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Carolina Panthers

Draft Debate: Why taking a quarterback makes sense for the Panthers

Malik Willis

This is the second in a series of four stories explaining the Panthers' primary options at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft, and why each of them makes a degree of sense leading up to the first round Thursday night. Sunday covered the possibility of drafting a pass-rusher. Tuesday, we'll discuss offensive line prospects, followed on Wednesday by trade scenarios.

CHARLOTTE — All you have to do to realize the need for a long-term answer at quarterback for the Panthers is look at all the names on the 2023 depth chart at the position.

There aren't any.

The Panthers only have two passers on the roster at the moment — Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker — and both are out of contract after this season. (That's why it was a non-story last week when new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo mentioned something about Darnold being the starter, because the choices are so limited as to make it a moot point.)

Of course, that could change Thursday night.

Picking sixth overall, the Panthers could likely have their choice of any quarterback in the draft. Whether they should or not is a different question, as there have been widely reported and valid concerns about the overall talent of this class, and whether any of them deserve to go so high.

What's inarguable is that the Panthers need to add to the position, and the younger the better, because younger is also cheaper.

The sixth overall pick in this year's draft will be slotted into a contract that will pay him around $30 million for four years, with the team allowed to pick up a guaranteed option for a fifth year.

At a time when top quarterback salaries are eclipsing the $40 million a year mark and climbing fast, you can have the math skills of a journalism major and understand the value of finding them young.

General manager Scott Fitterer pointed to that value at the Senior Bowl in February, when the Panthers began looking at these top prospects in earnest. He talked then about his track record in Seattle, where the Seahawks stumbled into Russell Wilson in the third round, surrounded him by studs on defense and running back Marshawn Lynch, and won a Super Bowl. That taught Fitterer the lesson about how valuable the young ones were.

And he admitted that it can color your thinking.

"If you have a quarterback you think you can win with long-term, obviously you'd probably lean that direction," Fitterer said then, and it's worth remembering now. "You're always looking for that. It's not the safest way to go, but you have to take your shots. Any time you're in the top 10, you've got to think about taking a shot on a quarterback if you're able to. Left tackles are probably easier to identify, you think they can step in and play left tackle for you for 10 years, that's always a solid pick as well. It's however you want to address it, but if you have a quarterback you like, you take a shot there."

And make no mistake, the Panthers haven't taken many shots lately, at least in the draft. When they used a third-rounder on Will Grier in 2019, it was the first quarterback they drafted since Cam Newton went first overall in 2011. (There have only been nine drafted quarterbacks in franchise history).

So all things being equal, you'd love to have a drafted quarterback. All things are not equal.

You can't discount the scouting element of this — a bad pick is not a good pick, no matter how cheap it is — and that's something the Panthers are working through.

They aren't in a spot to ignore a higher-rated talent at a few positions (specifically offensive tackle, but possibly defensive end as well) just to have someone fill in the depth chart. And there are still some available veteran quarterbacks who could be traded for at some point closer to or after the draft.

But if you think one of these guys in the draft can be the guy, you're almost beholden to take him. Unless you think you can get him later. Implicit in Fitterer's "taking a shot" argument is the possibility you could be overdrafting one. It's easier to go for it if you're picking later than in the top six, because it's less costly if you miss.

The Panthers are also being genuine when they say there are several of these quarterbacks they like. But that depends on the when as much as the who. Malik Willis has tremendous upside and a tangible charisma, like a smaller version of someone they know well. Matt Corral has a lightning-quick release. Kenny Pickett is the closest thing to a turn-key starter; the question is how much better he'll get. Desmond Ridder doesn't look like a star but wins games. Sam Howell can run around and make some plays.

Several of those guys will be available much later than sixth overall.

The Panthers don't have those later picks at the moment, with a wide gulf between their current sixth pick and the next one at 137. If they were picking later or had more picks, they'd likely feel much better about "taking a shot" on a quarterback, not knowing whether he's a sure thing.

And in a year without sure things, balancing the extreme need against the extreme financial benefit will be a struggle until the moment they draft.

View pictures of all of Carolina's first-round draft picks back to 2002 when Carolina picked Julius Peppers second overall.

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