Wed, 16 Jun 2021

Inside the Draft Room: A weekend of change for the Panthers

Carolina Panthers
08 May 2021, 05:44 GMT+10

CHARLOTTE - All the Panthers really did last weekend was change the entire way they do business on draft weekend.

That's all, just blowing up the business model, re-thinking the entire process, and building it again. That's it.

Now, it took months of planning, dozens of people, hundreds of Zoom calls, thousands of Marriott points, and unlimited cell phone plans to get it done.

But when it was time to implement the plan, it only took 48 hours.

So it wasn't overnight. But over the course of two nights, everything changed, and the Panthers went from the kind of team that did business one way, to a team that was fully invested in thinking differently about the annual player selection meeting.

The Panthers added 11 players they needed, including one special one at the top.

Panthers Draft Picks 2021: All of Carolina's draft selections Where Panthers stand after record-tying draft class Grading the Panthers' 2021 Draft Class

But their biggest takeaway was a new focus on value, and how to maximize it. It's not about any one player, it's about getting as many as possible. Though they tried to start trading down and stacking assets on the first night of the draft last Thursday, they weren't able to. Friday, during the second and third rounds, they made four trades which turned into multiple picks, including one in 2022.

That let the league know the Panthers were open for business.

"Saturday, there wasn't a pick we had that we didn't take calls on," director of player personnel Pat Stewart said, acknowledging the significant shift from making calls to taking them.

That kind of change doesn't happen with one phone call. It has to be structural.

IT STARTS AT THE TOP

In thinking about the strategy of draft picks as currency, and the trading of that currency, they're well-positioned. Owner David Tepper sort of made billions of dollars doing something like that.

Then you add head coach Matt Rhule, who has a track record of turning lesser things into much better things, and a philosophy begins to take shape.

Then you add new general manager Scott Fitterer, who comes from a place that's had success by working the phones, and it becomes a culture - that thing football people always talk about building, but not many ever do.

"He's pretty invested in the idea of trading back and adding picks," director of analytics Taylor Rajack said of Fitterer, who grew up in the Seahawks organization. "He thinks in those terms. That helped. it's definitely more natural for him, he understands the idea behind not falling in love with very specific players, and trusting the board.

"Do you trust all the work that's been done for months and months by everyone in the organization? Then you can make moves that add picks and value rather than any particular player."

The Panthers are still early in this process of re-thinking value, but last weekend was the first visible step in a process months in the making.

To be able to trust the board, you have to build it first, and that takes months of scouting to come up with a finished spreadsheet of 155 players.

In the Panthers' draft room, that board is projected onto two large screens at the front of the room. Players are stacked vertically by position, and horizontally by round value. As players are chosen, their names disappear from the screen, leaving a visible reminder of what value looks like in practice. Several times over the course of the weekend, they were able to get guys they had graded a round or two ahead of where they actually took them, which was easy to see because of the gulf of white space on the screen.

But in the first round, before they eventually took a guy whose name stood out, they had to wait.

Through the first hour of the first round last Thursday, the atmosphere in the draft room was light. Fitterer leaned back in his chair and snapped pictures of the room to send to his family. Jokes were cracked, the kind of banter that happens around a football office. People didn't really perk up until the 49ers took Trey Lance third overall, the first surprise of the night.

When the Falcons took Florida tight end/impossible matchup Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick, Rhule flashed an exaggerated thumbs up in the direction of defensive coordinator Phil Snow and said, "Good luck, Phil," and laughed.

Then the Bengals took LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in the fifth spot, followed by the Dolphins taking Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with the sixth pick, and there was a chorus of "yes," from the draft room.

With only one team between them and their turn, the Panthers were this close to having their choice of either Penei Sewell (the top left tackle on their board, at a position they could use) or Jaycee Horn (the top cornerback on their board, at a position they could use). Quarterback Justin Fields being available provided bait if someone wanted to make a move.

When the Lions took Sewell seventh, it scratched one of those off the list, and the atmosphere changed. The volume on the televisions surrounding the room was dropped. The only noises were the low conversations on the phone, and the answers that followed. The answer was consistently the same.

"No."

"No."

"No."

"No."

For all the pre-draft chatter about the possibilities of an available quarterback driving a trade down for the Panthers, when the moment came and they were on the clock, nothing shook them from their conviction to take the South Carolina cornerback with the eighth overall pick.

During the weeks leading up to the draft, the Panthers had conversations with at least a half-dozen teams about moving down in the first round, if they could acquire the right package of future picks, and not move too far back in this year's order. It's clear in the way they operated in the 10 minutes they were on the clock that the offers didn't equal the chance to add a player they thought would change the way they play defense immediately.

