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Scott Fitterer’s Year 1 review: Player trades

The Panthers’ first year general manager made a host of player trades in 2021 and ended up on the losing end of the ones that mattered most.

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NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

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 player trades from Fitterer’s rookie season as general manager.

Fitterer was hired in January 2021 and it was an eventful first year on the trade front. Here’s the overview:

April 5, 2021: Panthers trade for Sam Darnold, give up three picks

Panthers received: QB Sam Darnold

Jets received: 2021 sixth round pick (No. 226), 2022 second round pick (No. 38), 2022 fourth round pick (No. 107)

Even the most casual Panthers fans know this trade will set the Panthers rebuild back a couple of years. In Sam Darnold’s first year in Carolina he played 12 games and his Pro Football Focus grade of 55.2 ranked 37th of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. His Total QBR of 33.2 ranked 29th of 31 signal callers. Unless Darnold gets bit by a helpful radioactive spider this offseason, it looks like Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule completely whiffed on this trade. They compounded the mistake by exercising Darnold’s fifth-year option in 2022 at a cap hit of $18.9 million.

Grade: F

April 28, 2021: Panthers trade Teddy Bridgewater for pick No. 191

Panthers received: 2021 sixth round pick (No. 191)

Broncos received: QB Teddy Bridgewater

Trading away quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was the natural next step after trading for Sam Darnold. The Panthers shipped Teddy to Denver in exchange for the No. 191 pick in the 2021 draft, a pick Carolina later traded away to move up and select Brady Christensen in the third round. Bridgewater had two years left on the 3-year, $63 million contract he signed in 2020 (before Fitterer’s time) and the Panthers incurred $17 million in dead money in 2021 as a result of the trade. Once Fitterer doubled down on Darnold there was no choice but to ship out Bridgewater, and I don’t think he could’ve done much better than the No. 191 pick.

Grade: C+

Aug. 17, 2021: Panthers trade OT Greg Little for a seventh rounder

Panthers received: 2022 seventh round pick

Dolphins received: OT Greg Little

Greg Little was the No. 37 overall pick in the 2019 draft and at the time it was hoped he could become the Panthers long-term solution at left tackle. That never happened. Just two years later Scott Fitterer traded him to the Miami Dolphins for a 2022 seventh round pick. While seventh round picks aren’t very valuable, at least Fitterer got something for a player who seemed destined to be waived at some point.

Grade: B

Aug. 25, 2021: Panthers trade Denzel Perryman, swap late-round picks

Panthers received: 2022 sixth round pick (No. 199)

Raiders: LB Denzel Perryman, 2022 seventh round pick (No. 224)

In March 2021 Fitterer signed middle linebacker Denzel Perryman to what seemed like a smart 2-year, $6 million free agent deal. The Panthers then curiously traded him plus a 2022 seventh round pick just five months later — before the season even started — to the Raiders for a 2022 sixth round pick. All they got for Perryman and his incredibly team-friendly contract was to move up 25 spots late in the 2022 draft, from No. 224 to No. 199. Yes, Denzel had some injury issues throughout training camp with the Panthers but Fitterer ultimately put his trust in Jermaine Carter to hold down the middle linebacker spot over Perryman.

How’d that work out?

Carter’s 42.6 PFF grade is considered “poor” and ranked 72nd of 89 qualifying linebackers. Meanwhile, Denzel Perryman made the Pro Bowl with the Raiders after his 154 tackles ranked sixth in the league.

The Panthers will go into 2022 with a gaping hole at middle linebacker. Fitterer could’ve just kept Denzel Perryman — on a contract that averaged just $3 million per year in 2021 and 2022! — but instead he hastily cut bait on a player he had just signed a couple of months earlier. To pour even a few more grains of salt on the wound, this trade will result in a $1 million dead cap charge to the Panthers in 2022.

Grade: F

Aug. 30, 2021 - Panthers acquire DE Darryl Johnson for a sixth rounder

Panthers receive: DE Darryl Johnson

Bills receive: 2022 sixth round pick

Sixth round picks rarely pan out, so this trade was a risk worth taking. Johnson was a 2019 seventh round pick by the Bills who recorded 29 tackles and two sacks over his first two NFL seasons on a good Bills defense. Unfortunately, injuries derailed much of his 2021 campaign with the Panthers and he played just 20 defensive snaps over three games. We’ll see if he can contribute in 2022.

