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The room where it happened: Inside the Panthers trade for the top pick
A closer look at the hour when the Panthers went from thinking there was a deal for the second pick, to going to the very top of the 2023 NFL Draft, from those who were there.
By Darin Gantt Apr 27, 2023
Photographs By Kenny Richmond

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers spent the first 10 days of March ready to make a move.

It turned out to be different than the one they had planned on making — at once bigger, yet also smaller than they thought — and it changed the course of what's going to happen tonight and for years to come.

And it took somewhere around 60 minutes from start to paperwork.

The trade for the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft was a bold one, and even bolder than they thought they were making when they woke up on Friday, March 10. And in less time than it takes to watch a fictional draft movie, they pulled off a cinematic move of their own, sweeping in at the last minute to take control of the process in a way they hadn't planned.

"At a certain point, it was like, let's go to one," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. "And so we did over about the course of an hour."

"I think the feeling was; I had a very strong feeling on this, there was a time when they would say yes," Panthers owner David Tepper said. "Don't let them search around for a better deal. Get it done. Before the weekend."

"We were kind of tired of waiting," assistant GM Dan Morgan said. "It's like, let's quit messing around, let's go take control of this draft."

"It was great," Panthers head coach Frank Reich said, a grin creeping across his face as he recalled the moment when they went to No. 1. "I mean, it was like a lot of fun. It was really exciting."

He's perhaps underselling the moment.

"Coach was super-excited," team president Kristi Coleman, one of the small group of people to witness it firsthand, recalled. "I mean, he was high-fiving and fist-pounding excited."

Frank Reich

Of course, like most big deals, the story of this one stretches back weeks, if not years.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer and Bears general manager Ryan Poles have known each other a long time, building the common respect a couple of long-time road scouts have for one another. So once it became clear the Bears weren't married to the first pick in the draft — once they decided to build around incumbent quarterback Justin Fields, and maximize the roster around him — Fitterer made the first call.

But a lot of other people were calling too.

Poles' responsibility was to get the most for his valuable piece of real estate, so the scouting combine (the first week of March) was spent talking to other teams as much as scouting prospects. The Texans, picking second, were among the first wave of calls to Chicago. The Panthers were too. There were many others.

And after a solid week of working the phones, it appeared that Poles had made a pair of deals. The Bears were going to flip the first pick to the Texans for a significant haul which included a starting offensive player, and then were then going to send the second pick to the Panthers for another stockpile of help for the entire organization. The initial talks were centered on picks, but with enough other teams in the running, it became clear the Panthers were going to have to sweeten the deal. The Bears asked about three particular players — Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and DJ Moore — none of which the Panthers wanted to send. But if you want to make big omelets, you have to break big eggs. Eventually, the Panthers relented on the addition of Moore to the pot.

As the negotiations went on, the cost to go from No. 9 to No. 2 eventually seemed settled — this year's second-round pick acquired from the 49ers (61st overall, as opposed to the Panthers' own second, No. 39), next year's first-rounder, and Moore. That was Wednesday afternoon, and the decision-makers convened in Fitterer's office, hoping to finish the deal that day.

"I think Dave had some serious FOMO because he wasn't in the room, and the phone kept cutting in and out," Coleman said of the midweek talks around getting to No. 2.

Picking second, the Panthers knew they'd get a quarterback. They didn't know which one, but they knew that staying at nine might leave them waiting another year.

The only problem was the Bears didn't have the second pick to send them yet, and Poles was beginning to get tired of waiting on the Texans to push their part of the move across the line.

So Fitterer, who had kept the lines of communication open with his Chicago counterpart, kept calling back to say "we're still in this," over and over, as if to reassure him.

"Wednesday afternoon, we were there," Fitterer said. "That evening, we kept waiting for, basically for Houston to make a decision. Dave's calling me because we're waiting for that to happen. And all day Thursday, nothing. And Thursday night, I call Ryan. He's like pacing at his house. He goes, 'I can't sleep. Now I'm sick to my stomach,' because ultimately, he's going to really rack up picks and stuff.

"And then Friday comes, nothing in the morning. I talk to him at noon. He's frustrated. Talk to him again about 2:30 p.m. He's frustrated. And it's kind of like, OK, what's it take then? Take two out. What if we just want to come to one?"

