A string of numbers read aloud as they're scribbled on a pad so the guy next to you can hear them. Click. "Let's do that," and then a quick "call-it-in" and a deal. Or minutes of intense discussion and consultation and debate, but then a casual "Yeah, the defensive tackle," and that's that and you're onto the next thing.

Of course, there are also long periods of waiting, hours filled by going over their notes and cracking jokes and eating snacks and lots of caffeine, waiting for the next burst of frenetic activity. It's like Ted Williams said about hitting a baseball: " Wait, wait, wait; quick, quick, quick." Except with chicken fingers.

And for as long as they can wait between moves, they know that when it's time, these decisions they're making in a hurry will shape the future of a team.

To be able to move around as much as the Panthers did on draft weekend, to be able to communicate so efficiently, to be able to speak the same language with different accents and yet so clearly, you'd think the two guys in the middle of the action had known each other for years.

Or, as it turns out, fewer than 100 days.

General manager Dan Morgan and executive vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis were able to do a lot of stuff in a little bit of time during the draft.

But doing a lot in a little time is kind of their thing by now, so filling immediate needs and considering the long-term instead of the right now doesn't seem like such a dramatic set of factors.

Neither does Tilis surprising Morgan by turning up wearing his jersey, or Morgan busting Tilis' chops about a job title he does not have, or the easy laughter between a couple of guys who met for the first time during a January Zoom call.

"There's a lot going on," Morgan said in the understatement of the offseason when discussing draft weekend. "It's a little bit of a blur sometimes."

Considering everything that's happened over the last five months, drafting Xavier Legette and Jonathon Brooks and Trevin Wallace and Ja'Tavion Sanders and Chau Smith-Wade and Jaden Crumedy and Michael Barrett doesn't seem nearly as dramatic as some of the things they've done. But the process of getting them here was as eventful as an offseason in which the Panthers hired a new GM and head coach, traded for a top receiver and signed 12 outside free agents.

There's a lot of stuff happening here, so it's no surprise that even a night in which nothing was supposed to happen turned out to be eventful.

The Panthers didn't have a first-round pick after last year's deal to move up to get quarterback Bryce Young first overall. So, with nothing to do on Thursday (or something), Morgan and Tilis got a round of golf at Quail Hollow that morning. Everyone has their draft-day rituals. Some sleep in, knowing a long weekend is coming. Former Jets GM Terry Bradway (now a consultant to the scouting department) used to always eat at the same Long Island diner with one of his lieutenants. Others lift weights or get a long run in. But this new front office went out to get a casual round in on a beautiful spring day, making the jokes co-workers make about each other's swings or who was going to tip the caddy.

"I think it's smart to just spend the morning focusing on yourself," Tilis said with a shrug. It doesn't have to be golf. I think if you're going to spend all night in the draft room two nights in a row, and you spend all day Saturday in the draft room, just stay out of there and clear your head, like you see before games, right?

"I think it just shows that people want to be at their best when it's time to perform."

240423 VMC-378

Of course, they're not just talking golf, as they're never far from the task at hand. Morgan said that before they even got to the draft room on April 25, he and Tilis had talked about a scenario in which they'd move up into the first round to get a receiver they wanted, then move back from 39 to gain back some more picks later.

But walking into Bank of America Stadium that Thursday afternoon, they didn't know exactly what that would look like. So they did what they do. They started making calls.

In the moments before the draft started with the Bears' anticlimactic pick of quarterback Caleb Williams, Morgan and Tilis were each on the phones with teams picking in the bottom third of the round, coming back with similar answers.

"Depending on who's there, we may," Morgan said to San Francisco GM John Lynch. "Cool, let's touch base."

Morgan has a clipped conversational style. Direct is another way to describe it. There are GMs who are born to talk, but he's not one of them. When he played here, it took him years to get warmed up when dealing with the media, since he was perfectly content to let others do the talking. And it's not that he can't — he could break down the game at a level many never could — or that he doesn't want to be communicative. He's just very to the point, that's his style.