For the sake of context, the Bears gave up the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, along with this year's fifth-rounder as well as first- and fourth-rounders next year to move up to the Giants' 11th spot to take Fields.

The Bears were among the teams the Panthers talked to in those moments, and without getting into the specifics of any proposals, it's clear that moving back 12 spots in this year's order was too far for the Panthers to feel comfortable falling without an overpayment. There were discussions with another team picking ahead of the Bears, but they knew there was a certain level below which they didn't want to fall. One call came in from a team picking late in the round, and their offer was waved off quickly, with one voice from the room saying: "I don't want to waste your time."

Director of player negotiations and salary cap manager Samir Suleiman and Stewart were each on the phones and inputting electronic messages, sharing screens and relaying what they heard to Fitterer, Rhule, and Tepper in the row in front of them.

Then with less than three minutes of their allotted 10 on the clock, it became clear there wasn't going to be a trade, and they were going to stay put and take the kind of physical cornerback they needed to match up in the NFC South. It was already quiet, and then everything stopped, a stillness you don't get with that many people making that kind of decision.

Rhule broke the silence, saying: "This is what we wanted all along." It looked like his way of refocusing the room, coaching the group of 10 people gathered around him.

You can look for value all you want. Sometimes it's staring you in the face. If they had moved down into the mid-teens, or to 20, they're not getting a player of Horn's caliber, a player they think can make a difference, and allow them to defend more aggressively. And make no mistake, Horn's not just some commodity. He has the kind of traits scouts love, and the athletic confidence that coaches gravitate to. He's that guy.

But when the decision was made, the clock was still ticking.

Executive administrator to the GM and football operations Claire Burke is ultimately the person in the room giving their selection to the league.

"Jaycee was the guy we wanted," she said. "The excitement got to everybody and we were calling in, there was probably about 40 seconds left on the clock. Everyone was really excited, and I was like, 'Ummm, I've got to turn this in.'

"I definitely had visions of having to scream, 'Who are we picking?' across the room," before calmly adding: "It all worked out."

At that point, director of pro personnel Matt Allen made the call to Horn - before passing it to Rhule, who passed it to Tepper, who passed it to Fitterer.

And then the quiet room got loud again. They got their guy.

"We fielded calls but there wasn't anything that really kind of matched moving away from Jaycee, who was the top player on our board at that time," Fitterer said afterward. "He was just too good of a fit for us. The offers didn't match walking away from Jaycee, that's why we didn't do it."

THE NEXT DAY

Of course, as good as they hope Horn will be, he's just one guy. And knowing they needed more numbers to make the roster competitive, it was going to take much more than one guy.

That process started in earnest Friday, and it unfolded quickly.

With the 39th overall pick, they had multiple options, and could have filled a lot of needs. With a night to sleep on it, they had time to look at the board again and again, make more and more phone calls, and evaluate where the "clumps" of players were. When you consider the board horizontally, you see players in groups, and the lines show where you think you're getting the most impact. And the Panthers had a clump of tackles and receivers grouped tightly together. They needed to fill in at both positions.

But first, they had calls to make.

Chicago was still feeling frisky after trading up to get a quarterback the night before, and offered the Panthers an extra third- and a sixth-rounder to move up from 52, with the Panthers throwing in a fifth.

They looked at the board, they saw the clump. They accepted, and started thinking about who they'd take 13 spots later. Then the Browns called, and wanted to move from 59 to 52. Doing that deal would give the Panthers a third third-rounder (89th), and the chance to add another premium pick was too much to pass. At that point, they had five of the top 90 picks, but it meant waiting.

And waiting came with a tangible cost.

Between the time of the 39th pick and the 59th, six offensive tackles came off the board. Some of them, but not nearly all of them, were rated ahead of BYU's Brady Christensen on the Panthers' board. So they waited, hoping to add a left tackle (who might also be a very good guard) with their second pick.

Sometimes it's hard to watch a player you've scouted for months come off the board, after imagining what they'd add to your team. An almost emotional connection can develop.

But that's why the board was there.

Christensen was probably going to be the guy at 59, and there was a deal cooking that could have moved them back on the clock within a few spots to take LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.. Marshall was quickly becoming one of those guys whose name was beginning to stick out on the board, with not much space above him, but a lot of space below at his position. He was becoming a value guy. Then someone got a call that the Saints were about to take Marshall 60th overall, and the Panthers shifted gears, taking Marshall in the 59th spot instead.

Again, that came with a risk, and the Panthers recognized it. Value is great, but you can't stand a 2022 pick at guard or tackle this year and hope it blocks a defensive end.

The deal they thought they were going to make to move into the high 60s dissipated when another team took that team's targeted player. So the Panthers were up next at 73, and they waited, and worried.

