Matt Rhule: Panthers not locked in on QB in 2022 NFL Draft

Matt Rhule

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The entire assembled NFL at The Breakers resort kind of assumes the Panthers are eager to draft a quarterback, for a few reasons.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule didn't rule it out, but he also pointed out Tuesday that it was far from automatic.

"Part of this process has been really evaluating the trade market, and evaluating the draft; see who all is there," Rhule said Tuesday morning. "I think we will be aggressive in every sense of the word, as we have been. Just try to make sure we make as good a decision as we can."

The widespread perception they're drafting a quarterback is based on a number of factors, beginning with the fact they only have two on the roster, and one of them is Sam Darnold and his $18.9 million guaranteed contract for the year. Backup P.J. Walker is the other, and both are out of contract after the 2022 season.

There are also dwindling appealing options on the trade front, so at the moment, there are few alternatives that look better than a lottery ticket on one of the incoming rookies.

The Panthers saw the top three prospects at the position in a barnstorming tour last week, as top officials went to the pro day workouts for Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, and Matt Corral.

Matt Rhule, Matt Corral

There are things they like about each (Pickett's familiarity with Rhule, Willis' upside, Corral's quick release), but it's far from a stellar class. In fact, many around the league feel like any of them might be a reach in the top half of the first round of this year's draft, but Rhule knows the pragmatic truth.

Asked if any of those three deserved to be a top-10 pick, he replied: "I think one of those quarterbacks will be a top 10 pick."

There are definitely left tackles who deserve top-10 rankings, and pass-rushers, and the Panthers could also use one of each of those, which means they have to be disciplined in their decision-making.

"I just think anytime in the top 10, when you reach for a position, whatever the position is, you can look back in a couple of years and say, 'Man, that was a bad decision,'" Rhule said. "I think when you take a guy in the top 10 in the first round, you have to be really sure that they're going to be a good player. That being said, it's such a long process. It's literally up to the day of the draft. Every new bit of information you get changes and skews your viewpoint. So we're just trying to be diligent about being blindfolded and looking at the information, not based on our needs, but based on who's what, where do they go. If we do that, I think we'll make a good decision."

Matt Rhule

The Panthers were in a similar spot last year, bypassing chances at quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones to take cornerback Jaycee Horn eighth overall. But then, Darnold was new, and there was hope they could turn him around after three years with the Jets. There's still some degree of that, as Rhule said he believes new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo gives Darnold a better chance at success.

"I think Sam's going to play significantly improved football," Rhule said.

But because they're looking for a long-term answer, they're forced to consider these other options, these younger ones.

"I think when you take a rookie quarterback, recent history has shown, save for a couple examples, they're going to need some time," Rhule said. "So I think any time you draft a player, you say to yourself, 'Who's he going to be the first year, who's he going to be in the third year?'

"As a league, we kind of rush the quarterbacks, we want to play them as rookies, and it's hard for them. But with quarterbacks, you have to say to yourself, who are they going to be in two years, three years? If you're smart, don't rush them, don't break them early, get them to the point of going out there with the tools to be successful. I think that's what we're looking for with everyone we're looking at. Last year, this year, who can be a franchise quarterback, who can win a Super Bowl? Ultimately, that's what you're looking for at every position. Can we win the Super Bowl with this person?"

Whether he happens to be a quarterback, or not.

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— Rhule dropped a few other newsy tidbits Tuesday morning during a 30-plus minute interview.

He said there was a hope they could schedule a joint practice with the Patriots this summer, coinciding with a preseason game there. That hasn't been finalized, but after having joint practices with the Ravens and Colts last year, Rhule said he looked forward to working against Bill Belichick's team for a few days.

— As general manager Scott Fitterer has said several times this offseason, the plan remains to keep Jeremy Chinn at safety this season. The team has brought in Xavier Woods to start next to him, and brought Juston Burris back for depth, but there's no apparent plan to move Chinn back to linebacker.

— Rhule mentioned having a conversation with unrestricted free agent Cam Newton, who remains available.

"Everything we do has to be right for the organization and right for him," Rhule said. "Making sure we stay in touch, and see what it leads to."

Newton has said he's willing to be a backup, as long as he's on a team with a chance to win.

— While Christian McCaffrey has struggled with injuries the last two years, and some have suggested he could preserve himself by playing as a slot receiver, Rhule shook that off, saying McCaffrey is a running back, and is most effective there.

View photos from The Breakers Resort at Palm Beach, Fla., as NFC coaches meet with the media during the annual NFL owners meetings.

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