The first-year GM has been holed up in his office — well, not really — since he got the job, pouring himself into his preparation for draft weekend. They're actually updating the GM's office, so he'd usually sit his bag on a chair in his old office across the hall, walk to the end of the long corridor to the draft room, and disappear there to prepare his first board. He really hasn't spent much time in his new office at all.

All that time was spent to be ready for this weekend and to be able to process a lot of information in a hurry. In the same way he dug into film with his old position coach, Sam Mills, to hone his instincts for the game so he could make his moves immediately, Morgan knew there was only one way to be ready for anything — to be prepared for everything. That former player vibe comes through, and the guys in the business can communicate without telling long stories. Maybe that's why Lynch, the Hall of Fame safety, and Morgan can have such succinct phone calls. They're talking the way they did on the field to defensive huddles.

Luke Kuechly, Dan Morgan

"I think again, it just comes down to the preparation part," Morgan said after a few days had passed. "Like making calls earlier in that day or a couple of days before that. Like, hey, if the opportunity presents itself, make sure to reach out to me first before you go to somebody else.

"I think that's where the relationships come into play as well."

The draft grinds on, moving into its second hour.

Another team in the mid-20s calls, working through options in case the board falls a certain way. They circle back to one of the earlier San Francisco proposals, which had more total picks going west than coming east, which none of them seemed interested in. As Tilis sketched out two options, he pointed to the more balanced deal and said: "This one for sure, we'd rather not lose the picks."

That became a trend with all the conversations the Panthers held during the weekend. The draft can be described as a game of chance, so the best way to improve your chances is to have more chances. So if they're going to give up, for instance, a two and two fives to move up, they want to get two sixes back to keep the inventory of total picks the same. All of those numbers get plugged into a calculator, and values are tabulated.

With so much down time between flurries of action, Morgan and Tilis have the time to talk in broad strokes, and they agree on some basic principles for deals they might make. Get back as many as you give, and don't dip into future years to make a deal today.

"You can't build it the right way if you do," Morgan said, summing up a guiding principle in 10 words.

There's plenty of time for more words, since they aren't supposed to draft at all until Friday night. But those 10 will do for now.

After the quarterbacks come off the board (six in the top 12 picks), the next run is on pass-rushers and offensive linemen. It's not that the Panthers don't need help in those areas, but the receivers are obviously an object of great interest, and every time a non-receiver gets picked, the buzz in the room intensifies. After the three in the top 10 (Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers, and Rome Odunze), another receiver doesn't come off the board until 23, when the Jaguars take Brian Thomas Jr.

"The run on receivers is about to happen now," Morgan said as the pick comes in.

Except, it doesn't immediately. The Lions traded up from 29 to 24 to take the cornerback they needed. "Stay patient," Morgan said after that one was announced.

Three more picks come off the board until Buffalo's on the clock at 28. They have a need for a receiver as well, which is why Morgan and Tilis had so many conversations with teams that picked ahead of them. But before the Bills could do something like take a receiver the Panthers had eyes on, they traded their pick to the Chiefs. Guess what Kansas City was looking for? A receiver. While it may have been a surprise that the Bills would give their rival (who has knocked them out of the playoffs three of the last four seasons) a chance to take Texas speed receiver Xavier Worthy (who set a combine record with a 4.21-second 40), the Bills were clearly looking to add assets.

This could have incited something resembling a panic, as there were five picks until the Panthers were supposed to choose and five top receivers were off the board. The next one could trigger a landslide, with the Cowboys, Ravens, and 49ers (or whomever they might deal with) in the next three spots.

Morgan and Lynch talk again. Lynch apparently does most of the talking. "We might," Morgan says and then listens some more. Lynch is making and taking other calls at the same time and appears to suggest (without hearing his end of the call) that they have a better offer or a player of preference. Tilis asks if it's time to call Baltimore about the 30th pick.

