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Panthers keeping options open with No. 8 pick, following Sam Darnold trade

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The case for the Panthers to still draft Justin Fields (0:58)

Mike Tannenbaum explains why the Panthers should still draft Justin Fields even after acquiring Sam Darnold from the Jets. (0:58)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Scott Fitterer is only a couple of months into being an NFL general manager, but he’s already got the poker aspect of it down pat when it comes to the draft.

Asked if he’s finished at quarterback after the Carolina Panthers traded with the New York Jets for 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold on Monday, Fitterer might as well have been wearing a pair of dark sunglasses with a cap pulled down as far as it will go to make sure he didn’t give away signals of what’s next.

“This doesn't take us out of anything in the draft," said Fitterer, hired on Jan. 14 after spending the previous 19 years in various capacities for the Seattle Seahawks. “It doesn't take us out of taking a quarterback, it doesn't take us out of taking any position.

“We wanted to get to a place where the roster was in a good spot, and we could take the best available player at No. 8. We could always move up, and we could always move back, but this puts us in a position to make the right football decision for this team moving forward."

Theoretically, he’s correct. The Panthers have filled needs, mostly through free agency, at key positions such as left and right tackle, tight end, middle linebacker, edge rusher and cornerback.

They also added Darnold after an exhaustive attempt to upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.

But not all of the offseason moves have solidified key spots. Cam Erving appears to be the answer at left tackle, but is he really? According to Pro Football Focus, Erving ranks last out of 151 offensive linemen with at least 1,500 snaps since 2018.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin gives Carolina a player with six years of experience, but he has only 40 starts and four interceptions since entering the league with Baltimore in 2014.

Dan Arnold gives Carolina a pass-catching threat at tight end, but he didn’t need receptions to be an upgrade from Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz, who combined for 26 receptions for 197 yards and one touchdown last season.

Arnold, by the way, doesn’t have a lot of receptions, either. His 31 catches for 438 yards last season in Arizona give him 51 in three seasons.

So what do the Panthers do with the eighth pick? If they truly believe in Darnold, and all indications are they do since they plan to pick up his fifth-year option, then they don’t need to pick a quarterback there.

That means an offensive tackle, cornerback or tight end -- with a middle linebacker also in the picture -- should be the priority. Here’s a closer look at their options:

Left tackle

If Oregon’s Penei Sewell gets past Cincinnati at No. 5, there’s a good chance he’ll fall to 8 and Carolina could shore up that spot long term the way it did with Jordan Gross in 2003. Gross, by the way, was the eighth pick that year out of Utah. If Sewell is gone, Carolina has to strongly consider Rashawn Slater, rated the sixth-best player by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. Neither is a sexy pick, but as Fitterer said, the goal is to build the lines on both fronts and there’s really not a defensive tackle worthy of a top-10 pick this year.

Cornerback

Melvin was signed to a one-year deal and Donte Jackson is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Neither is considered a lockdown corner who would give defensive coordinator Phil Snow the ability to be more creative. Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II is, though. In the NFC South, a division loaded with star wide receivers like Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, he would be an ideal fit. If not Surtain, possibly South Carolina corner Jaycee Horn, who would be a better choice if Fitterer traded back a few spots and added a draft pick.

Tight end

It’s hard to imagine Florida’s Kyle Pitts getting past Atlanta at No. 4 -- if the Falcons don't trade the pick, of course -- and it’s just as hard to imagine the Falcons trading with division rival Carolina. But if Pitts does fall to No. 5, it would be worth trading with Cincinnati to get him. The Panthers would be getting not only the best tight end in the draft, but one of the best overall receivers. Carolina coach Matt Rhule said repeatedly last year that a big threat at tight end, like Travis Kelce is in Kansas City, was the biggest thing missing from the offense.

“He’s an elite wide receiver," Florida coach Dan Mullen said after Pitts’ pro day. “And I think he’s an elite tight end."

Pitts would make Darnold and the entire offense better. It's worth noting that Rhule, in his first year at Temple, was the first coach to offer Pitts a scholarship. That happened in 2016 when Pitts was a sophomore at Abington Senior High in the Philadelphia area.

Middle linebacker

Carolina upgraded in free agency with Denzel Perryman, who has more range and physicality than Tahir Whitehead did in 2020. But what if Penn State’s Micah Parsons is available at No. 8? He could be to the middle of the defense what Luke Kuechly was for most of his eight seasons. Kuechly was the ninth overall pick in 2012.

Quarterback

You can’t totally ignore this possibility, since Fitterer didn’t rule it out and because Darnold’s track record with the Jets is shaky at best in terms of his record (13-25), accuracy and decision-making. Even Fitterer used the word “gamble" when talking about the trade. ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, in his latest mock draft, has Carolina taking Ohio State’s Justin Fields at 8.

“You never can have too many good quarterbacks," he said on Tuesday.

If there was any reason to believe Bridgewater would remain on the roster in 2021 as a backup, this would take care of that. And while many feel the 49ers traded up to No. 3 in order to grab Alabama's Mac Jones, a player Carolina loved when the staff coached him at the Senior Bowl, you can't completely rule out the possibility of him falling to No. 8.

The only thing that's certain is Fitterer isn’t showing his hand.