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Carolina Panthers

Team-building becoming more complicated than ever

Russell Wilson, Davante Adams

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The importance of finding a quarterback in the NFL may be more pronounced than ever. And more complicated. And more expensive.

But the balance NFL teams are trying to strike now — with players beyond star quarterbacks dictating their destinations and having more power to do so than ever — is how to make sure you cover the most important position on the field, while also having enough parts around that guy to make it all work.

The Panthers are currently in the process of looking for an answer to that complicated question, and having taken several swings at veteran options at quarterback, are considering whether to use the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft on one. General manager Scott Fitterer has talked about the economic flexibility that provides, and how it makes it easier to add parts.

Other teams around the league are going the other direction.

The math is sinple for a coach like Nathaniel Hackett of the Broncos. But he's one of the lucky ones, as former Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson decided to play for him, so there wasn't necessarily a cost to trade for him that he considered was too high. And make no mistake, it was costly, as the Broncos gave up a package of five picks (including their first and second each of the next two years) and three players for the privilege of paying Wilson and hoping he's enough to lift their team.

"In the end, it's about a quarterback," Hackett said Monday morning at the NFL owners meetings at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla. "You can ask all these guys around here, you've got to have a quarterback to have a chance. So whatever it takes to get a quarterback.

"I don't think you can ever put too high a price on someone that's great. I know some guys are game-changers. Look at Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, all those guys. Some guys are game-changers, but I know that the quarterback, he's the one that touches the ball every play."

On the other side of the room, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is dealing with the other side of that coin. He's got his guy in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who's averaging $45 million a year. But that cost him his best receiver in Hill, who effectively forced a trade to the Dolphins last week when the Chiefs couldn't get him signed to a new contract there in the wake of Adams' new deal with the Raiders.

Reid was careful to say there was "no rift" with Hill, and that they did try to retain him "at a certain cost." But ultimately, they had to take the package of five picks (including first- and second-rounders this year) from his preferred destination with the Dolphins because they couldn't reach the level of compensation Hill was looking for.

Andy Reid

"You can handle it any way you want to handle it. We handled it the way we did there," Reid said. "And we felt like Tyreek deserved an opportunity. We came in aggressive, and after we got to a point, we said listen, in this day and age, you have issues that you have to deal with with the cap, so we felt like it was better to allow him to go ahead and be traded. You can go different routes, you can play hardball with a player, or you can go about it the way we did. . . .

"You've got to be able to manage that the right way, yeah. If you're paying all your money to a quarterback and you can't surround him with players, that can be a problem. So you've got to find a way, a Tyreek Hill maybe that you get rid of, so you can replenish."

Most teams would love to have Reid's problem, to worry about how to keep enough talent around Mahomes to keep them competitive. He makes it easier.

But deals of the last few weeks indicate the balance of power could be tilting toward the players, making those in other NFL personnel departments a little uncomfortable.

Not only did the Browns surrender a package including three first-round picks for Deshaun Watson, they guaranteed his entire $230 million contract before he decided they'd be his destination. That kind of NBA-style deal has left them a little less popular among other front offices, since such full guarantees have never been considered a possibility for players.

The NFL is far from getting to basketball's level of players dictating all the terms, but it's creeping in that direction for the top stars. Seeing Watson's choice, and Packers franchise-tagged wideout Adams leveraging a deal to the Raiders and a new five-year, $141.25 million deal, and then Hill wanting his bite of the apple and finding the Dolphins eager to give up the orchard to make it happen, points to a different kind of calculus for general managers.

Not only are they trying to acquire players, but they're also trying to manage the personalties to make sure they can keep them together.

Fitterer admitted last week that putting that puzzle together has become more complicated, and forces front offices to consider more than cap numbers and positional needs.

"What it makes you do is have a more personal relationship with the players, on the front end, and be proactive about it," Fitterer said. "If there's an issue that's brewing, try to eliminate that, and communicate the best you can about what's going on. You are seeing that a lot more often, and some of the bigger trades, they're picking where they want to go, especially if they have a no-trade clause.

