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Panthers brass finding "clarity" ahead of NFL draft 

Cole Spencer, Scott Fitterer, Dan Morgan

CHARLOTTE – Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer prioritized finding the balance between evaluating the No. 1 pick and the Panthers' five other selections in this year's NFL draft.

Of course, the weight of having your choice of any player (Carolina has made it clear it'll be a quarterback) isn't lost on Fitterer, assistant general manager Dan Morgan, college scouting director Cole Spencer or any member of the Panthers' deep brain trust that has been on the road at pro days, watching college film, or sitting in on dinners. There's a lot that goes into the evaluation of a No. 1.

"We spend more time sitting with them, trying to get to understand them," Fitterer said in Tuesday's pre-draft press conference. "Is this the person that can lead our franchise? Is he the one that really kind of validates why we went up to one? Is he the one that's going to make the difference?"

It's a lot to consider when meeting with multiple top prospects, making the evaluation process longer and more involved.

With nine days until draft night, Fitterer said they're still going through the process and that he hasn't yet asked head coach Frank Reich who his top choice would be. But he knows there has been "clarity" since the combine wrapped in early March.

Fitterer said decision-makers "felt strongly" about a group of players at the top of the draft, which is why they went aggressive in trading with Chicago to get this year's first overall pick. Carolina brought a populated contingent to pro days for the draft's consensus top four quarterbacks – Alabama's Bryce Young, Florida's Anthony Richardson, Kentucky's Will Levis, and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud – and hosted all four for top 30 visits after the combine.

They also dove back into past notes on all of them, adding to the thoroughness of the process.

"Obviously, it's a huge decision for the organization," Fitterer said. "The evaluation portion of it – a lot of that was done prior to this. We've gone back just to rewatch, refresh."

Whoever the Panthers pick, Fitterer said he knows to avoid placing immediate expectations on a rookie quarterback. Through coaching hires and in free agency, they've worked to put their young signal-caller in the position to succeed – so it comes down to making the right decision on what quarterback can make it happen.

"It's not like we're expecting this quarterback to come in and instantly just make everything happen (and) everything changes immediately," Fitterer said. "You've seen it with Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen; it takes time. And you have to surround him with the right people, and you have to surround him with the right coaching. But I think we've done that.

"And we're not going to force this quarterback on the field. We're not going to ask him to do anything that he can't do. We're going to ask them just to play their game, deliver the ball, make the right reads, and make the right decisions. For that reason, we have spent time doing that on that number one spot."

— Many of the questions Tuesday were asked from the context of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who is widely speculated to be the guy now.

And considering Fitterer was in Seattle when they drafted Russell Wilson, that connection has been made. But Fitterer said it would be a mistake to equate the number of passes batted down with height.

Former Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled with it last year (he's short of 6-foot-1), but Fitterer said neither the 5-11 Wilson nor the 5-10 Young did.

"I will say this, when Russell Wilson came out, I think he had three balls batted down his senior year; Bryce had two," Fitterer said. "So if you're talking just about Bryce, this doesn't seem to be an issue. When you grow up a shorter quarterback, you learn how to evolve your game, adapt, and see the field."

— In discussing the need to balance the amount of attention paid to the top pick to the other five, Fitterer was asked about other needs.

He first mentioned that teams "always need a pass rusher," but specifically added that they could add along the offensive line, at receiver, and linebacker.

Of course, checking a lot of boxes in free agency means they don't go into the draft with many glaring needs (other than quarterback, though a second starting outside linebacker is close).

The Panthers don't have an obvious answer at outside linebacker other than Brian Burns, but they can look at players including Marquis Haynes Sr., Yetur Gross-Matos, Amaré Barno, and others.

While the Panthers have their starting offensive line back, right guard Austin Corbett is coming off a torn ACL and might not be 100 percent by the regular season opener, so some short-term cover at guard could be helpful.

At receiver, they signed free agents Adam Thielen, DJ Chark Jr., and Damiere Byrd, but Thielen is the only wideout on the roster under contract beyond the 2024 season, so some long-term options could be attractive there. (For a look at receiver and tight end options later in the draft, click here.)

— Everyone's looking for clues this time of year, but some things are just coincidences.

Fitterer was asked whether the timing of his press conference could shed any light on their decision, since quarterback visits were still ongoing.

In actuality, Levis and Stroud were scheduled to arrive today weeks ago. Tomorrow is the final day for teams to conduct 30 visits, and the Panthers have conducted all 30 of theirs.

Look back on some of the productive draft picks the Panthers made in the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft all the way back to 1995.

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