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Panthers check out the big arm on Will Levis

Will Levis

LEXINGTON, Ky. — By Day 3 of the Panthers Across America quarterback road show, certain things start to run together.

But the key for the Panthers is the together part — in terms of making an evaluation of the quarterback position as a whole.

Kentucky's Will Levis was the focus on Friday at his pro day, and he might not come with the same kind of attention as CJ Stroud at Ohio State and Bryce Young at Alabama the past two days. But the Panthers have been scouting him, and all of them, for a couple of years, so today was another piece of a larger evaluation puzzle.

"He's a guy our scouts have liked for a couple of years, and we really got into him this offseason and over the summer. He's a really talented guy," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said of Levis Friday. "This is a part of the process, going from Ohio State to Alabama to Kentucky to Florida next week; we just want to know exactly who all these guys are and what they can bring to the Panthers.

"And then there's a chance; maybe you don't take him now, maybe down the road in free agency. It's a chance to get to know them and how they think and how they work. So it's good to get in front of all of them."

This wasn't even the first time they'd seen Levis in person in the last six months, as they'd been working on him long before they knew they were picking first and had their choice of any quarterback.

Fitterer and assistant general manager Dan Morgan saw him in person against Tennessee on Oct. 29 (the night before their game in Atlanta), part of a loop of games when they tried to lay eyes on the top prospects coinciding with Panthers games. While in Baltimore in November, they ducked over to watch Ohio State's CJ Stroud play against Maryland.

And in the latest chance to witness him, they saw the same traits which were evidenced on tape.

Levis has what often gets called "arm talent" during the pre-draft season, but he wasn't fortunate enough to be surrounded by as many playmakers as Stroud and Young, which makes it a complicated evaluation.

Former No. 1 overall pick and one-time Panthers quarterback David Carr was on hand working for NFL Network and said that in terms of sheer arm strength, Levis is likely the top of this class.

That's why the Panthers were here to check him out in depth. They had eight on hand for the workout Friday, with Fitterer and head coach Frank Reich, along with offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, senior assistant Jim Caldwell, quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, Morgan, and vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman, joined by senior personnel executive Jeff Morrow.

Owners Dave and Nicole Tepper went to dinner Thursday night with Levis and the football staff — Levis had the steak and some asparagus, and there were sides for the table — but they returned to Charlotte before the workout because of a prior commitment.

Fitterer called it "another good meeting" and said the key was that the Teppers were there to meet the player rather than watch him throw.

"The important part is the dinner," Fitterer said. "They want to get to know all these guys at a personal level, which is obviously an important part of this, along with the football, so it's good to have them involved in it."

It clearly made an impression on Levis.

"It was tough because I had a dinner beforehand too, so I didn't know what to order," Levis said with a laugh. "So I was really wondering if I should get two small steaks or an appetizer, then a steak. I went with the salad and appetizer and then the steak, which was the right idea; I did the right thing."

But the reality of who he was sitting with was clearly more prominent in his mind than the food — though Levis has earned a degree of internet fame with some of his unconventional gustatory habits — as he met with the Teppers and Reich and Fitterer and a large group of experienced coaches.

"It's crazy," Levis said after the workout. "I literally had a moment at dinner yesterday; I kind of zoned out and had one of those 'this is real life' moments.

"I'm at the table with literally the whole staff of the team that has the number one pick because they're interested in potentially picking me. That's insane. Not a lot of people can say that. And whether they pick me or not, to have that experience is very unreal."

Again, the conventional wisdom suggests that Levis doesn't have the same kind of resume as Stroud or Young, but Fitterer said that's not the way they're approaching this week (or next week's trip to Florida to see Anthony Richardson after they go to the league meetings in Phoenix).

"We don't think that way," Fitterer said. "We think of all these guys as potential quarterbacks for us. And so we go in with an open mind, having that conversation, because there might be a guy that blows you away and wows you.

"And not that it automatically changes your mind on the spot, but you go back and watch the tape, you go through the process again. That's why you don't want to lock onto something right now. You want to keep an open mind. We do like several of these guys."

Carr has known most of those on the Panthers staff for years, going back to his days as a player beginning with the Texans (and with the Panthers in 2007). He talked to Reich and McCown and others at different points in the day, but they were also busy talking to others.

By rolling deep into these events, the Panthers are able to scatter and talk to multiple sources on the ground — these trips are a little like journalism for them. They're trying to gather information on quarterbacks at each spot, so while Reich's talking to a coach on one side of the field, Fitterer will be talking to a staffer, and McCown might be talking to Jordan Palmer, Levis' personal quarterbacks coach who helped orchestrate the workout. And what they're learning, they're keeping to themselves.

"I tried, man. I tried to get Josh or Frank or anyone to give me anything," Carr said with a laugh. "I've known those guys for 20 years. They did not care. They were not. 'You got an NFL Network shirt on, bro. I can't tell you nothing.' That's fine.

"But that's why I feel really good about the Carolina situation, because of those guys."

Will Levis

Carr suspects the Panthers are narrowing things down as they go through this process, though Levis' performance added to the significant pile of data points. Carr was also at Ohio State, working alongside his colleague and fellow Panthers legend Steve Smith (who went straight from Columbus to Tuscaloosa but skipped this one). And with his experience, he suspects things are beginning to narrow down.

"I think, having watched all these guys on film before this week, you can get a good feel for the type of player they are," Carr said. "But until you see them in person, you can't really finalize that picture. And I think that's why it's so good that they're at every one of these because they're going to be able to really compare. Even if they've already made the decision, which I think they're probably pretty close. I don't get the sense in talking to these guys that they're waiting until what happens at the Pro Day to decide, right?

"I think that it's always good to kind of come here, go meet with all these guys, talk to him. So your top player, see what makes them tick. So you see the owner here, you see pretty much the entire staff. So I saw them in the hotel this morning and saw Josh last night. So, they're excited. I think that they know who they want. But this is more of like, let's see this guy in person really spin it. So I think that's always fun."

Carr said he thinks the Panthers are in a position to succeed, regardless, since this class is so talented.

"That's what we have to remember is, there's not necessarily a bad decision to make here, especially with these guys," Carr said. "All these guys that you watch, you know, maybe apart from Anthony, who might be a little bit more raw, you could still win, you could still find ways to kind of move football downfield and produce.

"It's just a matter of who's going to fit your scheme and who fits your personality. And that's important too because these guys are going to spend a lot of time together."

And the Panthers are going to spend more time making this decision when they land in Charlotte Friday night for a quick turnaround. Fitterer and Reich and Suleiman and the Teppers will head to Phoenix to attend to league business, and then they'll be back at it in Florida in less than a week.

McCown has another visit he's looking forward to, as he's flying to the University of Texas-San Antonio to watch his son Owen practice on Saturday.

"That'll be my favorite college visit this week," McCown said with a laugh.

Of course, it won't be McCown's last campus visit or his last conversation with a quarterback prospect. All four of the top guys will be in Charlotte for top 30 visits between now and the draft, which will be another significant step in an exhaustive process.

The evaluation for the No. 1 overall pick continues, and when you're making a pick as important as this one, being as thorough as the Panthers are is probably how it should be.

View photos of quarterback prospect Will Levis at his pro day at Kentucky on Friday.

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