Stephon Gilmore deal provides a shot of confidence

Stephon Gilmore

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers aren't afraid to make big moves at cornerback, for the future or the present.

And they're not necessarily finished.

After trading for former top-10 pick CJ Henderson a week ago in a bid to groom a young asset, the Panthers made a trade Wednesday for a much more immediate goal.

In dealing for 2019 NFL defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore, the Panthers added someone who can help them win now — or at least when he's eligible to play in Week 7.

So for Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer, Wednesday was about improving the roster and sending a message.

"This is the way Scott's wired; this is the only way I know," Rhule said. "I don't want to sit around and wait to win. I also don't want to do things to jeopardize the future; I don't want to take shortcuts.

"We have a good team right now. We're trying to become a really good team, trying to become a great team. That's in the way you practice and prepare, and get as many good players as possible."

Gilmore is certainly one of those.

But beyond anything Gilmore adds right now, he also sends an unmistakable signal to a team that blinked for the first time last week. Despite a loss at Dallas which created as many questions as they answered the first three weeks, the Panthers believe they're ready for bigger things.

And it's not just Rhule or Fitterer who believe it. It was every player who came through the interview room Wednesday to talk about it.

"We're ready to win now," quarterback Sam Darnold said. "I think that's the biggest thing. We're all aware, we can win games, and we're capable of doing that. So that's really the message it sends."

"I think everyone in this building believes we can win now," veteran defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "Even before that."

"They're confident we can win right now," cornerback Donte Jackson said.

Apparently, they think they can win right now.

Gilmore's the second corner acquired since first-rounder Jaycee Horn broke his foot in Houston, but even in discussing that bad news, it was clear that the Panthers aren't thinking about this as a long-range project.

Fitterer said they're not ruling out having Horn return at some point later in the year, depending on his recovery.

"We're hoping he gets back," Fitterer said of Horn. "And we hope, we plan on going to the playoffs."

He said that pretty casually.

Think about saying that at all a few months ago, before Darnold played so well, before the defense was ranked at the top of the league before the Dallas game, before a bunch of young kids and stitched-together veterans got off to a 3-0 start that created some belief.

So while it might have seemed like a slow burn, the Panthers have caught a spark all of a sudden, and this was a can of kerosene on the fire.

"You make moves in-season for the season, to win games," Rhule said.

While they like the potential of Horn and Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr. and Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, the pairing of Gilmore and Jackson, along with veteran nickel A.J. Bouye, gives them the opportunity to match up and play with people right now.

"It allows us to put more guys in the box, and go be aggressive," Rhule said. "We try to have positionless players, like Jeremy Chinn, Haason Reddick, Brian Burns, Morgan Fox. . . . We want to give different looks and take advantage of the guys we have.

"I think positionless players are important, but at the end of the day, for us to win, you have play man, and get off the field on third down. So as many guys as we have that can cover, we'll take it."

Adding Gilmore also creates another decision to make down the road.

Like Jackson, his contract expires at the end of this season. And while Gilmore is a bit more of a wait-and-see based on his age (31) and recent injury (a quad injury which ended last season and forced him to start the year on the physically unable to perform list), they're fairly clear about their goals.

They'd love to have Gilmore around beyond this season. But they definitely want to keep Jackson, the 25-year-old who is playing his best football at the moment.

"I talked to Donte when we acquired CJ, and spoke to him briefly coming off the field today," Fitterer said. "Really this does not affect Donte at all. We know that we'd like to have him back. We think he wants to be back. We're planning, or budgeting I should say, to have him back. But this doesn't affect Donte at all."

Other than positively, of course. Jackson described the deal for a cornerback he watched and admired growing up as "pretty dope."

And for the price, it's hard to argue with.

To get Henderson, they gave up a 2021 third-rounder as part of the package that sent tight end Dan Arnold to Jacksonville (getting a fifth-rounder back in exchange). To get Gilmore before another team could, they gave up a 2023 sixth-rounder, a negligible price for the cost-certainty involved. Other teams were interested in trading for Gilmore, after word got out that the Patriots were going to release him Wednesday.

"I think any time you can get an All-Pro player for a future sixth, you do it," Rhule said. "I thought it was a good opportunity to get a great player."

Since Fitterer has presided over 13 trades since he was hired in January, including five on draft weekend alone, it is reasonable to assume they'll add some picks down the road.

And it's also reasonable to assume that they believe their draft picks are going to be later in the rounds than anyone imagined at the beginning of this season.

This team thinks it's better than a lot of people do. This team believes.

View photos from the Atrium Health practice fields as the Panthers prepare for the Eagles game.

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