Photo Credit: The University of Alabama, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
When the Carolina Panthers finalized their pre-draft trade with the Chicago Bears for the #1 pick, the NFL’s worst kept secret was finally exposed: the Panthers are going to draft a quarterback. The proverbial cat is out of the bag. I guess now all those reports of the Panthers being out of the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes make sense now, huh?
The mystery of who would eventually trade up for said #1 pick is over now, though Knives Out this was not. Everybody knew the Panthers were looking for an upgrade at the NFL’s most crucial position. After a season of shuffling Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker in and out, it’s hard to blame them. There were multiple teams in play for the top pick, but the Panthers went out and blew the Bears away with an offer no sane general manager in the NFL could refuse: two firsts, two seconds, and three-time thousand-yard receiver D.J. Moore.
So, there you have it. The Panthers now sit at the top of the draft board. Before, they were making sacrifices to the football gods in hopes that one of the top QBs might fall to them at #9. Now, they get their pick of the litter. The only question left is: who?
It’s a fascinating discussion. Currently, there appear to be four QBs in that “number one pick” conversation: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. They each come with their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Young has all the production and intangibles you would want, but he’s small (read: miniscule). Stroud has the size and skill, but rarely wowed on big stages. Levis has massive arm talent and huge upside, but struggles with accuracy and decision-making. Richardson is the biggest wildcard of them all: a freakishly gifted runner and passer with size, speed and strength to spare…only without almost any indication that he could actually do those things at the NFL level.
No matter which direction they choose, there’s risk. Young might be the “safest” from a projection standpoint. He played in college football’s toughest conference, faced NFL-caliber defenders on a weekly basis, was incredibly productive, won the Heisman, and made NFL GMs salivate over his coveted ability to create positive plays out of disorder. He gets Patrick Mahomes comparisons for a reason, after all. And yet, despite all those positives, are the Panthers, a team that just put most of its executives’ and coaches’ careers on the line with this move, really going to be the team to select the smallest QB ever to be drafted in the first round, let alone the top pick in the draft? Is Frank Reich gonna have to be half-deep in a bottle of Tito’s when he makes this selection?
Maybe they go Stroud instead. He’s the safer option. He’s got the pedigree. He’s got production. He’s got what Young lacks and can never acquire: namely, about five inches and fifteen to twenty pounds. But he doesn’t have the flash. The sizzle. The out-of-control, “I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw” factor that Young flashes or that Mahomes does on a weekly basis. It’s what separates the good QBs from the great in the NFL. If you’re the Panthers, are you willing to bet everything that Stroud’s suddenly found that form after his fantastic performance in the College Football Playoff? Can you live with taking Dak Prescott 2.0 with the first pick?
Maybe the Panthers are feeling lucky. It was a major gamble trading up for the first pick anyway, so why stop there? If boring old C.J. Stroud isn’t your thing, why not go with Will Levis? Sure, he looked borderline-incompetent at times this past season. But he’s got a cannon, dude. And he’s athletic. And he reminds us of Josh Allen a little bit. And if we give him some time to grow and if we get some weapons around him and if our O-line can protect him and if our defense and run game can play well and if and if and if… the potential is there - but if you’re the Panthers, can you stomach a year of overthrows, underthrows, pick-sixes and blowouts while Levis learns on the fly? Levis might be the QB equivalent of baseball’s five-tool player, but if Moneyball has taught us anything, it’s that for every Ken Griffey Jr. out there, there’s a Billy Beane right beside him.
Maybe the Panthers like projects, though. And if the Panthers like projects, well, Levis has absolutely nothing on Anthony Richardson. This guy called himself “Cam Jackson” (Cam Newton + Lamar Jackson) in high school to motivate himself and he’s doing a spectacular job of living up to his own nickname. Nobody did more to help themself at the NFL Combine than Richardson. Aside from showing up looking like a Greek god and measuring in at 6-4, 244 lbs., Richardson showcased his world-class athleticism by running a blazing 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, and leaping 40.5 inches in the vertical jump and 10’9’’ in the broad jump. The only issue is…he has, like, barely a year of production to show for it. If Frank Reich needs half a bottle of Tito’s to take Bryce Young at #1, will he be around to see Richardson suit up for the Panthers in Week One?
It’s impossible to know the right answer, and yet, when the draft rolls around on April 27, the Panthers are going to make their selection and then they’re going to tell everyone and their grandma that they knew all along who the right player was and they’re super-duper certain that everything will be juuuuuuust fine moving forward. For my money, I’d hold my nose and take Young. Nobody made more wow plays on bigger stages than that guy. He proved everybody wrong about his size at Alabama, why couldn’t he do the same in the NFL? For Frank Reich’s sake, the Panthers better get this right.