Inside the Bears–Panthers Trade: The deal involved QBs for both teams

A step-by-step look at how Carolina GM Scott Fitterer took the dive for the top spot in April and how he put together a deal that satisfied Chicago’s price.

A little more than a week ago, Bears GM Ryan Poles sat down with coach Matt Eberflus and emphasized that he was in no rush to move the No. 1 pick — and that someone would have to pay a premium to get him moved from his position.

Six days later, this premium arrived.

On Friday night, Chicago traded the first pick in April’s NFL draft to Carolina for a package consisting of the ninth and 61st picks, a first-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025 and a star wide receiver with three 1,100-yard seasons under his belt to DJ Moore. And he did all this after he had preached patience.

Obviously, that return was a huge part of sealing the deal. But so was the Panthers’ preparation for the occasion, the Bears’ determination for their honor and the growing relationship between two of the NFL’s youngest general managers.

This morning, we’ve got the lowdown on how it all came together…

• The Panthers’ work in the fall wasn’t over the top, but it was thorough for the quarterbacks. The scouts were out and the position circled, apparently, with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold on contract years. GM Scott Fitterer’s exposure to the top guys was limited: He saw Will Levis and Hendon Hooker play against each other in the Kentucky-Tennessee game (in advance of the Panthers’ Halloween weekend game in Atlanta), saw CJ Stroud of Ohio State playing against Maryland. (the previous day Carolina played in Baltimore).

• That Carolina could go in the top 10 crystallized around that game against the Ravens, which dropped the Panthers to 3–8. The early planning meetings began soon after, and then the strategy discussion began. The front office didn’t think the team was far off and, with any luck, wouldn’t be drafting this high, within striking distance of the top of the board, any time soon. Also, the feeling was that the roster didn’t have many needs — the team could use a tight end, maybe another receiver. That balance, the brass thought, plus the pull that came for Christian McCaffrey, would give the team flexibility to go offensive.

• Meanwhile, as the Bears saw it, Justin Fields had done a lot to secure another year as the starting quarterback. The fact that they saw a group of seven players in the first tier of the draft class gave Chicago an opportunity to move further down the top 10 (or maybe move down twice, to get a blue-chip player) and work to surround Fields with a better cast, both to bolster him as a player and to understand his ceiling as a quarterback.

• Coach, assistant GM Dan Morgan and scouts went to work on quarterback tape when the season ended, then put in new coach Frank Reich, offensive coordinator Thomas Brown and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown when the staff was assembled. . By the time they pack up for the combine, logically, they’d have to reach a comfortable level with at least some of the quarterbacks to warrant real discussions about moving to the top of the draft.

• The Panthers got there, and Reich was a major asset in finding a way—his ability to see tape through a quarterback’s eyes helped the front office better read Stroud, Levis, Bryce Young and Anthony Richardson as as well as a better sense of how each quarterback moved, felt the play and saw the field. Then, and now, the Panthers were doomed for some of the quarterbacks. They will continue to work on all four and try to figure out if there is another one they get a similar strong feeling about.

• The Poles arrived at Indy open to moving the pick, but felt no urgency to do so. The only thing, as Chicago saw it, that would create such urgency would be if a veteran player was involved. In that case, the Bears would like to get the deal done before free agency begins (4 p.m. ET March 15) because the player returned in the trade could affect how they use the huge cap space he will bring into the new league year.

• Also, the Poles, who normally stayed at the JW Marriott during the combined week, stayed at another hotel down Maryland Street, the Hyatt Regency, this year. The reason? The JW Marriott is a crossroads for NFL business during combine week, and given what the Bears were trying to accomplish, it only made sense to stay away from all the combine week noise.

• The Poles and Fitterer met first in the Poles’ Room at the Hyatt and again later at Lucas Oil Stadium, more informally, after running into each other before possible practices. The Panthers were motivated to do something by being direct — going early would give Carolina a chance to fully control every quarterback and get it open — but Fitterer also told the Poles he could be patient if that’s what it took. The two have decided to keep the lines of communication open, with both also talking to other teams about trades.

