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Scott Fitterer’s Year 1 review: The 2021 draft

The Panthers rookie general manager made some great trades but questionable picks in his first NFL draft.

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we are looking back on Scott Fitterer’s first year as the Carolina Panthers general manager and assessing his performance in salary cap management, free agent signings, the 2021 draft, and player trades. This week we’ll review Fitterer’s performance during the 2021 NFL draft.

I’m going to give Fitterer three different grades here: draft day trades, position strategy for Rounds 1-3, and quality of players drafted. A “C” grade means he met expectations. Anything above a “C” means Fitterer exceeded expectations and anything below means he fell short.

Draft day trades

As the Benevolent Dictator of Trade Down Island, I swooned over Scott Fitterer’s willingness to smartly trade down throughout the 2021 draft. After the draft concluded I made this one-minute video breaking down the net effect of all of Fitterer’s brilliant wheeling and dealing. Here’s the overview:

Began with: No. 39 (2nd), No. 191 (6th)

Ended with: Nos. 59 (2nd), 83 (3rd), 126 (4th), 158 (5th), 166 (5th), 204 (6th), and 232 (7th)

There isn’t a huge talent drop off between No. 39 and No. 59, so moving down 20 spots in the second round isn’t that big of a deal to unlock the rest of that draft capital. Fitterer ultimately traded two picks for seven and was able to select five additional players, which is a great way to fill out a roster with cheap rookie deals.

The five players he landed by conjuring up these picks via trade were tight end Tommy Tremble (No. 83), running back Chuba Hubbard (No. 126), defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon (No. 158), cornerback Keith Taylor (No. 156), and defensive tackle Phil Hoskins (No. 232). All of these guys except for Hoskins carved out meaningful roles during their rookie seasons and should contribute for years to come. Fitterer absolutely nailed his draft day trade strategy.

Draft day trades: A

Draft strategy in Rounds 1-3

We have to look at the first three rounds of the NFL draft differently from Rounds 4-7. First round picks need to have Pro Bowl potential. Second round picks should become solid starters within a year or two. Third round picks should develop into average starters by the end of their rookie contracts. Teams cannot afford to mess up in the first three rounds.

Unfortunately, Scott Fitterer messed up the first three rounds of the 2021 draft.

In the first round the Panthers had the coveted No. 8 overall pick. Carolina’s priority at No. 8 should have been at quarterback first and left tackle second. While the Panthers had already traded for Sam Darnold, the quarterback position was far from stable. Fitterer had the chance to draft Justin Fields or Mac Jones and decided against it, apparently convinced Sam Darnold was the answer at the most difficult position in professional sports.

Fitterer also chose to not draft left tackle Rashawn Slater at No. 8 despite Carolina’s ongoing issues at that key position. Slater went No. 13 to the Los Angeles Chargers and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Instead of taking a quarterback or left tackle, Scott Fitterer selected cornerback Jaycee Horn who flashed tantalizing potential in limited action, but any player drafted No. 8 should be good. Because the Panthers used their first round pick on a cornerback, they enter 2022 with the exact same draft day needs they had a year ago at quarterback and on the blind side. Fitterer gets a “D” for his Round 1 strategy of taking a cornerback over quarterback and left tackle.

In the second round he once again invested in the wrong position by drafting wide receiver Terrace Marshall on a team that already featured DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. I can see Marshall being an insurance policy in case Moore or Anderson walk in free agency one day, but that’s not worth investing a second round pick. Coming into the 2021 draft the Panthers were thin at linebacker where Pete Werner (No. 60) could have filled an immediate need, and at center where Creed Humphrey (No. 63) would’ve been Matt Paradis’s successor. Fitterer gets a “D+” for his Round 2 strategy.

In round three Scott Fitterer redeemed himself a bit. He selected left tackle Brady Christensen at No. 70 which was clearly a position of need. Christensen showed potential at both tackle and guard and could become a solid starter somewhere on the offensive line. At No. 83 Fitterer landed tight end Tommy Tremble who also showed some potential at a position of need for the Panthers. Fitterer gets a solid “B+” for bolstering the offensive line and landing a needed tight end in Round 3.

Overall strategy for Rounds 1-3: D+

Quality of players drafted

I’ve already given grades to the Panthers offensive rookies in previous posts (offense here, defense here), so you can refer to those if you want more detail. Grades are based on the player’s performance relative to where they were drafted. Here’s the overview:

  • Jaycee Horn, CB (Rd. 1, No. 8) - Incomplete
  • Terrace Marshall Jr., WR (Rd. 2, No. 59) - D
  • Brady Christensen, OT (Rd. 3, No. 70) - B
  • Tommy Tremble, TE (Rd. 3, No. 83) - C+
  • Chuba Hubbard, RB (Rd. 4, No. 126) - B+
  • Daviyon Nixon, DT (Rd. 5, No. 158) - B
  • Keith Taylor, CB (Rd. 5, No. 166) - B+
  • Deonte Brown, G (Rd. 6, No. 193) - D+
  • Shi Smith, WR (Rd. 6, No. 204) - B-
  • Thomas Fletcher, LS (Rd. 6, No. 222) - Incomplete
  • Phil Hoskins, DT (Rd. 72, No. 232) - C

When factoring out the “incompletes”, the overall GPA for the remaining nine players comes out to a 2.44 on a 4.0 scale, or slightly above a C+ grade.

Quality of players drafted: C+

Draft day performance summary

Fitterer was all over the board with the three keys to winning the draft. He got an “A” for his draft day trades, but he really botched the first two rounds from a strategic standpoint by drafting a cornerback and a wide receiver and earned a “D+” in that category. When it came to the quality of the players he drafted relative to where they were drafted, he slightly exceeded expectations with a “C+” grade. Roll those three grades together and it comes out to a 2.53 on a 4.0 scale, or a “C+” overall grade.

In other words, the Panthers rookie general manager slightly exceeded expectations in his first NFL draft. It’s not a bad start to his tenure, but let’s hope he improves in 2022.

Overall draft day grade: C+