Of course, that wasn't the only set of phone calls taking place.

The Panthers were also talking to Arizona about the third overall pick as this was happening, and the cost was effectively the same value as the deal they had offered Chicago for the second pick. Another team was also calling Poles about getting to one, offering three firsts and a second.

"We're trying to protect ourselves by talking about three, and it was a pretty good deal to go to Arizona, but then there's two quarterbacks in between that are possibly going right?" Fitterer said. "And that's why we said, let's just go get the one. Yeah. And let's control this. Then it's like, if you want to go three to one, a month from now, there's another cost involved. And that's going to compile, basically, into more than we're giving up to get to one at this point.

"But then the other team comes in, and they're offering what is actually more than we gave up, pick-wise. So that's where the DJ factor came in. That's what put us over the top. We didn't have to do as much pick-wise because we knew DJ's worth more than a one."

The Panthers had turned down offers including a first-rounder for Moore previously, so that was a fair argument to make.

And as Reich recalled the moment, he said he was glad he works for a man who earned his fortune in hedge funds, who has an intrinsic feel for value and has a gift for numbers that allows him to process them in real-time.

"Mr. Tepper's analysis and leadership at that point really shined through," Reich said. "Just evaluating the price of going from all the different options of where we were looking to move up to. What does it cost? And where are we in the process? You know, I think now, looking back, it was absolutely brilliant to do it, to put our foot on the gas and go all the way to one.

"And I ultimately think that Mr. Tepper played a very, very significant role in that. You know, in his evaluation of the price of the options that we were looking at, and then just the leadership to say, 'let's go for it.'"

When they got back on the phone with the Bears, it was becoming clear that all it would take to bump it from the previous deal was a 2025 second-rounder, meaning they were sending two ones, two twos, and a star wide receiver. It was a lot, but the difference between what they were giving up in the first deal to the ultimate one was a second-round pick two years from now.

"In my case, I just listen, I just do numbers, right? I can do value," Tepper said. "I pointed out, in this particular case, I said it will be the cheapest trade-up in the history of the world from two to one, the last increment. Now, it might have been that we were overpaying for everything else.

"I do a lot of trades in my life. That's what I do. I've done OK with it. So the decision was made. And so we all agreed, let's do it, let's go.

"From Chicago's standpoint, we were there. We've been with them through the whole process. . . . There was a time that Chicago knew that we were going to be good to do a trade. So we made a decision, in a very short timeframe, to do that trade and get it done with Chicago."

Tepper was out of the office while this was happening, so Fitterer had him on speakerphone on his desk as things were proceeding. At 3:38 p.m. on Friday afternoon, he texted Coleman and told her to come to his office if she was in the building — things were happening.


Reich was sitting in the chair across the desk from the GM. Morgan was in his normal spot, the couch along the wall — Fitterer's right-hand man a few feet away on the right. Coleman sat at a small round table on the other side of the room, her back to the wall.

Also in the room through points of the conversations were vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman and senior director of football strategy and analytics Taylor Rajack to talk about the numbers and their ramifications.

Dan Morgan, Frank Reich, Scott Fitterer

By trading Moore, they were creating a hole in the roster for the new quarterback. They'd have to fill it in free agency, so there was a quick discussion, and since they were waiting for a callback, they started looking at available wideouts. Without Moore, they had Terrace Marshall Jr. and Laviska Shenault but were short on experienced options (the entire roster at that point had a combined 279 career catches for 3,317 yards and 16 touchdowns). Nine days later, they'd agree to terms with veteran free agent Adam Thielen and would eventually add deep threat DJ Chark to go along with tight end Hayden Hurst and three-down back Miles Sanders. But they didn't know any of that was a possibility at the time.

"Yeah, there was waiting, Ryan (Poles) was doing his thing on his end with his coach," Fitterer recalled. "In between, Dave kept challenging us. Is this the right thing? You know, it's like when are you going to have a cheaper move to go from two to one with a thrown-in second-round pick in 2025, try to go up and figure out options.

"OK, if we give up DJ, how do we compensate because now we have a rookie quarterback, no receivers other than Terrace and Laviska? So we started kind of coming up with a different plan. OK, free agency. So those were the talks again between waiting for Chicago to call back."