But then the Cowboys go with tackle Tyler Guyton, and the Ravens take cornerback Nate Wiggins. The ship appears to have sailed on a deal with the 49ers, and they're on the clock.

Xavier Legette

At this point, there's only one choice between Morgan and a receiver. But the Bills have traded down once, and Morgan's aware that there are teams behind him that want receivers too, and that the Bills could use one as well.

The Bills could take Legette themselves, or they could trade the chance to someone else. And having already traded with the Chiefs, anything was possible. But by that point, Morgan and Bills GM Brandon Beane have already talked multiple times (among the thousands of conversations that go back to 2001 when Beane was a football ops assistant here and Morgan was a first-round pick). The parameters seem to be in place. The Panthers will give up a fifth-round pick (141st) to move up one spot, and get a sixth back (200th). It's a win for the Bills on the traditional Jimmy Johnson trade chart, but that one doesn't factor in modern economics. With the ability to put a fifth-year option on a pick's contract, the cost certainty is a factor now.

And it's a trade-off the Panthers are willing to take, especially after what happens next.

Instead of taking a trade offer, the 49ers take a receiver instead, snatching Florida's Ricky Pearsall 31st overall at 11:43 p.m. Eastern time.

At 11:44 p.m. ET, Morgan was on the phone again with Beane. Another quick call, maybe less than 10 seconds this time, since they had already sketched out the framework earlier in the day.

"Cool," Morgan said to his old friend, and the deal was done. (With the 33rd pick on Friday, the Bills would eventually take a receiver, Keon Coleman, before wideouts went 34th to the Chargers and 37th to the Patriots).

After the fact, Morgan admitted it was a nerve-wracking sequence despite his outward calm.

"There were a couple of guys that we liked at that position and at other positions," Morgan said. "So I think we knew that we were going to have the opportunity to get one of those guys. Obviously, we love Xavier. So it's like when the opportunity presented itself, these receivers were kind of falling off the board. It was like there was a little more urgency to it. OK, let's go get one of the guys that we really want to get and not settle.

"I was willing to go to a certain point, but when it really came down to doing it, I was like, I don't know that I want to give up this much capital to get there. So I think when we were able to do what we did with Buffalo, I felt good about that.

"I wasn't sure what he (Beane) was going to do. I think he was talking to another team and if he got stuck, I was like, is he going to draft Legette or Keon? Do I want to take that risk? So there's all these types of things going on in my head."

Dan Morgan

At that point, everyone in the draft room is clapping and making noise. They got their guy, a guy Morgan talked about four hours earlier as a possible target (among a group of targets). They didn't have to give up as much as they feared they might have if the receiver run hit earlier. It feels celebratory in the room, and for good reason.

After years of training, months of scouting and prep, hundreds of phone calls, and that last one that lasted less time than it takes to hang up on a robo-caller, the new GM of the Panthers made his first first-round pick.

So you'll pardon Morgan for not immediately noticing that Tilis had slipped away from his chair and pulled a fresh 55 jersey — Morgan's old number — over his suit coat.

"I turned around right after the Legette pick. I turned around and saw it, and it kind of caught me off guard a little bit," Morgan said later with a laugh. "I was like, where did, where did you even get that? Like, what's happening right here? So it was pretty funny."

As with a lot of the things the Panthers did draft weekend, it was a move that took a second to make, but much longer to prepare for.

Tilis admitted he thought about it (the jersey and the trade) days ahead of time as something to celebrate the possibility of moving into the first round. But he didn't know where to begin finding a Morgan jersey, so he did what everyone in the personnel department does when they have a problem to solve.

He called Claire.

Claire Stokes's title is manager of player personnel, but it might as well be vice president of getting stuff done. On draft night, she's calling picks and trades into the league, but she does so much more. If someone needs a minute with Morgan, it's easiest to ask her before they ask him. She knows his schedule better than he does and everyone else's too.

