Panthers GM: Darnold ‘in the lead’ for QB jobs

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CHARLOTTE, NC – Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer, less than a month after saying the starting quarterback job was “open,” said Friday that Sam Darnold was “first to that job.”

“We want him to take it and ride with it,” Fitterer said. “But we want to add a lot of competition to that space. The whole emphasis is on stabilizing the quarterback position to play winning football.

“That’s what we’re working towards.”

Much has happened to change Fitter’s thought process, starting with Carolina’s inability to acquire Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson in a trade with Houston.

Watson ultimately chose Cleveland over Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta. The Panthers were ruled out, according to a league source, because they would not guarantee the third and fourth year on Watson’s contract.

Watson eventually got a new, five-year deal with the Browns, where he got $ 230 million fully guaranteed.

And while Fitterer would not admit that he was disappointed not to get Watson, he says the list is better than it was a year ago and that the Panthers are “two steps closer” to winning NFC South.

That said, Fitterer did not rule out using the No. 6 pick from the April draft on a quarterback or adding another quarterback before the draft through trade or free agency to compete with Darnold.

The most high-profile quarterback available is Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who requested a trade-off when the Browns began pursuing Watson. The Panthers are currently not interested in trading for Mayfield, according to a league source.

“We’re monitoring all of that,” Fitterer said, not addressing Mayfield specifically. “Nothing that we will do right away.”

Carolina has room for salary caps, about $ 28 million, to take a step on a quarterback or other players who could improve the roster. Fitterer said the door has not been closed to bring back Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore or quarterback Cam Newton.

As for Newton, Fitterer said the 2015 NFL MVP would have to want to return to Carolina and understand his role before yet another reunion takes place.

The Panthers made Newton the top pick in the 2011 draft, unleashed him during the 2020 offseason and brought him back on a one-year deal late last season with Darnold on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Newton had 0-5 starting in 2021.

Carolina spent the last week attending professional days for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Mississippi’s Matt Corral. Fitter would not rank them or say whether one could be an instant starter in the NFL for competitive reasons.

“Ideally, every quarterback, no matter who it would be, would sit for a bit and learn,” Fitterer said.

Fitter’s goal is to make the rest of the list strong enough so that when Carolina finds the right quarterback, the team can win. He says the movements in the free agency have the list closer to it, adding that most of the deals would have been made even if the team got Watson and his new deal.

But Fitterer admitted that the best way to build a roster is to drop a young quarterback into the mix and build around him because it’s most cost – effective where established veterans get such great deals.

That’s how he helped Seattle build a Super Bowl team with Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, who went on to become a nine-double Pro Bowl pick.

“It’s probably the right way to build it, draft and development,” Fitterer said. “It would be a really good plan for us to move forward, but we are open to all possibilities.”

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