"You have to be smart about how you structure contracts, you have to be tuned into the player, and have a lot of contacts around the NFL, so if it does fall apart, you can get a deal and be ready to move."

The Panthers haven't been able to land the big quarterback — last year's attempt to trade for Matthew Stafford went the Rams' way, and Watson went to Cleveland — so they're trying to fill in the other parts until they find an answer.

This offseason, that meant extending star wideout DJ Moore to a three-year extension that will keep him in place until 2025. The Panthers moved quickly to get Moore's deal done in the wake of the Watson decision — though Fitterer said they'd planned to do it anyway — sealing the deal with Moore less than 24 hours later. That was also before the Hill deal, as top-end receiver deals are climbing quickly.

WR DJ Moore

More such business is on the horizon, as they're going to pick up the fifth-year option on pass-rusher Brian Burns, while acknowledging that trying to extend him will also be part of the plan.

"That's what we want to do as an organization, is draft, develop, and if they do it the right way and go out and perform, we're going to reward them," Fitterer said. "These are guys you want in the building. There's a history of that, prior to me ever being here. We'd love to do that moving forward. As long as you manage the money right, we want to take care of our own guys.

"Brian would be one of those priorities moving forward. He's a guy that's come out and produced for us. I really like the leader he is becoming, and the man that he is. He will be one of those guys that we definitely try to work on."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team has become a destination for a certain type of free agent, said creating the atmosphere is a basic component of team-building.

"I think it's always been a number one priority," Harbaugh said. "You've got to be thinking about that as a coach. I don't care whether it's the NFL or NBA or junior high, you better be thinking about players and their well-being and the relationships, every single day. That's how you build a team.

"Hopefully, if you build a team and you have a day-to-day work environment that people want to be a part of, then that's where it begins in terms of being successful. And most people like to come to work every day when they drive in and are happy to be there and happy to see the people they work with. That's what we strive for. It helps guys want to come to us in free agency or not want to leave, that's good too. It all goes hand in hand."

John Harbaugh

As teams consider how to build, adding the quarterback will always be central to the plans.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane's another one of the fortunate ones, as he has quarterback Josh Allen under contract. Beane admitted that it makes everything easier in recruiting other players as well.

He laughed and recalled pass-rusher Von Miller telling him he couldn't wait to play with the QB he calls "The Creature," and Beane acknowledged that Miller wouldn't have likely left the Super Bowl champions to come to Buffalo if not for Allen's presence.

"Probably not," Beane said with a shrug. "It definitely helps. People want to win, they want their fair compensation no matter what, but I think Von definitely indicated that was part of his process.

"I definitely think if you have a quarterback, if you have an upper-level quarterback, that will attract people. Also, the style of play. Our offense, as Josh has matured, has become more pass-first as opposed to run-first. So I do think some receivers or tight ends, they're going, 'Man, look how much they throw the ball, I'm going to get a lot of chances to play and contribute and help my value.'"

Becoming a destination isn't always organic. And fewer and fewer teams are willing to wait.

Seeing the Rams celebrate a Super Bowl title while treating draft picks with disdain, and relying on trades for players such as Stafford and Miller has emboldened others.

"People realized you could win a Super Bowl without draft picks," Harbaugh said. "The Rams kind of made that statement."

And that raised the stakes, and the costs, and the complications.

"You're seeing more, especially this year," Reid said. "It's been a little wild that way. I think it's just that everybody knows they need a good quarterback."

And plenty of teams are ready to do whatever it takes to get one — even if that means upending precedents and tipping the financial balance of a team to do so. The Panthers are still weighing their options, and trying to strike the right balance.

View photos from The Breakers Resort at Palm Beach, Fla., as AFC coaches meet with the media during the annual NFL owners meetings.

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