After trading away Christian McCaffrey, Panthers reject idea of 'tanking' in 2022

Christian McCaffrey is headed west. In the running back's wake remains a Panthers team forced to answer questions about its future.

The McCaffrey trade did not shock anyone, of course, as it had been rumored since coach Matt Rhule was fired on Oct. 10. In order to pry McCaffrey from the Panthers, interested teams would have to make an "overwhelming" offer, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last weekend.

In the end, an assortment of picks -- second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round selection in 2024 -- were needed to complete the deal between San Francisco and Carolina, but interestingly, the trade did not require a first-round pick. Carolina is now stocked with selections to remake the team into a winner through the draft, leading many to wonder whether the Panthers might surrender their hopes of contending in 2022 in order to better position themselves for the future.

"There's no such thing as tanking when it comes to myself and the guys in that locker room," interim head coach Steve Wilks said, via The Athletic's Joseph Person.

Wilks' response is understandably predictable. Carolina elevated the former assistant and one-time head coach in order to give him a lengthy audition in the interim head coach role, one in which he must win in order to preserve his chances of getting the job permanently.

As for general manager Scott Fitterer -- who, unlike Rhule, was not fired earlier this month -- his roadmap might look a little different, depending on owner David Tepper's long-term plans.

For now, Fitterer remains in Charlotte. He swung a deal that sent the team's top player packing, and could have a significant long-term impact on how he's viewed as the man in charge of the Panthers' roster.

"It's really tough to move off from him," Fitterer said of McCaffrey, via the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler. "But we thought it was the right decision and the right value."

Fitterer told reporters Friday that interest in McCaffrey started picking up Tuesday, and he received three legitimate offers, including a couple of "test-the-waters" type of offers; Rapoport reported Thursday the Rams were also in play for the RB. In the end, the aforementioned haul of picks was enough to convince Fitterer to ship McCaffrey -- a player who is under contract through 2025 -- to San Francisco.

Although the deal didn't include a first-round pick, Fitterer explained the Panthers viewed the four picks they received as the equivalent of a top choice. More importantly, Carolina has four picks in the first three rounds of the 2022 draft, which Fitterer sees as a good place to start reshaping the roster.

The responsibility now falls squarely on the shoulders of Fitterer, who is tasked with spending Carolina's picks wisely in order to add quality talent to a team that doesn't exactly lack it. The Panthers entered 2022 with higher hopes because of the weapons they had at receiver, plus the return of a healthy McCaffrey. Adding quarterback Baker Mayfield seemed to solve their last remaining question, but the sum of these parts has not produced as expected, leading Fitterer to trade one of the aforementioned receivers (Robbie Anderson) to Arizona.

Fitterer has only been with the Panthers since early 2021, which helps explain why he is still employed despite Carolina's struggles. In order to see if he's truly deserving of the job, the GM should be given more time. But after his offseason moves didn't pay off as envisioned, Tepper decided someone had to go. That someone was Rhule, leaving only Fitterer to answer for any future issues.

Trading away McCaffrey signaled a change in course for the Panthers, and the start of a window in which Fitterer must capitalize. The clock is now ticking on the GM.

"I'm not worried about my job, coach Wilks' job -- our job is to get it right," the GM said Friday.

It's not yet time to worry. It is time, however, to start focusing on 2023, an offseason in which Fitterer cannot afford to swing and miss.

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