Top pick gives Panthers plenty of options

A look at how Carolina may use their spot atop the draft

Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, left, talks to Alabama quarterback Bryce Young — two of the Panthers’ possible targets with the first overall pick — at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis earlier this month. (Darron Cummings / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers are on the clock.

For the first time since the team drafted Cam Newton in 2011, the Panthers have the first overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Back when they drafted Newton, the Panthers earned the top pick the hard way, going 1-15 and finishing with the worst record in the NFL. This time around, Carolina sprung a blockbuster deal to land the first pick.

The Panthers gave up star wide receiver DJ Moore in a trade with Chicago along with their first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft, which were No. 9 overall and No. 61 overall, a first-round selection in 2024 and a second-rounder in 2025. It was a high price to pay, but it gives the Panthers a chance to make a selection that could change the direction of a franchise that has drifted since Newton suffered an injury a few years ago.

It seems almost guaranteed that the Panthers made this drastic move in order to shore up their quarterback position. Newton set franchise records in most passing categories during his decade at the helm, also winning an NFL MVP and leading Carolina to a Super Bowl. He suffered an injury early in the 2019 season, and the team moved on from him but didn’t seem to have a direction in mind.

The Panthers brought in veteran Teddy Bridgewater for a season but felt that his ceiling wasn’t high enough and let him depart, swinging a blockbuster trade for former Jets prospect Sam Darnold, who was the third overall pick in the 2018 draft. He struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, forcing the team to bring Newton back briefly.

The Panthers then swung another big deal before last season for Baker Mayfield, chosen first overall, two spots ahead of Darnold, in 2018. He didn’t last the season, getting released and signing with the Rams. Darnold is now also gone, having signed with the 49ers this offseason.

That leaves the Panthers in control of the NFL Draft for the next month and a half. Here are some of the top options for the team.

Trade the pick

Within hours of acquiring the top pick from the Bears, the Panthers let it be known that they were willing to make a deal to move back down and recoup some of the draft capital they gave up in the deal.

If the Panthers follow this plan, it means the team has identified the quarterback they think is the best fit for the offense new coach Frank Reich has in mind for the team. It also means that their choice is not the draft’s likely first pick and will still be available later. Or the Panthers may have identified two quarterbacks who would be equally good and don’t care which one they end up with. So, they could trade away the top pick, which could go up in value significantly as the draft approaches and other quarterback-hungry teams get desperate, get back some of what they lost in draft capital and still end up with their man. Obviously, this strategy would have some risk — another team could step in and select the Panthers’ desired quarterback ahead of them. But, at the moment, the Panthers are just open to listening to offers, and there’s no harm in that.

Bryce Young

For the last year or more, the Alabama quarterback has been the consensus best quarterback in this year’s draft and the likely No. 1 pick. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2021 and returned to school last season. While he wasn’t able to repeat as the Heisman winner or lead Alabama to a title, he is still a strong candidate to go off the board first. He has shown the ability to pass, run and lead a team at the highest level.

One factor that may indicate Young isn’t the quarterback the Panthers have in mind is the timing of their trade. They swung the deal immediately after the NFL Combine, leading most observers to believe someone caught the team’s eye there, and Young didn’t participate in Combine drills.

CJ Stroud

The Ohio State quarterback, on the other hand, did participate in drills and, by all accounts, improved his stock, which was already high. He is bigger than Young and impressed many at the Combine with his arm strength and accuracy. Many observers around the league believe this is the quarterback the Panthers had in mind when they made the deal.

The field

The next quarterback on most boards is Kentucky’s Will Levis. He has a powerful arm but struggled with accuracy and interceptions at Kentucky. There was a good chance he would have been available at No. 9 where the Panthers originally picked, so it’s not clear why they’d have traded to No. 1 if he was the choice. A smaller jump closer to the draft, when they have a better sense of other teams’ plans, may have been a better option in that case.

Florida’s Anthony Richardson dazzled at the Combine and has a tempting combination of passing and running ability. He has the highest upside in the draft but is also the biggest risk out of all the top pick candidates. He is raw but fast and athletic. The question is whether the team would take the big gamble of trading up to take another gamble on the quarterback they pick.

The one thing the Panthers acquired in their trade last week was options. They can move or stay put, and they have their choice of quarterbacks. Now they just need to choose the best option.