Grade: Incomplete

Sept. 27, 2021 - Panthers give up real assets for CB C.J. Henderson

Panthers received: CB C.J. Henderson, 2022 fifth round pick

Panthers gave up: TE Dan Arnold, 2022 third round pick (No. 70)

C.J. Henderson was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2020 draft, but the Jacksonville Jaguars had seen enough by Year 2 that they were already eager to cut bait. Scott Fitterer & Co. thought they knew better than the Jags and decided to flip a 2022 third round pick — a valuable selection where starters can be drafted — plus veteran tight end Dan Arnold in exchange for Henderson and a fifth round pick.

This trade has not aged well. In 10 games with the Panthers Henderson allowed a 121.6 passer rating when targeted. His full-year PFF grade of 50.7 ranked 110th of 121 qualifying cornerbacks. Henderson was flat out bad last year. Carolina can only hope he improves from here.

Giving up a valuable 2022 third round pick for a struggling corner in Henderson was bad enough, but let’s not forget Carolina also traded away tight end Dan Arnold in the process. The Panthers signed Arnold to a reasonable 2-year, $6 million deal before the 2021 season. Arnold played three games for the Panthers, catching seven of 11 targets for 84 yards, before being traded to the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars. But in eight games with the Jags he put up a solid 324 receiving yards (40.6 yards per game) and really helped their offense. He was far more productive than the Panthers tight end duo of Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas.

Carolina desperately needs a pass-catching tight end like Arnold. Without him on the roster in 2022 (with a minimal cap hit of around $3 million), Fitterer made the highly dubious decision to re-sign Ian Thomas to a perplexing 3-year, $17 million deal. Oh, and the Panthers will carry $1.3 million in dead money on the books in 2022 because of this stinker of a trade.

Grade: D-

Oct. 6, 2021 - Panthers land former defensive MVP Stephon Gilmore

Panthers received: CB Stephon Gilmore

Patriots received: 2023 sixth round pick

Context is everything with this trade. When this deal was made the Panthers were 3-1, Sam Darnold looked competent, and rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn, the No. 8 overall pick, had just been lost for the season with a foot injury. As crazy as this sounds in retrospect, the Panthers had legitimate playoff aspirations when they flipped a 2023 sixth round pick for cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former NFL defensive MVP who had made the Pro Bowl in four of the past five seasons, including two All-Pro nods. Gilmore continued his elite play in Carolina and earned another trip to the Pro Bowl as a Panther.

We all know the Panthers season quickly unraveled after this trade. Gilmore is now a free agent and only time will tell if he’ll stay put in Carolina. But any time a 3-1 team has a chance to land an elite player like Gilmore for a future sixth-round pick, it’s a no brainer. This was a great trade no matter how things play out with Gilmore from here.

Grade: A

The aftermath

Rookie general manager Scott Fitterer made one great trade to land cornerback Stephon Gilmore and a couple of ho-hum moves involving quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, left tackle Greg Little, and defensive end Darryl Johnson.

He made two awful moves by trading away linebacker Denzel Perryman and trading for cornerback C.J. Henderson. The net of these two trades was giving up a Pro Bowler in Perryman (at about $3 million per season), a productive pass-catching tight end in Arnold (also at about $3 million per season), and a valuable 2022 third round pick. All Fitterer got in exchange for those three assets was to move up 25 spots into the sixth round of the 2022 draft and a young, struggling corner in Henderson, and a fifth round pick. That’s terrible value in terms of on-field production, draft capital, and salary cap management.

But the real blow to the franchise was Fitterer’s fateful decision to give up three picks for Sam Darnold then exercise his 2022 fifth-year option at $18.9 million. The Panthers didn’t land their long-term starter in Darnold and the lack of second and third round picks in the upcoming draft is a killer. This trade will more than contribute to the Panthers remaining stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity for the foreseeable future.

Overall Scott Fitterer’s player trades were clearly more negative than positive. He needs to do much better evaluating player value in 2022.

Overall player trade grade: D