Where there’s smoke: Panthers keeping everyone guessing as draft nears

Carolina could trade, move or stay put with the eighth overall pick

Despite trading for Sam Darnold, the Panthers could still be interested in Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the eighth overall pick in the first round of Thursday's NFL Draft. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

Everyone, remain calm. Please put on your own gas mask before helping others with theirs. Put your headlights on low beam. If you have a wet towel, roll it up and put it on the floor to block the crack in the door.

It’s NFL Draft week, you see, and the Carolina Panthers have thrown up a smoke screen to end them all.

At the moment, the Panthers are slotted to pick eighth in the first round. They might stay there and fill a need. They might move. They could swing a major deal. The Panthers’ draft war room seems to feature the road sign from “M.A.S.H.,” with arrows pointing in every direction, and the rest of the NFL is left to wonder which one they’ll end up following on Thursday.

Last month, the Panthers traded for Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, seeming to fill that major need on the roster and take at least one possible draft day direction off the table.

Not so fast.

Not only has the rumor floated that the Panthers might be considering taking a quarterback — perhaps Ohio State’s Justin Fields — with the eighth pick, but they’ve also reportedly been in contact with multiple teams about flipping Darnold before he even suits up for a minicamp.

“There’s actually several of them that we’re excited about,” general manager Scott Fitterer said of the college quarterbacks who might be available when the Panthers pick. “But we’re not going to get into exactly who.”

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Carolina had a high grade on Fields and may pull the trigger on him at eight. That would allow the team to move Darnold, whose situation seems to have gotten complicated, perhaps to produce more predraft smoke.

Darnold was a first-round pick in 2018, and the NFL deadline to pick up his fifth-year option is May 3. For Darnold, that would mean an $18.858 million contract for the 2022 season. After trading for him, it was thought the team would pick up the option, but nothing has happened so far, and Fitterer said nothing will happen until after the draft.

“We have a strong plan in place,” Fitterer said of picking up the option, and smoke alarms throughout the Carolinas began to shriek.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Fields will be gone by the time the Panthers pick. Much of the posturing may be a head fake on Fitterer’s part to try to keep Denver from moving out of the No. 9 spot. The Broncos are in desperate need of a quarterback and could be tempted to trade up to get their man.

Or perhaps Fitterer is trying to provoke a Denver move to allow another player to fall to Carolina’s spot. It’s all part of the 32-way three-dimensional chess game that keeps everyone scrambling in the days and hours leading up to the first pick.

The Panthers could be looking to fill another need, perhaps taking Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater to help bolster the line and protect Darnold.

All this, of course, assumes that the Panthers plan to stick around and use the eighth overall pick.

There’s a good chance they won’t. The latest rumor to waft out of the Panthers’ bonfire is that the team is looking to trade down — a staple of the Seattle Seahawks in the years Fitterer was a member of that front office.

A report by ESPN said the Panthers have talked to at least five teams about moving down in the draft, presumably to help get back some of the draft picks they lost when they traded for Darnold.

“We’re very open to moving back,” Fitterer said. “It just depends on how the first seven picks go.”

Perhaps the maneuvering to keep Denver in place is to allow the Panthers to trade with a quarterback-hungry team looking to jump the Broncos — perhaps Pittsburgh, New England or Philadelphia.

“We’ll have to take a look at the players that are available when we pick and how many of those players can help us that we’ve identified, how far we can trade back and still get one of those players without trading out of the level,” Fitterer said. “We don’t want to trade out of a certain level where the talent dips. We know exactly where that is in this draft. We’ll see what the options are.

“We’re more than willing to listen to other teams, and if they want to offer picks and we can go back and get one of the players we want and get multiple picks to help build this team, that’s what we’ll do.”

He might have said more, but the smog began to thicken, and it became hard to breathe.

The smoke will begin to clear on Thursday, and we’ll see where the Panthers end up.