CHARLOTTE, NC — Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer met with Sam Darnold on Monday and told the No. 3 pick of the 2018 NFL draft “there’s a pretty good chance” the team will add a quarterback during the upcoming draft weekend.
Fitterer, in Tuesday’s pre-draft news conference, said there are two quarterbacks the team feels comfortable selecting with the sixth overall pick. Liberty’s Malik Willis and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett consistently have been rated the highest among draft analysts.
Fitterer also said the team had options outside the draft for adding a quarterback. He didn’t mention Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns or Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers by name since under league rules he’s not allowed to discuss players on other rosters.
But Fitterer re-emphasized that Carolina wants to “stabilize the quarterback position” and noted the best long-term solution is with a young player in the draft.
“I mean, you want to draft one and develop him and have him be your own,” he said. “There is cost-effectiveness that is involved with that. And also, why are some quarterbacks available that are out on the market? You have to ask yourself that.”
The Panthers have been trying to upgrade at quarterback since completing their second straight five-win season under Matt Rhule, who was not a part of the pre-draft news conference. They were willing to give the Houston Texans three first-round draft picks, players and other draft picks for Deshaun Watson.
Watson ultimately was traded to the Browns, who now are seeking to move on from Mayfield, the top pick in 2018. A league source told ESPN.com shortly after Cleveland secured Watson that Carolina was not interested in Mayfield at that time.
That could change depending on the deal and what happens in the draft, with multiple sources saying nothing will happen before the first round.
Garoppolo never has been high on the team radar because he’s not considered much of an upgrade from Darnold.
A league source told ESPN on Tuesday that it doesn’t appear the Browns will trade Mayfield this week.
The Panthers, even if interested in one of the veterans, don’t have the draft capital this year to realistically trade. After the sixth pick, they don’t pick again until No. 137 in the fourth round.
Fitterer also made it clear he doesn’t want to trade future draft picks, noting he’s had several- conversations with teams asking about giving up a second- or third-round pick next year “and my answer has been no, we want to protect those picks.”
The Panthers have a big gap between selections because a year ago this year’s second-round pick was part of the trade with the New York Jets for Darnold and the third-round pick was given up in a trade with Jacksonville for cornerback CJ Henderson.
As much as Fitterer would like to add second-day picks, he said repeatedly “we’re not going to move out of a pick just to acquire picks.”
Quarterback and offensive tackle are Carolina’s primary targets for the sixth pick. NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross are rated the top tackles in a deep class.
At least two of those are projected to be gone when Carolina picks at six.
Part of Fitterer’s offseason strategy has been rebuilding an offensive line to protect whoever is playing quarterback. He added guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman in free agency.
That was part of his conversation with Darnold, who is guaranteed $18.9 million this season because Carolina picked up his fifth-year option after the trade a year ago.
“We need to help him out as well,” Fitterer said. “I think we’ve done a good job … surrounding him with talent where he doesn’t feel he has to make every play.
“But in our conversation I said, ‘Hey, we are going to add to this [quarterback] group through this weekend, there’s a pretty good chance we could add to this group,'” Fitterer said. “It’s open competition. It’s his spot right now, but whoever can take the spot and run with it, we’re going to do that.”