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Carolina Panthers Face a Quarterback Conundrum in Tonight’s NFL Draft

Not a lot of options

Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have a need at the quarterback position, but not many promising options in this weekend’s draft. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

If there’s one sure-fire way to be a perennial winner in the NFL, it is to have a great quarterback. There is a reason the league’s biggest stars (Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers) are quarterbacks, and a reason teams are willing to pay them well enough to keep them around. You have to get down to No. 12 on the top-paid NFL players ranking to find a non-quarterback.  

That fact hasn’t been lost on Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, which is why Tepper was reportedly willing to risk the bad press by courting former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson even as he faced a slew of sexual assault allegations; because he made the Pro Bowl three out of his four seasons in the league and Tepper thought he could be the missing link to years of success for the Panthers. 

The Carolina Panthers have been searching high and low trying to find a solution at the one position that has eluded them since Cam Newton’s impressive stretch from 2013-17, during which the Panthers made the playoffs four times and reached the Super Bowl in 2015. It was the only time in the franchise’s 27-year history entering this season that they made the playoffs in consecutive years. 

Newton came to the Panthers after a 2-14 season in 2010, which landed them the first pick in the NFL Draft. By his third season, they were already in the playoffs. That’s how important the position is and while it’s not the only way to build a successful franchise, it is the only way to consistently make the playoffs year after year. 

Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton returned to the Carolina Panthers for a short stint in 2021, but Sam Darnold is back in the starting slot for now. (Photo by All-Pro Reels Photography)

The quarterback is the most important position in sports, and while having a great one doesn’t guarantee you a championship, it does almost guarantee your team to be viable for as long as you can hold onto him and keep him healthy. A great quarterback makes your team marketable, tickets sell out, kids buy jerseys and your fanbase spends the week looking forward to your games. 

It’s safe to say that this hasn’t been the case for the Carolina Panthers in recent years, and fans are starting to lose patience. 

The Panthers tried to find a fix last year by bringing in Sam Darnold from the New York Jets, who had drafted him third in the 2018 draft. They were hoping his lofty draft status would justify a better result with a new team, but that didn’t pan out on the field. 

So where does that leave the Panthers? 

Baker Mayfield is on the outs with the Cleveland Browns after that team secured Watson, and he was rumored to be a target of the Panthers. However, Ian Rapaport of the NFL Network reported earlier this week that they likely wouldn’t make a move for him before the draft, and he appears to be right. 

So that leaves tonight’s draft. At a press conference on Wednesday, Tepper wouldn’t speak directly to whether the Panthers want a quarterback in the draft, stating, “Obviously we have needs, we’re going to try to attempt [to fill] some of those in the draft.”

Carolina Panthers
Reps with the Carolina Panthers held a press conference on Tuesday (from left): Director of College Scouting Cole Spencer, General Manager Scott Fitterer, Assistant General Manager Dan Morgan. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

When asked if those needs are focused on the quarterback position, Tepper responded, “As I said before I think Sam Darnold is a very good quarterback. We’re always looking to be the best we can be, and we’ll continue to do that.”

It’s not surprising that he refuses to throw his active starter under the bus, but everyone knows the team is not the best it can be with Sam Darnold starting under center. 

But even with draft night approaching and the Carolina Panthers set to pick sixth, there are no clear answers to their problem at QB. 

The draft conundrum

There is an inherent risk in reaching for a quarterback so early in the draft — as mentioned earlier, Darnold was a third pick just four years ago — especially when the players don’t justify it. In four different rankings from Sports Illustrated, NFL Rankings, Sporting News and The Athletic, none had a quarterback ranked higher than the twenties, so grabbing one at six would be considered a real reach. 

There are rumors the team might trade down, as they only have six picks in this year’s draft and the second doesn’t come until round 4. It’s hard to fix a 5-12 team without a quarterback —let alone the other problems, including at left tackle to protect said quarterback — without more early picks. Trading down could allow them to compile more first- and second-rounders while possibly justifying a first-round-but-not-top-10 quarterback pick. 