"I talked to Claire about it on, I think, like Tuesday or Wednesday," Tilis said. "I said, if we trade up in the first round, which I thought we would, I think it'd be cool and funny to wear the Dan Morgan jersey. And yeah, it was cool.

"I don't know where she got it. I have no idea. She got it. Claire finds everything. She's never not come through."

Not only did she find the jersey (a quick call to senior director of brand and consumer marketing Dawn Turner cleaned that up fast), but she was not surprised to see Morgan so surprised to see Tilis in it.

"That kind of added to the fun factor of it," Stokes said. "Because Dan was completely locked in."

At this point, it's worth pointing out that Morgan and Tilis have developed a quick vibe. They joke with each other the way you only can with shared experience, and they've shared a lot. It just hasn't taken long to share it. It's not every year you make two trades and five free agent deals in a day, bringing in a dozen new faces in March and churning the roster.

They met for the first time on a January Zoom call after Morgan became the GM. They have very little in common on the surface — a former middle linebacker from The U and a former economics and statistics grad from the U of Rochester.

But after a few months together, they seem to fit.

"I even tell my wife I'm super lucky to have him," Morgan said. "To have this kind of fall into place being together, because we're a lot more alike personality wise than probably people think.

"He thinks differently than I do. Obviously, he's a whole hell of a lot smarter than me. But, we think differently, we offset each other extremely well. It's been good."

Morgan said that since they came together in the same place, he's mentioned things to Tilis that Tilis was already doing legwork on. So when Tilis hands him a card with a set of numbers scribbled on it in the draft room, it's just the extension of a quick partnership.

Stokes sees it firsthand, even on days she's not hustling up a black 55 jersey for a practical joke.

"Dan is always interested in having a good time, but he also knows the value of hard work and being prepared for this moment, and Brandt just is on the same level," she said. "I mean, there's a goofiness. There's definitely that element of having fun, but doing what needs to be done is top priority. But it makes it an easier and a more relaxed experience when people can have a good time."

They share a sense of humor. Tilis may tend to be more subversive (he made an "up dog" joke at one point during the draft, though it's unclear how many got it), but Morgan can get his shots in, too. When an NFL Network personality mentioned Tilis on air Saturday, he misidentified him as "the new team president." Since team president Kristi Coleman was in the room, there were laughs about this, including Morgan saying, "We've got to celebrate our new team president tonight at the (Kenny Chesney) concert."

"I didn't say it, he did," Tilis protested.

Later on Saturday, Coleman came in with a stack of white graphic T-shirts with Morgan in uniform from his playing days, with his nickname "D-Mo" printed across it. As he did with the jersey, Tilis just pulled it on over what he was wearing, a totally normal thing for an executive vice president to do during the middle of a draft.

"I don't want to ever have a job where I can't have fun and enjoy what I do," Morgan said. "I want everybody else around me to enjoy the process and not have a serious, tense atmosphere. I want it to be fun.

"It should be fun, and it's the same with our players. They come in here every day, this job's hard enough. We've got to have fun too."

240427 War Room Day 3-80

The fun had just begun.

There was much more draft to come, including the move that might have been the defining one of this draft.

They planned to be in the first spot on Friday night, but after the trade, they were seventh in the batting order before the 39th pick was on the clock. That gave them time to talk.

And the more they talked, the more they realized they had options.

When the Panthers looked at their board going into the second day, they saw a clump of defensive backs and pass-rushers, and some outliers, including the best running back in this draft. The Panthers roster, as you may have noticed, is not ridiculously deep at cornerback and pass-rusher. So 39 seemed like a good place to be.

"Our spot is really desirable," Tilis said in the room. "So we should only move out if we're blown away."