With Christensen still dangling there at 70, they couldn't wait any longer. A quick call with the Eagles, and they coughed up one of their sixth-rounders to move up three spots, and answer a need.

At that point, they still had a pair of picks in the 80s, and a few guys in their sights. One of them was Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble, a player they had been talking about for days, in love with his versatility as a blocker and a receiver. The chances of landing him with one of those picks was pretty good. When he was still on the board at 83, the decision came pretty quickly.

Then things got weird.

These trades don't happen in a vacuum, or in a computer, though the machines do help. People have to make them, and they have to make them in a hurry.

For months, these scenarios have been discussed, teased out after many meetings and conversations. What would Team X do in this situation? What do you think Team Y wants to move back? Rajack built a calculator to speed up the process, which allowed Stewart to pop the proposed trades into a computer, and it immediately spit back the point values. There are still small index cards, on which Stewart writes the details of the deal as well, so there's something to pass around, but mostly, they're looking at his computer monitor.

Teams have their own proprietary charts, but for the most part, draft trades still get discussed in the framework of the Jimmy Johnson chart, which the former Cowboys coach developed while building a three-Super Bowl dynasty. The first pick is worth 3,000 points, and goes down in intervals from there. Each pick has a specific numeric value, commodifying it.

Stewart looked at longtime college scouting director Jeff Morrow and said: "How did you do this before computers? I just click the screen and the points tally up. Basically you were just writing it down doing math the whole time, and I sucked at math."

Other people in the room definitely do not suck at math.

Multiple Panthers staffers talked about the presence of Tepper in the room as one that focused them. Tepper's an active participant in the process. Not in terms of this player or that guy, but making sure every one in the room is taking the right steps to every decision.

"He's very analytical," Burke said. "He definitely makes you think about every step. Trades, who you're picking, he wants you think through the whole process.

"The different perspective is helpful because it's an outsider's perspective."

As Friday wore on, value became more than a buzzword, it was the way they were doing business.

With that extra third-rounder, they had a chance to add another premium player, to fill in another need.

But after making three deals already in a three-hour span, word was on the street.

The Texans called, offering their fourth-rounder and a 2022 fourth-rounder to move up from 109 to 89. Having given up their own fourth in the deal for quarterback Sam Darnold, the Panthers were immediately intrigued. Then came the haggling. Looking for more value, the Panthers asked which fourth the Texans were offering, their own or the Rams pick acquired in a previous trade. If the Panthers were willing to take the Rams' pick, there was going to need to be more stuff included.

"There's a lot going on at the time," Burke said with a laugh, in the understatement of the night.

Tepper, Fitterer, Rhule, and cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper were standing by Stewart and Suleiman's side-by-side desks, on a call with the Texans. Things were being discussed. It didn't appear to be going well. Burke had a player's name on a card, ready to make a selection at 89.

Eventually, the two sides started speaking the same language, and the deal was made. The Panthers picked up an extra fifth-rounder and the all-important future fourth (the Rams version), giving them five picks on Saturday, and wrapping things up for a night.

The franchise had never made more than four trades in an entire draft. They did it in a four-hour span. And for a moment, they could exhale.

THE NEXT DAY

Of course, there were more calls to be made.

Throughout the process, Fitterer has credited the depth of the front office.

There's a real division of labor when it comes to trade calls. Stewart has relationships in a number of front offices from his time with the Patriots and Eagles. Suleiman spent long stretches with the Steelers and Rams so he knows lots of guys. Allen's been here long enough to have developed plenty of contacts throughout the league. They're the first line in the quest to find value, working the phones furiously to find the best deals.

And after making so many deals Friday, the Panthers were developing a reputation.

"I bet I talked to Howie 10 times last weekend," Fitterer said of Eagles general manager Howie Roseman.

Word is now fully on the street that the Panthers want to make moves, so the Titans called at the beginning of the fourth round, offering a fifth and a seventh to move back 17 spots. Of the five trades they made over the weekend, it was mathematically the one that offered the least value, a slight loss depending on which version of the chart you use.

But even though Rhule's wife Julie was texting him to take Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard (having seen him run wild on their Baylor team two years ago), the Panthers stayed true to their evaluations, and thought they could still get Hubbard later, and add more stuff.

It worked, and they got their backup running back, and then five more guys they need as they try to build an entire roster.

That was the key to the whole weekend.

This was a step in a direction they've been wanting to go since Tepper bought the team, and hired Rhule, and then Fitterer.

This was a different way of building a roster. This was a different way of building. This was a different way of thinking.

And all it took was months of preparations, and 48 hours to truly start the process.

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