Inside the Draft Room: Pieces fell into place

“OK, what’s next? — Rhule, many, many, many times over the years.

There was a tangible relief when the Panthers drafted Ekwonu, but it was also only half the weekend’s job. As much as they were looking for an answer there, they were also intent on finding a quarterback. That turned out to be more complicated than watching teams pick other guys ahead of them.

“The reality is, we were coming out of the weekend with a quarterback, one way or another,” Fitterer said this week. “We just didn’t know how at the time.”

Only one quarterback went in the first round at all, when Pitt’s Kenny Pickett went 20th overall to the Steelers.

That left four names among the top group of their draft board at the position, but there were a number of other options.

For months — years really — the Panthers have been at the center of speculation and actual trade talks about a number of quarterbacks. When they were sitting back on Friday night, entering the evening without a pick but with a sense of urgency regardless, that remained true.

Calls were made, both about potentially trading up, and also trading for guys already in the league. Fitterer’s not going to get into specific names, but Friday night, there were conversations about more than one veteran quarterback they could have acquired in trade.

But those draftable guys were also an option, so there was a two-handed poker game happening.

Watching quarterbacks fall made the rookies more valuable than ever, because that meant they were cheaper. Corral’s four-year contract will pay him around $5 million, total. The veterans they were considering making many times more this year alone. So watching teams get nervous about keeping expensive veterans on the roster drove their values ​​lower and lower. As many scouting reports as you file, finances matter in football, too, as you have a finite amount of cap room to build a team. So to trade for a veteran would likely mean cutting some veterans.

For all the phone calls being made and received from outside the building, there were as many discussions inside as well. Every decision impacts another, so you have to have coaches in the room, personnel guys, as well as the numbers people. The draft might be a scout’s event, but vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman is sitting in his chair on the second row for reasons that go beyond calling in trades to the league. You can work with salary cap numbers, but the cap is a part of every calculation.

As Friday night wore on, there were plenty of discussions, held at various levels of emphasis.

“It can get tense at times in there,” Fitterer said. “There’s a lot going on at one time.”

Ultimately, none of the player trades that were discussed reached the kind of consensus to get traction, so it was back to the board.

And the longer they stared at it, the more anxious they got.

As quarterbacks dropped and dropped, the tension in the draft room grew and grew. When Malik Willis went 86th to the Titans, it hit another level.

Fitterer is a tactile drafter; his hands are busy the entire time. Often they have a phone in them, or are scribbling potential trade terms on a note card. But he also keeps a purple stress ball and a fidget spinner on his desk to occupy them otherwise, burning the nervous energy the same way a fourth-grader might.

But throughout Friday night, Fitterer also kept those hands busy, with a gentle wave downward, urging patience as things fell into place.

Someone would call with what seemed like a good offer. “Let’s wait,” he’d say. They’d call back a few minutes later, wanting more, hoping a needy GM would panic and overpay. “Let’s wait,” Fitterer would say, with that same palms-down motion that became a theme throughout the night.

They weren’t going to trade next year’s first. They really didn’t want to trade next year’s second. Eventually, they’d trade next year’s third-rounder and a fourth to get to 94 to take Corral.

It was a long day of waiting and watching, of deliberating and debating, but at 10:55 pm on Friday night, hours after Chesney’s sound check could be heard in the adjacent hallway, they got their guy.

Now, they just have to see if he can play.

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