When the Carolina Panthers began their search for a new general manager last month, they were looking for a person who could provide a fresh approach.
David Tepper favored a candidate who was more data-driven than previous general manager Marty Hurney. He wanted to mix a traditional approach with analytics as the Panthers rebuild their franchise under Matt Rhule, who completed his first season as head coach. Rhule was looking for someone he could work with collaboratively, and someone who was good at constructing a roster.
The Panthers interviewed 15 candidates and finally found what they were looking for in Scott Fitterer, the Seahawks’ vice president of football operations. Fitterer was a late addition to the interview process — he had his first virtual interview Monday — but he quickly impressed Tepper and Rhule, who both played a role in the hiring process.
Fitterer, a Seattle native, has been with the Seahawks in various roles since 2001. He was a scout and also served as the director for college scouting.
Perhaps that experience can help him accomplish Carolina’s fairly large “to-do list” this offseason.
Here are five of the top things Fitterer must address:
1. Finding the Panthers’ quarterback of the future
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s performance in 2020 did not do enough to win the confidence of his head coach and owner, who both indicated that the Panthers would continue to evaluate the position.
The Panthers brought in former Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins for a workout earlier this month, and though they did not sign him, they have not ruled out signing him in the future.
Fitterer and Rhule could choose to take a quarterback in the first round of the draft, perhaps North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance or BYU’s Zach Wilson, if either is available. Or they could look for a QB in the later rounds.
Fitterer is known around league circles as a talent evaluator. He had a hand in drafting a number of players after the first round who made Pro Bowls, including safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round, 2010), cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round, 2011) and linebacker Bobby Wagner (second round, 2012).
But perhaps the Seahawks’ biggest acquisition before their championship run was drafting quarterback Russell Wilson, who they found in 2012’s third round. Wilson has consistently been among the top-five quarterbacks in the league. He has started in all 144 regular-season games he has played since 2012, and the Seahawks have never finished worse than 9-7.
The issue is that the Panthers have a number of other needs, including a pass-catching tight end, offensive linemen, a three-technique defensive tackle, a cornerback and a linebacker. And reaching for the wrong quarterback could prohibit them for filling one of those needs.
2. Re-signing Taylor Moton
Four of the Panthers’ five starting offensive linemen will hit free agency this offseason, including tackles Russell Okung and Taylor Moton. There’s little chance Okung, who is 32, will be back. He missed almost half the 2020 season, and his price tag will likely be high again.
But re-signing Moton, 26, needs to be Carolina’s top priority in free agency.
The Panthers likely could have gotten a deal done last offseason, but those talks and negotiations never happened. Moton had the best season of his career, so his price tag will shoot up. Comparable to other top right tackles in the league, Moton will likely be paid somewhere in the ballpark of $13 million to $15 million a year.
The question is, will Carolina want to spend that much on a right tackle?
While the salary cap is expected to decrease 10% to 12% this offseason, the Panthers should do their best to sign him. Finding good tackles is difficult, and Moton is a good one. He played in 100% of the snaps this season and gave up three sacks all year.
Replacing two starting tackles in the same year, as well as both guards, could be detrimental to the Panthers’ offense.
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel is also a pending free agent, but the Panthers are less likely to re-sign him. While Samuel is valued by the team, his performance has likely earned a big payday this offseason. The general feeling is the Panthers won’t be able to sign both. And finding a wide receiver in free agency is easier than finding a tackle.
3. Getting the No. 8 draft pick right
The Panthers’ defense built momentum during the second half of the season.
Second-year defensive end Brian Burns proved he’ll be a star. Rookie linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn was one of the two best defensive rookies in 2020, and defensive tackle Derrick Brown had the second-most quarterback pressures among rookies.
Third-year cornerback Donte Jackson finished the year strong after he finally got healthy from a turf toe injury. Rhule said he wanted to add experience to the defense and inject some youth into the offense, which struggled.
Nailing the No. 8 pick is going to be crucial to building on that momentum. The Panthers can’t go another year with poor play from the tight end position, they need better pass rush up the middle and they need another linebacker — especially if Chinn moves back to safety.
The Seahawks haven’t picked higher than No. 27 since 2012, when they selected linebacker Bruce Irvin No. 15 overall.
During Fitterer’s time there, Seattle often traded back in the draft to get top players or multiple draft picks. It’s too early to tell if the Panthers will do that, but it is an option if the team wants to address multiple needs.
4. Parting ways with veteran Kawann Short
It’s always tough for a franchise to part ways with long-time veterans. Short may be the next veteran out. He carries a $20.8 million cap number for 2021 with one year left on his contract.
The Panthers could save about $9 million by cutting him before June 1.
The argument for releasing him is that he has played in only five games over the last two seasons. He suffered season-ending shoulder injuries the last two years, and he’ll be 32 next month. His best years are likely behind him, and the money Carolina would save by cutting him will help re-sign other players when free agency begins in two months.
Short is one of the most valued players on the Panthers roster. He was voted a team captain for the second consecutive season. He was seen as a mentor to Derrick Brown, and his coaches believe the lack of pass rush most of this season stemmed from his absence. But it’s clear the Panthers can’t keep him on the roster at a cost of $20.8 million.
Perhaps they could ask him to take a significant pay cut, but that would be Short’s decision to make.
5. Panthers’ coaching staff vacancies
The Panthers have lost three offensive assistants to new jobs this offseason, and could lose a fourth if offensive coordinator Joe Brady takes a job elsewhere.
Brady has interviewed for multiple head-coaching positions. Though he had not been offered a job as of Friday, a bigger opportunity this season or next seems likely. Brady interviewed for the head jobs of the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Chargers and, most recently, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jake Peetz and offensive assistant D.J. Mangas took the offensive coordinator and passing game coordinator jobs at LSU, respectively. And assistant offensive line coach Marcus Satterfield became the offensive coordinator at South Carolina.
Keeping a consistent staff is important to building continuity — and the Panthers need it. They were 21st in the NFL this past season in total yards per game, and 24th in points per game.
While it’s normal for coaches to move on to better opportunities, it’ll be important for assistants to be with the Panthers for longer than a year.