Scott Fitterer

Meanwhile, Coleman is memorializing it. Fitterer had written the terms of the deal on a nearby note card. Morgan has a stack of stationery, small graph-paper note cards, and fairly heavy stock. There's a block-letter blue DM in the corner, but it's not Panthers blue. "Yeah, those are leftovers from Buffalo," Morgan said with a laugh. "I gave Scott a stack of them, and he keeps them on the desk. They're good for making notes."

Coleman took the card for reference (that's Fitterer's handwriting, but her finger in the photograph). Underneath were some numerical values — the sum of the proprietary formula the Panthers analytics department uses to evaluate deals (so no, there's not a name under that finger, no big dramatic "Vontae Mack no matter what" as you'd see in a movie.) Once the deal was complete, she snapped a picture of the card with her phone and sent it to a few people in the organization to start the wheels turning.

Elsewhere in the room, you could tell that days of phone calls were beginning to wind down. It was after 4 p.m. on Friday, the weekend before free agency began, so the place was clearing out.

But as she looked around Fitterer's office, the excitement was beginning to build — mostly.

Kristi Coleman

"Well, Dan was the same," Coleman said. "Dan was pretty even keeled the whole time. And it was almost like, come on, Dan, get excited."

Part of that is just Morgan's personality. The former Pro Bowl linebacker was one of the most intense players you'd ever see between the lines, but when he puts glasses on and steps into front office-mode, he turns into Clark Kent.

"It felt pretty normal," Morgan deadpanned. "I mean, obviously, it was a big deal, but we were all locked in on trying to do this because we knew what it meant."

Fitterer knew what was at stake in pushing this deal over the line. The Panthers have been on the cycle of rental quarterbacks since 2019, and Reich has been doing the same thing in Indianapolis since the year before when Andrew Luck retired just before training camp.

So with every second that ticked off the clock, with every moment between the Panthers and getting off that treadmill, the anticipation built.

And then, with one last phone call with the Bears, the deal was done.

"There's no doubt there's a jolt of energy," Reich said of that moment. "Yeah, it was definitely a jolt of energy.

"I felt like coach's excitement went up," Coleman said. "Dave's excitement went up even more. Dave was super excited.

"We were all looking around like, 'This is going to happen.'"

But before they could flip the switch into celebration mode, there was an equal jolt of an opposite emotion.

"Dave was immediately worried about DJ," Coleman said. "He and Nicole immediately were worried about DJ. And they said to Scott, you need to call DJ now because this is going to leak, and I want him to hear from us directly. So Scott immediately called DJ."

Moore was surprised, but told Fitterer he understood the realities of the business. And as excited as the room was, there was the conflicting reality that a beloved Panthers player was part of the transaction.

"And Scott and everybody was kind of down for that moment because it was sad," Coleman said.

After talking through things with Moore, they were wrapping up the final details. News broke around 5:00 p.m. By 5:30 p.m., the halls were dark on the football side of the team's offices.

The party was now on the books and will happen tonight, with thousands of fans expected at Bank of America Stadium, excited to hear the name of the new quarterback, the one chosen after months of study, weeks of intense investigations, and about 60 minutes of even more intense back-and-forth to deliver him here.

In a little over an hour, the Panthers went from picking ninth to picking first overall. Their days in witness protection were over. Everyone would be watching them for the next seven weeks, and then they'd enter a new era.

As they left Fitterer's office that afternoon, they exhaled, knowing the significance of what they had just accomplished.

"It was tense. Yeah, it was pretty tense," Fitterer said. "You're just thinking out loud, almost like, how do we do this? What's right? You're on the verge of trying to get the first pick in the draft. That's a major thing to have. So just the gravity of it all. You could feel it; then you didn't want to lose it.

"So that's what we knew, but you've got to factor in what if you don't get this guy? How are you going to get the quarterback in the future? OK, let's go out, and we're going to keep building our team. We'll do well; now we're going to be picking 12 or 15 or 16 in the years to come. That's fine. That's fine for football.

"But that's not what we're trying to be, right?"

That afternoon, they decided they weren't throwing away their shot.

Tonight, they take it.

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