If the Carolina Panthers keep the sixth pick and go for a quarterback route, the likely picks are either Malik Willis out of Liberty University or Kenny Pickett from University of Pittsburgh. 

Willis is considered small for a quarterback at just 6’1” and, according to Dane Brugler of The Athletic, will likely need at least a year of practice and observation before seriously competing for an NFL starting role. 

He was sacked 51 times in 2021, showing the need for blindside help at the tackle position. Willis is considered to have definite upside, but he’s a big risk, especially if the Panthers draft him with such a high pick. 

Pickett has better quarterback size, being two inches taller, but small hands, which is a well-known detriment at the position. He will also be 24 years old heading into the season, which is considered old for a rookie. 

There have been so many quarterback busts over the years, and if we’re being honest it’s anyone’s guess. You can be the most accurate mock draft analyst in the world but nobody pretends to know exactly who will pan out and who won’t. Patrick Mahomes, already being tagged by some as one of the best ever, didn’t go until the 10th pick in 2017 and was thought by some draft prognosticators as not even a first-round talent.

The 2017 draft, which included Mahomes and Watson, was considered a bad quarterback draft and the first quarterback picked, Mitch Trubisky at No. 2 by the Bears, is already on his third team and was quickly considered a failure in Chicago.

There are any number of examples to point to, including the most famous: Tom Brady. Considered by many now to be the G.O.A.T., Brady was drafted at No. 199, a compensatory sixth-round pick. 

Despite the uncertainty, if I were in charge I would draft a quarterback high, first or second round, every year until my team finally found one. It’s such an important position, and you’re not going to be a consistent playoff team until you get it right. 

Leading the team

Matt Rhule is heading into his third season as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. There were rumors after a 5-12 season that Rhule was on the hot seat and might be replaced, but there were 62 million reasons why owner David Tepper decided to let him stick around rather than pay him to go away. 

There isn’t a great history with college coaches succeeding in the NFL. The two best examples are probably Pete Carroll with Seattle and Jimmy Johnson with the Dallas Cowboys, but it’s the many failures that cause concern. 

Nick Saban of Alabama, considered by some to be the greatest college football coach ever, failed in a stint in the NFL. Of recent vintage, Urban Meyer, who had a storied history in college including at University of Florida and Ohio State University, failed miserably last year with Jacksonville and was let go before he could finish a single season.

Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule (left) with Teddy Bridgewater, another recent quarterback that didn’t pan out. (Photo by All-Pro Reels Photography)

It’s hard going from college to the pros because a college coach has so much more power over his players than a professional coach has. It will be interesting to see if Rhule can be an exception by gaining some control over this team in his third year. 

As coach at both Baylor and Temple universities, Rhule’s teams didn’t have success until his third season. Tepper is likely banking on that magic to continue, and as with Darnold, he praised Rhule’s work at Wednesday’s press conference. In contrast to Darnold, however, the praise felt sincere. 

The future

As the richest owner in the NFL according to Forbes and one of the top 10 richest owners in the sports world, according to Forbes, Tepper doesn’t like not getting his way. When he didn’t like how the situation was going in Rock Hill, where up until March his company had been constructing a new headquarters, he pulled the plug. 

Could that be an ominous sign for Charlotte if they don’t agree to help build a new stadium for the Panthers? Last year, Tepper made it clear that he wants the city to contribute funding to build both a new facility to replace Bank of America Stadium and an entertainment district near it. 

At Wednesday’s press conference, Tepper said his team is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine how much longer Bank of America can operate as the home to the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC. 

On an April 20 episode of the Dan Bernstein Show on 670 The Score in Chicago, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk was asked, “What’s going on in Charlotte?” 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that team moves at some point (to wherever they give him the most money to build a stadium),” he responded. “I think the folks in Carolina need to be nervous what David Tepper is going to do long-term.” 

The Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler ran a piece on Thursday morning that appeared to dispel those concerns, but until we know for sure, a quarterback isn’t the only thing Carolina Panther fans have to worry about.

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