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Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is stepping into a challenging situation thanks to the mistakes of the previous front office administration. The team he’s taking over went 5-11 this season, has little salary cap room to work with, a host of pending free agents at key positions and a question mark hanging over the most-important one on the field.
There are a million little problems that Fitterer will face in his new role. For now, let’s focus on three big-picture questions he’ll have to answer.
Who is the quarterback of the future?
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
First up, Fitter has to decide who will be the team's quarterback of the future. The answer may not be on the roster at the moment. Teddy Bridgewater disappointed in 2020, ending the season with only 15 passing touchdowns and a 4-11 record to go with 17 turnovers. While his contract makes him impossible to move until 2022, his performance did nothing to cement his status as the franchise QB. Heading into 2021, he's in danger of losing his job as the starter. His replacement likely isn't on the team either, though. P.J. Walker had his moments but does not look ready to be a starter at this level yet and Will Grier couldn't even get on the field. Fitterer could try to pick a new starter in the draft with the No. 8 overall selection. However, outside of Trevor Lawrence there's no slam dunk QB prospect in this class. Chances are, there will be one or two surprises who have a year like Justin Herbert just did. Finding who they are is much easier said than done, though. For what it's worth, Fitterer helped Seattle find a gem in the third round in 2012 when they picked Russell Wilson. Fitterer might also try to acquire another veteran. The recent hiring of Sean Ryan as quarterbacks coach has brought up Matt Stafford and Deshaun Watson as potential trade possibilities. There are also a few pending free agents worth considering, Dak Prescott and Jameis Winston among them. Whoever Fitterer chooses, this will be the most consequential decision he makes for his first few years on the job.
Stimulus or austerity?
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
2020 and 2021 were always going to be major transitional years based on the way this roster was constructed. Most notably, the Panthers' offensive line could be about to go through a dramatic turnover. Every starter except center Matt Paradis is about to become a free agent. Right tackle Taylor Moton should be the top priority and he's more than earned a lucrative extension, but former GM Marty Hurney's delay cost a lot of bargaining power. After a brilliant 2020 season Moton will now demand top dollar and it's possible he could wind up playing for another team. Fitterer should do everything he can to avoid that. Wide receiver/running back Curtis Samuel has also earned a handsome contract that the Panthers have yet pony up for. While Carolina has a lot of talent at wide receiver, losing Samuel would be a serious blow for an offense that's already lacking firepower at quarterback and tight end. The question for Fitterer is whether to go all out to try to retain these important pieces or let them walk and try to find cheaper replacements - essentially choosing between stimulus or austerity. To be fair, the Panthers don't have a ton of salary cap room to work with. That said, we always take the side of players (and everyone else) getting paid. The salary cap ceiling can be used as an excuse not to reward important contributors, but winning organizations find a way. This past year the Chiefs managed to re-sign several core players, including huge deals for tight end Travis Kelce, defensive tackle Chris Jones and half-billion dollar extension for Patrick Mahomes - all in the middle of a pandemic with the league's salary cap projections plummeting. The point is that it can be done. We'll see if Fitterer agrees.
Youth or experience?
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
When Fitterer sits down to make his long-term plan, he needs to decide whether to continue the youth movement that this franchise has going or if it could benefit from some more experience on the roster. This past season, no team lost more snaps from 2019 and the Panthers wound up fielding the youngest defensive unit the NFL had seen in 10 years. While things improved down the stretch, for much of campaign we saw how difficult that can make things on a coach. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow did excellent work considering the pieces he had to work with. There's an argument for letting some of these young players grow, but there's also a strong case for this unit needing more leadership and tread on the tires. Signing a free agent like veteran linebacker like Lavonte David could help in that department. Going all out one way or the other probably wouldn't be the best idea, though. Fitterer needs to find a happy balance between these two as the franchise moves into year two of this rebuild. [vertical-gallery id=632869]