CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer, less than a month after saying the starting quarterback job was "open,'' on Friday said Sam Darnold was "in the lead for that job.''
"We want him to take it and run with it,'' Fitterer said. "But we're gonna add a lot of competition to that room. The whole emphasis is to stabilize the quarterback position to play winning football.
"That's what we're working towards.''
A lot has transpired to alter Fitterer's thought process, starting with Carolina's failure to acquire Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson in a trade with Houston.
Watson ultimately picked Cleveland over Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta. The Panthers were ruled out, according to a league source, because they wouldn't guarantee the third and fourth years on Watson's contract.
Watson ultimately got a new, five-year deal with the Browns in which he got $230 million fully guaranteed.
And while Fitterer wouldn't admit to disappointment over not getting Watson, he says the roster is better than it was a year ago and the Panthers are "two steps closer'' to winning the NFC South.
That said, Fitterer didn't rule out using the No. 6 pick of the April draft on a quarterback or adding another quarterback before the draft via trade or free agency to compete with Darnold.
The most high-profile quarterback available is Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, who requested a trade when the Browns began pursuing Watson. The Panthers currently are not interested in trading for Mayfield, according to a league source.
"We're monitoring all that,'' Fitterer said without addressing Mayfield specifically. "Nothing that we're going to do immediately.''
Carolina has salary-cap room, around $28 million, to make a move on a quarterback or other players that could improve the roster. Fitterer said the door hasn't been closed on bringing back Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore or quarterback Cam Newton.
In terms of Newton, Fitterer said the 2015 NFL MVP would have to want to return to Carolina and understand his role for another reunion to occur.
The Panthers made Newton the top pick of the 2011 draft, released him during the 2020 offseason and brought him back on a one-year deal late last season with Darnold on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Newton was 0-5 as the starter in 2021.
Carolina spent this past week attending pro days for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Mississippi's Matt Corral. Fitterer wouldn't rank them or say if one could be an immediate starter in the NFL for competitive reasons.
"Ideally, every quarterback, no matter who it would be, would sit a little while and learn,'' Fitterer said.
Fitterer's goal is to make the rest of the roster strong enough so that when Carolina finds the right quarterback the team can win. He says the moves made in free agency have the roster closer to that, adding that most of the deals would have been made even if the team got Watson and his new deal.
But Fitterer admitted the best way to build a roster is to drop a young quarterback into the mix and build around him because that's most cost-efficient, with established veterans getting such big deals.
That's how he helped Seattle build into a Super Bowl team with Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012 who went on to become a nine-time Pro Bowl selection.
"That's probably the right way to build it, draft and development,'' Fitterer said. "That'd be a really good plan for us moving forward, but we're open to all options.''