But then the calls started coming in. They talked to Las Vegas about 44, and Jacksonville about 48. There was discussion of Cincinnati's pick at 49 and the Eagles at 50 and 53. The Rams are always on the phone, but they were picking 52nd, and that's farther back in the order than their clump of preferred players was going to stretch.

It wasn't clear what was going to happen, but it seemed clear something was about to.

With multiple ways to deal back on Friday, the Panthers got aggressive. Those quick calls started including requests for future picks. The Rams weren't the first one of those; they were just the first yes.

When Tilis proposed one such deal that would have netted a third-rounder next year, Morgan shrugged and said "worth a try." That didn't hit, but the next one did.

The Rams had a lot going on themselves. Not only were they dealing with the retirement of superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald this offseason, they had a rare first-round pick, their first since 2016. They used that one on pass-rusher Florida State Jared Verse, and wanted to keep adding on defense. And after three defensive tackles went in the first six picks of the second round, they didn't want to wait.

The Panthers quickly talked through many variations of a trade with the Rams, like three distinct versions in a short burst.

And before they agreed, they were already thinking about the next move.

When the Rams, eager to reunite defensive tackle Braden Fiske with his college teammate, offered a 2025 second-rounder along with 52 and 155 for 39, the Panthers had a decision to make and fast.

Not having a second-rounder next year made it easier than it would have been because Morgan admitted agonizing about that move back. At least for a moment.

Dan Morgan

"It wasn't easy to not be at 39," Morgan said. "I mean, you know that's a starter, with what was on the board at that time. But at the same time, that two next year, I mean, you have to take that. That's the right move for the organization as a whole, and you can't just think about what's happening right now.

"Really, that's an easy call when you think about it, but you also know what you're giving up."

That's why they were already working on the next move.

Before the deal with the Rams was done, they were already thinking about how to get up from 52, fearing all of their guys would be gone if they waited. Morgan made another quick call to a former co-worker, Giants GM Joe Schoen, once a ticketing intern here who also worked alongside him in Buffalo. Morgan was not the only person talking to Schoen at the time. Meanwhile, Tilis was talking to Colts GM Chris Ballard at 46, figuring someone might jump them.

In the end, they had to give up two fifth-rounders to get from 52 to 46 to take Brooks, which is only a slight edge to the Colts in the Jimmy Johnson trade chart, but emboldened by the trade they had just made, and the ability to add the best running back in this class, they clearly felt good about it.

"We're not trading just to trade, like we're doing it with intention," Tilis said. "There are players on the board who we want, and we're gauging where we think we can get them and still acquire more value along the way to get more players. So like the Brooks one, it was a really good example of that. There were a few players on the board who we liked. Brooks was by far a (or our) number one guy, and we were planning on a smaller move back, and then the Rams came in and offered what they did, and it was, frankly, too good to pass up. They really wanted that pick.

"And we knew that if we traded the pick there would be a player that we would miss out on. We were comfortable with that because we really wanted Brooks, and to be able to get the two next year, we said, OK, once our guys start going, then we're going have to move back up. It's not like we did anything that was so smart or great or whatever; we were just willing to take a larger risk to get that outcome of the trade. It's like, let's not get cute here. Let's just get our guy."

Jonathon Brooks

That move would inform the rest of the weekend. Among that group of players they were looking at were the aforementioned cornerbacks and pass-rushers, as well as linebackers.

So now that they were looking at 65 as their next pick, they started thinking about what's next.

Now that the word was on the street that the Panthers were willing to deal, the phone started ringing even more often. There were three separate options to move back from 65, and they ultimately landed on a simple deal with the Jets to add a fifth-rounder to move back seven spots to 72.

That pick turned into linebacker Trevin Wallace, and with that they were finished for the night. But it was still worth waiting, because there was no way to know for sure that they weren't going to do something else. (Narrator voice: They didn't, but they had earned reputation by that point.)

Morgan loved the way Wallace ran, the way he could run a defense. And with a pair of veteran inside linebackers in Shaq Thompson and Josey Jewell on hand, there's no need for any pick there to be immediate.