• The Bears talked in Houston about dropping from No. 1 to No. 2, but it was a little unclear if the Texans were ready to pull the trigger. (The idea appealed to the Bears because of the idea that they could trade up twice.) Another team seemed serious about moving up, with a fourth team also dropping its hat late — but talks with the Panthers were moving faster than what about the other three.

• The Panthers wanted to explore moving up to the top five overall, but didn’t talk to the Texans or Colts, assuming they were both taking a quarterback, and all their call would do was alert them to how serious the trade was. Carolina to do the deal early. Discussions with the Cardinals about moving up to No. 3 gave the Panthers another option. The concern with Seattle’s pursuit of the No. 5 pick (Fetterer worked for the Seahawks for 20 years, so he could certainly negotiate with GM John Schneider) was that, after the quarterbacks checked the boxes at the combine, he could to end up just a second go up.

• Over the course of the week, the big-money deals that came in for Daniel Jones in New York and Derek Carr in New Orleans, as well as the potential fully guaranteed outlay of a Lamar Jackson deal, more or less solidified the Panthers’ plan to move up for a quarterback in the draft, instead of finding a veteran at the position in free agency. The Panthers also figured that seeing where the market was going would prompt other teams to trade up the top three spots for talented, cost-controlled options at the position. So it was time to leave.

• In the end, the price to move up to Arizona at No. 3 was close enough to Chicago’s price at No. 1 for the Panthers to focus on getting the first pick. Poles’ stated value was three first-round picks if the deal were to go through early. The Panthers knew they might end up with more than that especially for them, as they would climb eight spots, five more than Indianapolis and seven more than Houston.

Moore started and played in 17 games for the Panthers this season, recording a career-high seven touchdowns.

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

• That’s where the teams got creative: The Bears and Panthers agreed to terms with 25-year-old receiver DJ Moore, on a $52.265 million contract over the next three years (a yearly average less than what Christian Kirk or Kenny Golladay received on the open market) was equal to the third first-round pick in a potential trade (that would be the 2025 pick). So Moore was stuffed with the ninth and 61st picks (61st was the highest of the picks the Panthers took for McCaffrey), a ’24 first rounder and a ’25 second rounder.

• For what it’s worth, the cries I’d heard were that the honor could be two firsts and two second for teams in the top five. If you look at it that way, Moore was the premium for the Bears moving down to No. 9, abandoning the double-trade idea and getting the deal done early.

• The upside for the Bears now is that they’ll be working with more than $70 million in free agency cap space, knowing they have Moore, Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney at receiver, as well as three picks in the first two rounds , starting with the ninth . For the Panthers, they now control what’s going on at quarterback, and could even move back a spot or two and take one depending on how their meetings go. I would expect Fitterer, Morgan, Reich, Brown and McCown (and maybe even an owner) to travel together to see these players in the coming weeks.

• So where are the Panthers at quarterback? They are good with the movie rating part of the process, although they will do more. Now, it will be about learning who each player is, how they process and what makes them stand out as individuals. Carolina met the top guys at the combine, but that’s just a springboard for what’s to come. The Panthers come away from the trade with six picks in April’s draft: No. 1, their own second round (39th), the Niners’ third (93rd), two fourths (114th, 132nd) and a fifth (145th) .

• The Bears move forward with a revamped receiver group and plenty of resources to rework the offensive line, with right tackle options there in free agency (Mike McGlinchey, Jawaan Taylor) and top left tackle prospects potentially available at No. 9 ( Peter Skoronski, Paris Johnson Jr.). That will give Chicago enough to, as was its goal, bolster Fields and get answers about where his ceiling is as an NFL quarterback with the all-important decisions of his fifth-year option and a possible extension in spring 2024. .

And, really, that’s what the deal was all about early on: programming.

Now, Fitterer can plan for the Panthers and the Poles can plan for the Bears. And other teams in the top 10 must adjust to a landscape that changed dramatically on Friday night, much sooner than most thought it would.

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