Is Bryce Young the man for the Panthers?

Carolina prepares to address its quarterback spot with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is the frontrunner to be the first overall pick when the Panthers kick off the NFL Draft on Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri. (Vasha Hunt / AP Photo)

The suspense is over. The pick is in.

With the first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers select …

Bryce Young, quarterback, Alabama.

We’ll know for certain when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steps up to the podium on Thursday night, but — at least according to one longtime NFL insider, — there’s no question and never has been.

“There is only one great quarterback in the draft,” said Michael Lombardi. “And that’s Bryce Young.”

Lombardi spent 25 seasons in the NFL as a scout, personnel director and general manager. He won a pair of Super Bowls, one with the 49ers and another with the Patriots — two of the biggest dynasties in league history. So he knows a little something about evaluating players and picking quarterbacks.

And Lombardi thinks the debate between the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft — Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson — has been settled for quite some time.

“Because of the tape — if you watch the tape,” Lombardi said. “At the end of the day, the better player, on tape, is Bryce Young.”

In Lombardi’s opinion, the Panthers had likely identified Young as their man when they swung the trade in March to vault Carolina to the first overall pick in the draft, despite what coach Frank Reich and the front office said about still evaluating options.

At the time of the trade, the popular narrative among NFL observers was that Stroud was the likely top pick following his impressive NFL Combine performance. Over the past month, however, Young has rocketed up draft boards and is now the consensus choice for the Panthers’ pick.

All of that, though, is either a smokescreen or the NFL media playing catch-up to what the decision-makers already knew.

“I don’t think the media is always in line to what is going on in the real world,” Lombardi said. “You can’t just go by what the media says. I’ve been saying it for a while — for the last month and a half, even back when the odds said that Bryce Young wasn’t even the favorite.”

What does Lombardi, and presumably Reich and the Panthers brass, see on the tape that makes this such an open-and-shut decision?

“His production, his instinct, his arm talent,” Lombardi said. “I mean, the only thing that holds him back from anything is the fact that he’s 5-10. I think that’s the only hesitation.”

Young also tips the scales at just 194 pounds. The last time a quarterback less than 200 pounds was drafted in the first round was in 1960, and only three quarterbacks under 6 feet tall have been drafted in the first round since the 1970 merger — Kyler Murray, Michael Vick and Johnny Manziel.

The Panthers’ last franchise quarterback — Cam Newton, drafted first overall in 2011 — had his Carolina career cut short by injury, and he has seven inches and 50 pounds on Young. So, should the Panthers be concerned about spending such a valuable pick on such a small quarterback?

“There’s really not a lot of history behind it,” Lombardi said. “But he’s played at a very high level at the same size. … He’s a really good player. I think he’s a winner. He’s won at every level. He has a great arm.”

The Panthers likely looked at each of the quarterback options available to them. Whether they saw the same thing as Lombardi did remains to be seen, but the former NFL GM gave his opinion on each of the other top passers in the draft.

Lombardi created a stir in a recent podcast appearance when he brought up the coachability issue when discussing Stroud.

“I never said he wasn’t coachable,” Lombardi emphasized. “I didn’t say that in a quote direct from me. I just think you have to have a certain comfortability around C.J. Stroud. I think that’s something teams have to get comfortable with. I think he’s kind of from a different perspective. C.J. Stroud is a kid that you’ve got to get to know.”

What Lombardi said, which was picked up by a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, was “C.J. Stroud is an interesting guy. When you talk to people in the league, they will tell you C.J. Stroud is not — and this is not a knock, this is just a conversation — not an easy guy to coach. … I think the word that people use is he’s very not-believing in what you are saying. So he’s a little bit challenging to coach, so it’s not like he comes in and embraces it. He’s got a little bit of a different style to him. … He thinks he knows a little bit better. He’s probably hard to coach. … Would I pick him at two? I don’t know.”

According to some mock drafts, Kentucky’s Will Levis may have moved past Stroud on draft boards.

“Will Levis has great size, speed, athleticism,” Lombardi said. “A lot of it is, can he make good decisions at the right time?”

Florida’s Richardson wowed observers at the Combine with some of the best measurables of any quarterback prospect in history, but he’s believed to be the biggest gamble of the four.

“Richardson is a unique talent,” Lombardi said. “He didn’t play as well in college as I think people would have liked him to play.”

That seems to leave the Panthers with one obvious choice.