"To me, there's still a huge upside to Trevin," Morgan said. "He can really develop into a good one."

When their first big move of Friday was done with the future in mind, it's no surprise their last one of the day did, too.

That's why when they look back on these moves, they stress the preparation, the evaluations done in the quiet long sessions, rather than those frantic seconds when they're on their phones.

"I mean, we do all this work, right?" Tilis said. "The scouts are watching these guys and scouting these guys all year long, and then we spend the entire spring building a board. We get a feel for where guys are going to go and where we value them, right? Based on the coaches' input in the spring process, the interviews and all those things. So we're just kind of following almost a rubric and making the best decision."

When he says it like that, it sounds so simple.

As they wrapped up for the night, Morgan quickly went through a few targets for Day 3. There were a few tight ends mentioned, one in particular. And as if speaking it into existence before heading home for a few hours, he mentioned how much he liked Mississippi State defensive tackle Jaden Crumedy as a late-round possibility. Even as he drove home Friday night, he was mapping out Saturday.

Ja'Tavion Sanders

The 101st overall pick was the first of the fourth round and the only one of their original picks the Panthers still possessed after all those moves.

And after he drove into work, it seemed pretty obvious to Morgan what needed to be done.

He's the kind of big pass-catching tight end the Panthers did not previously possess. He's also the kind of guy that sticks out on the board when you give it a chance to settle.

"My mind just kept going back to him," Morgan said of Sanders. "If you would have told me this guy was here in the fourth round and that we would be able to get Brooks, Legette, and this guy for the offense? Him being on the board, like, I just felt like it was an easy decision."

People called. Those conversations never went far.

Tilis relayed one offer, followed by "how would we get back up?" And Morgan just shrugged and said: "We're not."

After drafting Sanders, they had a multiple-hour wait until they picked again at 157. Somebody glanced at their social media and saw a fan had already dialed up the "Damnnnnnn, Daniel" meme to describe the work already done by Morgan and the rest of the crew.

Morgan walked in the door upbeat, but as he talked to one of his regular callers moments later, he said: "You get any sleep? Me either. I'm wide awake though."

If the rest of the draft seemed anticlimactic after that, they don't really need to apologize.

They needed defensive depth and found cornerback Chau Smith-Wade in the fifth round. They were pleased to see Crumedy available in the sixth round and then linebacker Michael Barrett in the seventh.

There were some calls along the way, but most of the heavy lifting was done on Days 1 and 2. The rest of the picks were probably less dramatic than the minutes that followed the draft when deals were being made with undrafted rookies. But before then, they almost relaxed a little.

Tilis kicked back in his brand new D-Mo shirt, and people in the room made plans for that evening's concert across the hall during the long breaks between action.

It was loose, but they were still working, and when it was time for their final pick, they were discussing a few options. One was a player who stuck out on the board, but Morgan asked to see the medical file one more time. Assistant athletic trainer Katy Rogers shared their report, which showed some significant issues. The guy could probably help them in the short term, but his longevity was a valid question based on what the doctors told them.

Morgan admitted after the fact he was intrigued by the player.

As a scout, he may have been all over him. As the man in charge and the man who had to make serious decisions quickly, he admitted he had a different perspective this year.

"You always try to put yourself in that seat," Morgan said. "But until you're in that seat, your mindset is different as an assistant GM."

"Whether it's character or injuries or whatever, you're just, you're in a different mindset knowing these are long-term decisions, and you just make them the best way you can, and that takes time."

It was symbolic, in that way, of the entire weekend.

They made moves that could help soon, but this was about the future, and building something stable could take time.

But when you put in the time to prepare, sometimes those decisions take no time at all.

Take a closer look at all seven new Panthers draftees from first-rounder Xavier Legette to seventh-rounder Michael Barrett from their stellar collegiate runs.

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