INDIANAPOLIS - The Carolina Panthers are working diligently toward identifying their franchise quarterback, and head coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that the player to fit that bill could be among those participating in the NFL Scouting Combine.
That doesn't mean, however, that the Panthers will take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the April draft.
"We need to identity our franchise quarterback, and we're trying to keep an open mind about whether that guy is on our current roster, he's in the draft or he's somebody who could potentially be out there in free agency," Rivera said at the kickoff of the NFL Scouting Combine. "There are some tremendous candidates at that position in the draft, and we're going to look at each and every one.
"But there are a few other positions that we've identified as positions of need, and there are some players that fit that need, so we will go through it."
Rivera said the Panthers are eyeing anywhere from eight to 10 players for the top pick, and the combine will provide a valuable opportunity for them to further evaluate that group. Everyone wanted to ask Rivera about the combine's quarterback prospects Thursday – specifically Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn – and Rivera patiently entertained the queries.
He compared Newton favorably from a physical standpoint to recent first-round selections like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco – saying Newton might well be a better athlete than the trio. He also said the recent and sudden success of quarterbacks taken early in the draft was encouraging.
"Everybody wants to ask me about that, but there are a few other positions that we've identified that have players that can help us," Rivera said. "We need to take a look at every avenue and explore it. These next six, seven, eight weeks are going to be very important in terms of where we're headed.
"It's going to come down to who will help us the most, regardless of position."
About the only thing that seems sure about the Panthers' first pick is that it won't be used on any of the players that worked out on the opening day of the combine. The day featured offensive linemen, tight ends, kickers, punters and long snappers.
Quarterbacks are among the positions scheduled to work out Friday, along with running backs and wide receivers. Defensive linemen and linebackers will take to the Lucas Oil Stadium field Saturday, and workouts will wrap up Sunday with defensive backs.
Whether or not the quarterback situation gets addressed via the draft, it will be addressed.
The Panthers ranked last in the NFL in passing and scoring offense in 2010, with three quarterbacks making starts along the way. Fourth-year pro Matt Moore opened the season as the starter but eventually landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury; rookie Jimmy Clausen logged 10 starts; and journeyman Brian St. Pierre started one game.
"I've seen Matt Moore play and Jimmy Clausen play," Rivera said. "I haven't watched all the tape that I need to watch, but we're continuing to go through the evaluation process, (Quarterbacks coach) Mike Shula is going through that process. (Offensive coordinator) Rob Chudzinski is going through that process.
"As we get further down the line, we're going to get together and talk about who we have currently, who is in the draft and who potentially is out there in free agency. We're going to explore every avenue with this."
Rivera, a defensive guy throughout his playing and coaching career, recognizes the importance of the quarterback position in the NFL. He doesn't yet know where he'll find what he's looking for, but he does know what he's looking for.
"I come from a place, having been in San Diego, where you have a tremendous quarterback in Philip Rivers. We've got to find a situation like that," Rivera said. "It's a guy who is going to be here the next six, seven, eight years and is going to lead your team on the offensive side and be one of your leaders overall.
"That's our definition and the way we're looking at it."
NOTES: Rivera said the decision to place the franchise tag on center Ryan Kalil over a couple of other possibilities was a difficult one, but he said it doesn't speak to how the Panthers view running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Charles Johnson. "They're all tremendous football players, all players that we really believe we've got to keep on our roster," he said. "We like all those guys, and we want them all back." … Rivera reflected on the death of former Chicago Bears teammate Dave Duerson, who committed suicide last week. "It's a very sad situation," he said. "It's sad for his former teammates, and friends and family. It certainly hit home. He'll be greatly missed."