CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers desperately wanted to land Deshaun Watson to solve the quarterback issues that have plagued them for the better part of the past four seasons.

But when the three-time Pro Bowler snubbed the Panthers’ overtures and refused to change his no-trade clause for Carolina, it left the team back at square one searching for that elusive franchise QB. Watson was eventually traded to the Cleveland Browns.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said Friday that as of now Sam Darnold is “in the lead” to be the team’s starting quarterback next season, although it’s clear the position remains extremely fluid with the draft around the corner.

Darnold, who struggled mightily in his first season with Carolina in 2021, and P.J. Walker are the only quarterbacks under contract.

That's expected to change.

Carolina has the No. 6 pick in next month's draft.

The Panthers sent a large contingent of front office executives, coaches and scouts last week to watch Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis work out at their pro days.

Fitterer said the Panthers haven't had any recent conversations with other NFL teams about trading for a veteran quarterback, although the second-year general manager has said several times in the past that his goal is to be “in on every deal.”

The Panthers turned their attention to addressing other areas of the team after missing out on Watson, adding free agent offensive linemen Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman, running back D'Onta Freeman, wide receiver Rashard Higgins, linebackers Matt Ioannidis and Cory Littleton, safety Xavier Woods and punter Johnny Hekker.

They also extended the contract of wide receiver D.J. Moore, and re-signed cornerback Donte Jackson and some other role players.

Fitterer feels as if the team is in a better position and can compete with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the NFC South title if "we can get the quarterback situation stabilized.”

So far Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton and Darnold have failed to provide stability for the Panthers, who are 10-23 over the past two seasons and haven't made the playoffs since 2017.

“Eventually it’s going to get to the point where you bring a quarterback in and you just take off,” Fitterer said referring to the pieces the team has added on offense and defense. “And that’s what we’re going for. I think we’re a lot of closer this year than we were last year.”

Fitter said the “door is still open” to re-signing Newton, who is an unrestricted free agent, although that appears to be a backup plan at best.

Fitterer said he hasn't spoken to the 2015 league MVP this offseason, but coach Matt Rhule has. Newton rejoined the Panthers for a second stint midway through last season, but failed to win a start and was benched for the final two games after Darnold returned from a shoulder injury.

“It’s got to be a good fit for him. It’s got to be a good fit for us,” Fitterer said of a potential reunion with Newton. "... The door’s still open for us. We’ll see where it goes.”

Drafting a quarterback looks like a more realistic option. The problem is the Panthers don’t have a second- or third-round draft pick and have major needs to fill at left tackle and pass rusher, so it’s not a lock they select a quarterback with the sixth pick.

For now, Darnold remains the default starter while things remain in limbo.

Fitterer said he hasn't spoken to Darnold about the team's decision to pursue Watson. Unlike other top NFL quarterbacks, Darnold doesn't have the leverage to force a trade since he hasn't played all that well and carries an $18.85 million salary cap figure into the 2022 season.

“I didn't call him,” Fitterer said. “That is part of being a pro. That's part of the process and Sam will be the first to tell you that he needs to play good quality football.”

Fitterer said new offensive coordinator Bob McAdoo has spent time with Darnold on the phone talking about areas where he needs to improve this offseason.

That includes getting the ball out quicker, working on pre-snap reads and making the right decisions.

“Ben has a history of developing a lot of quarterbacks, whether it is Green Bay or New York, and we plan on him doing that with Sam,” Fitterer said.

Who else McAdoo will be working with at quarterback this coming season remains unclear.


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