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Carolina Panthers

Panthers QB search continues after Deshaun Watson attempt

Scott Fitterer, David Tepper, Matt Rhule

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers shot their shot.

As they've done in the past. And as they will in the future.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson chose a different path, and has reportedly narrowed his choices for a future destination to Atlanta and New Orleans, informing the Panthers in a call Thursday night of his decision.

That's not going to deter the Panthers from looking for a long-term answer at the most important position on the field. They made a run at Matthew Stafford last year, and Watson this year, and doubtless will again.

But building a team is also more complicated than finding one particular player.

It would be great to have a quarterback you know will be here for many years to come. It would be better to have the conditions in place to allow him to succeed once he got here.

Trying to create that situation is why the Panthers may now have to take a more measured approach in the short-term, to fix what they can fix, and to get themselves to the point where a quarterback can be the final piece — the way it was for the Rams and Stafford last year.

That means making less-dramatic moves, like bringing in guard Austin Corbett — who blocked for Stafford in the Super Bowl. That means adding options on offense. That means making an already-good defense better.

Austin Corbett

Those moves won't move the needle like making a big move at quarterback.

But they could help lay the foundation for a time when that will matter.

There's not an immediate answer to the long-term question at the position, not after the Broncos traded for Russell Wilson, not after the Packers held onto Aaron Rodgers. The free agent market doesn't include much beyond stop-gaps, though the Panthers might need to add one to compete in 2022.

The bigger job will be looking to the future and deciding the best path.

Since they didn't trade it to Houston, the Panthers still have the sixth overall pick in the draft. That likely gives them the choice of any quarterback available this year, whether it's the high-floor Kenny Pickett, or the high-ceiling Malik Willis.

But the right answer might also be not insisting on taking either one now.

General manager Scott Fitterer acknowledged at the Scouting Combine that he's weighing this year's crop of rookie quarterbacks against the 2023 class, taking the long view of a difficult task.

"You always want to look ahead; what does it look like in the future?" Fitterer said. "Because the one thing we want to do, we want to build it the right way and not force something. We don't want to make the mistake of, 'Oh, we need this right now. Let's fix this right now.' Let's keep the big picture in mind and know what it looks like a year or two out."

That's not to say they're not considering one this year, because Fitterer has also acknowledged the extreme value of having a quarterback on a rookie deal. Fitterer was in Seattle when a young Wilson won a Super Bowl with a veteran defense, so he knows this.

But head coach Matt Rhule also said the answer to the current quarterback problem would be "three-pronged." Rhule talked about getting Sam Darnold playing better by hiring a new offensive staff to maximize the entire operation, and then considering free agent and trade options, along with the draft.

And considering all those options now is the job. And it's not an easy one.

They still have Darnold and P.J. Walker under contract, but both those deals expire after the 2022 season, which would clear the decks and the books for the future.

But the Panthers also aren't in a position where any one player can make all the difference. Until they are, forcing it could only compound the existing issues, and make it harder to push the button on a big quarterback deal that can actually put a team over the top.

Making a big deal now would be gratifying. Making the right one, and making it at the right time, would be even better.

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