National scout Jared Kirksey
Director of college scouting Cole Spencer
Assistant general manager Dan Morgan
Fitterer had assistant general manager Dan Morgan make a quick call to Seattle GM John Schneider, just in case. The Seahawks, picking ninth, also needed a tackle. If they wanted to overpay for the right to take one sixth, and give up next year’s first-rounder and some other stuff for the privilege, the Panthers were obliged to listen. But the Seahawks weren’t in the mood to move up, they never really are, so the Panthers were on the clock for real.
The decision seemed clear, but with 10 minutes to kill, there was still time for a little fun.
A draft room is a tight place at times. People have prepared for months for this night, and developed strong opinions. You can fall in love with a player when you watch that much tape of him, and get so many glowing reviews.
But at 8:42 p.m., Rhule scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it, and called offensive line coach James Campen to the front of the room. Campen marched up, unfolded the paper, read it, and nodded.
The name on the paper was not Ikem Ekwonu’s.
“We kind of had to mess with him a little,” Rhule said at the end of the night.
When he realized this, Campen laughed along with the joke. But it was also a special moment for the veteran line coach, whose reputation was built on taking a lot of mid-round picks and turning them into greater wholes.
“It hit me, no question,” Campen admitted quietly after things settled a bit. “You just don’t expect something like this to happen.”
All the months of research, all the digging, and all the hoping left the Panthers with the tackle they wanted most.
You’d love to credit hard work, but sometimes it’s luck.
And even though he’s one of the junior members of the staff, McNeill knows that truth already.
“You don’t really find those guys,” McNeill said. “They find you.”
“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 make 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 p.m. 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.
Pregame, Senior Day. Oxford, Mississippi, Nov. 20, 2021.
Later that night, the Rebels would beat a 2-9 Vanderbilt team, 31-17, in an otherwise uneventful game. Corral threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception.
Panthers area scout Robert Haines walked into the draft room Thursday night dressed for a party, even if it was one he wasn’t sure he’d get to attend.
Scouts live a business-casual-at-best lifestyle, wearing a lot of team-issued athletic gear. When they’re getting dressed up, it’s jeans and an untucked button-down. But draft weekend is a big deal, and people show up for work Thursday dressed at levels that tend to slide throughout the weekend. By Saturday, there were some normal polos in the room and a few team t-shirts, but Haines walked in Thursday night wearing a crisp navy blue sport coat that fit like it wasn’t bought straight off the rack, a distinctly fashionable choice.
“Brand new,” Haines replied. “And I wasn’t the only scout at SouthPark Mall buying clothes this morning either.”
He was prepped for business, and ready just in case.
But his report on Corral had been filed months earlier, after watching a nondescript game against a perennial SEC doormat. He hadn’t seen Corral play live this fall, and this wasn’t exactly a chance to see him in a high-pressure situation.
But he wasn’t there just to see the game. Just like when McNeill and Kirksey and Spencer were watching Ekwonu dominate in practices, Haines wanted to see how Corral reacted to those around him in all the other settings that matter.
“He had one of the most impressive pregame workouts I’ve seen,” Haines said, laughing a bit because, as a veteran of 21 years of doing this, he knows that can sound a little ridiculous. “I know it’s just on air with teammates, but it was awesome. You could tell he had been coached well.
“He was the first one out there, first of all. Was out there with some of the younger quarterbacks, and he was the one who led them out of the tunnel. He was in a full sweat two throws in. And this was Vanderbilt, last game of the year. Senior night, parents there, all that. But he was just dialed in. You could see that look in his eye; he was focused. It was impressive.”