GM: Panthers not tanking despite Christian McCaffrey trade

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer insists the decision to trade running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers was not about tanking the rest of the season to get the top pick of the 2023 draft.

But Fitterer said Thursday's late-night deal that got Carolina (1-5) three 2023 draft picks (one each from second, third and fourth rounds) and one 2024 draft pick (fifth round) opened up a lot of options, including trading up for the top pick next year if necessary.

The trade also cleared McCaffrey's 2023 and 2024 cap hits of $19,550,750 and 2025 cap hit of $15,450,750 off the books.

"We had to figure what's best for the organization," Fitterer said Friday. "Our focus is still going out and competing every weekend. We expect to win."

Interim coach Steve Wilks agreed, even though having McCaffrey gave him a better chance to succeed in Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3).

"There's no such thing as tanking when it comes to myself or the men in that locker room," said Wilks, who is 0-1 since replacing Matt Rhule, who was fired after a 1-4 start.

Both agreed the draft picks for McCaffrey, in addition to the 2024 sixth-rounder and 2025 seventh-rounder Carolina got from the Arizona Cardinals on Monday for wide receiver Robbie Anderson, put the Panthers in the best position to build.

Before this week, the Panthers had only four draft picks in 2023 and five in 2024.

The extra picks are particularly important if the Panthers need to trade up for a quarterback in a strong class led by Kentucky's Will Levis, Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud.

"It provides a lot of options with that amount of picks," said Fitterer, whose Panthers would have the top pick if the season ended today. "If we don't have to move up, it gives a lot of shots on players."

The Panthers are in need of a quarterback because Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the No. 1 and No. 3 picks of the 2018 draft, haven't shown themselves worthy of a new deal. Matt Corral, the team's 2022 third-round pick, is on injured reserve with a foot injury, so he hasn't had a chance to prove himself.

Former XFL star PJ Walker is set to start his second straight game Sunday with Mayfield and Darnold at least another week away with injuries.

"We have a really good, young core," Fitterer said. "Yeah, Christian is a dynamic player, one of the best players in the NFL. We're not going to hide that. But what this does do is allow us to grow moving forward."

The first offer for McCaffrey came last Friday, Fitterer said, but wasn't enough for the team to consider. A league source close to the situation told ESPN that the Panthers initially were looking for a couple of first-round draft picks then narrowed it to one.

Fitterer said he talked to McCaffrey on Monday to let him know the team was listening to offers, which picked up on Tuesday. Sources close to the situation said the 49ers, Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills showed the most interest.

When it was apparent the Panthers wouldn't get a first-round pick for the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, negotiations were focused around a collection of picks that would equal a first-rounder, Fitterer said. He said the deal with San Francisco was close.

"We had three hard offers and then a couple of test-the-water type offers where they threw their hat in the ring," Fitterer said.

While Fitterer didn't completely rule out another deal before the Nov. 1 trade deadline, he said it would take an "astronomical" offer to pry anyone else from the roster.

"We like the young core of our team," he said. "We're building. This isn't a situation where we're trying to sell. We're trying to add players to this really good mix. These are guys we win with moving forward."

Darnold, one of McCaffrey's closest friends on the team, was asleep when the trade occurred around 10:30 p.m. and woke up Friday to the news.

"I had my initial thoughts, was pretty bummed out," Darnold said. "But at the end of the day, it's part of the business. He's going to go out there and do a great job and have the effect in San Francisco that he had in Charlotte, which was incredible."

Darnold didn't interpret the trade as management tanking on the season.

"For us, we're worried about this next game," he said. "For us, it's about taking it one game at a time. If we get focused on other things outside of what we can do in that locker room, it doesn't do us any good.

"We're still worried about going out there and winning football games. We're not worried about any of the narratives going on outside of the locker room."

But Darnold did admit surprise at the trade, even though he said that in the end it makes sense for both teams.

"Our record is what it is, and whatever moves the front office wants to make at this point in the season, obviously they're going to make for the better of this team and this locker room," he said. "We have full faith in that in that locker room."

Fitterer said McCaffrey wanted to address the team Friday but didn't have time because of an early-morning flight to San Francisco.

Darnold had a chance to talk with McCaffrey, who in 2019 became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. He was almost brought to tears talking about the loss.

"I'll keep most of it between us," Darnold said. "For the most part, I just said, 'Gonna miss you. Gonna miss you, man! Go play football and play at a high level.'"