CHARLOTTE — When trying to build a stable and consistent winner in the NFL, one of the best ways to construct a roster is around a talented, young quarterback.
The Panthers are going to get a close look at six of them next week.
As the scouting staff prepares to go to the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., they're going to have a chance to get their first extended looks at six of the top seven quarterbacks available in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Liberty's Malik Willis, North Carolina's Sam Howell, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, Nevada's Carson Strong, and Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe make up the quarterback depth charts for the annual college all-star game, bringing the top prospects at the most-watched position together.
(Matt Corral of Ole Miss is the outlier, as he's a potential first-round pick, but he won't be in Mobile.)
And while the Panthers have enough other needs that there's no guarantee they're drafting one this year, there is every reason to make sure they have a thorough evaluation of all six of them.
For one thing, the economic advantages of having a young quarterback make it easier to put talent around him, which helps the entire process. General manager Scott Fitterer learned that lesson firsthand in Seattle with Russell Wilson, as they won a Super Bowl while Wilson was on his rookie contract and they had lots of cap room to pay the Legion of Boom and the rest of a championship defense.
But it's not just the Seahawks that have benefitted from that strategy over the years. Of this year's 14 playoff teams, 10 were led into the postseason by quarterbacks they drafted. Some of them are old (like the just-retired Ben Roethlisberger), but four of them are still on their first contracts (Joe Burrow, Mac Jones, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts).
Because they're so valuable economically, you have to have a complete picture of all of them to make sure you're not passing on a guy who can help you win in a number of ways. Of course, the football evaluation will always be the most important part, and that's what the next three months will be about.
That said, here's a quick look at the six quarterbacks they'll get to watch in practices next week.
KENNY PICKETT, PITTSBURGH
Pickett was a marginal prospect entering last season, but had a phenomenal final year at Pitt, leading them to the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium. It's worth noting that Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer were there that night, and Rhule's familiarity goes back to offering him a scholarship at Temple.
But Pickett's play as a redshirt senior was eye-opening, as he threw 42 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, having a Joe Burrow-style final year to make himself a top prospect.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pickett doesn't have the biggest arm in this class (or the biggest hands, he wears gloves for a reason), but he made all the plays last season, and has the kind of leadership traits teams are looking for. His fake-slide-and-run from the ACC title game has since been outlawed, but it's at least a signal that he has the kind of on-field awareness to make plays when things break down around him.
MALIK WILLIS, LIBERTY
Willis began his football career at Westlake High School in Georgia (Cam Newton's alma mater), and followed the Panthers legend's path to Auburn. He transferred to Liberty after two seasons, and put up huge numbers against a lower level of competition.
The 6-foot, 220-pound Willis is all upside. He can throw the football over the mountain (5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns in two years at Liberty), and he's a dynamic runner (1,822 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns). There are fair questions about the sophistication of the Liberty offense, but Willis has the kind of talent that a smart offensive coach would love to develop.
He also has a family tie to the Panthers, as his uncle is former linebacker James Anderson, their third-round pick in 2006.
SAM HOWELL, NORTH CAROLINA
Howell was projected to go much higher a year ago, but his final season at UNC didn't go according to plan. He didn't have great weapons around him, and the team sagged to a 6-7 finish, but he remains a prospect teams want to check out.
Howell grew up nearby in Monroe (where he combined for 17,036 rushing and passing yards and 205 touchdowns at Sun Valley High), and he was sensational as a sophomore at UNC, averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Howell is mobile, and can keep plays going, and he easily could still be a first-round pick this year.
DESMOND RIDDER, CINCINNATI
First and foremost, Ridder has proven he can lead, taking the Bearcats to 13 wins and the college playoff this year — the first time a team from a non-power-five conference has done so.
His 44-5 record speaks to a career of excellence, and he threw for over 10,000 yards and rushed for more than 2,000 in college, the only active player to do so.
The 6-foot-4, 206-pound Ridder needs polish as a passer, but can help his stock next week with a solid performance in practices.
CARSON STRONG, NEVADA
As we go through the pre-draft process, the medical tests at the Scouting Combine will be significant for Strong. An old knee injury from his high school days (he missed his entire senior season in all sports, and has had three surgeries) will be something teams want to have a better read on.
He's stayed on the field at Nevada, and put up big numbers, throwing for 4,186 yards and 36 touchdowns last year.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Strong is a conventional pocket passer at a time when mobile quarterbacks and dual threats make up the majority of college programs. Still, his production and his arm will make scouts want to get a close look at him.
BAILEY ZAPPE, WESTERN KENTUCKY
Oh, no big deal, he just broke all the records last year. Playing in a pass-heavy (perhaps gimmicky) offense that will get him dinged by some scouts, he posted cartoonish numbers.
He set FBS records with 5,967 passing yards and 62 touchdowns last season, breaking the old touchdown record set by Joe Burrow at LSU in 2019. Local fans also saw him lead the Hilltoppers to a 59-38 thrashing of Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl, throwing for 422 yards and six touchdowns that day.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has what the scouts like to call "arm talent," but getting him into the more conventional NFL offense and environment that next week will offer will give the first clues about how high he'll be drafted.