by Nathan Fry
Sit down for a moment, this might shock you.
The Panthers need a quarterback.
Carolina has been stuck in what is commonly referred to as "QB purgatory" for the last few seasons- a soul-crushing place that has you asking yourself "Hey, maybe Mitch Trubisky wasn't that bad, right?"
Over the last 12 months, we've seen the Bears, Rams, 49ers, and most recently, the Broncos, break the cycle that sees many talented teams waste their seasons while a less-than-stellar QB holds the team back.
The Panthers are absolutely still in that place, and have lived that nightmare for far too long. While the team is not "a quarterback away" from competing, it's not hard to count at least a dozen games that could have been won over the last two seasons if the team had merely fielded a "good" QB.
Following this year's incredible postseason, which saw Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes ascend to heights never before seen by man, it's clearer than ever that it's not enough to have "a guy" at quarterback anymore. You have to have "the guy." The divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been more of a gaping chasm, and the Panthers are firmly in the camp of the have-nots- a position that they've held since 2018.
Apathy is at an all-time high for fans, and there's nothing that would make this season less entertaining than trotting out Sam Darnold, or any other low-end QB in 2022. Inside of the organization, time is running out for Matt Rhule, who was able to survive a 10-23 start in his first two seasons as head coach, and will return for at least one more season. It's no secret that owner David Tepper is tired of losing games.
With the need to win now in order to save Rhule's job, the Panthers are effectively restricted from building the team in a more traditional way, starting with drafting an elite offensive lineman at 6 and putting the QB decision off until next year, when the team will be more stable. However, there aren't many situations like the one that the Panthers find themselves in this season, with a young, elite QB on the trade market and the potential to select the first QB off the board in April, despite picking 6th.
The search for a new quarterback will dictate the future of this franchise for years to come, whether the new player is found in the draft, free agency, or through a trade.
The Panthers seem to have eyes for one player in particular right now, though.
Who's "Plan A?" You may have heard of him.
Let's be clear, here: There is no simple solution when it involves trading for Deshaun Watson, on or off the field. There are many risks involved with trading a mountain of draft capital for a player who may not even see the field in 2022.
Despite the legal issues off the field, Carolina has been pursuing a trade for the Texans' star QB for over a year now. The Panthers' interest has gone as far as having Tepper hire a private investigator to look into Watson's situation, according to Aaron Wilson.
I don't need to tell you how good Watson has been across his NFL career. When we last saw him, he threw for a league-high 4,823 yards, with 33 touchdowns and 7 interceptions as well. While he hasn't played for over a year, now, it seems unlikely that a player of his caliber would stop being elite.
The question was never about his skills- it's all about his cost. The rumored demands for Watson have included three 1st round picks, multiple 2nd round picks, and additional compensation as well, perhaps in the form of a starter or two on defense. That's a difficult price for any team to stomach, and yet we just saw the Broncos ship out two firsts, two seconds, a fifth, and several players to Seattle to get Russell Wilson, because if you don't have one of "the guys," nothing else matters.
At the moment, it seems that if Watson is cleared, the Panthers will attempt to be at the front of the line to trade for him. It may require paying more than any other team is willing to offer, which would be nothing new for Tepper. In the end, it's all about where Watson wants to go, and with his options decreasing with every QB move made this offseason, we just don't know where he wants to play.
However, if he is willing to come to Carolina, the situation is clear: He will be a Panther.
Even though this will leave the team with holes on their roster after committing to a player who has a $40.4 million cap hit this season, and will keep them from drafting a single player in the first three rounds (barring a trade-up using more of the team's already scarce resources) the allure of having a true franchise quarterback is blinding for an owner who's grown tired of seeing his team lose with Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and the shell of Cam Newton at the helm. He wants a franchise guy, and that's the price you have to pay when a superstar becomes available.
I'm not saying that a trade for Watson would make the Panthers Super Bowl contenders in 2022- far from it - but fans of the team will recall that a certain #1 QB carried a lackluster group of receivers and linemen to the league's best offense in 2015. Sometimes, all you need is "the guy."
If the Panthers strike out on the Watson front, that could potentially save them from giving up valuable assets that would set the team back. However, it would leave them with no options to acquire a proven starter at QB.
Which brings us to...
If star power is your thing, Pickett might not be your guy. His solid mechanics and rapid improvement mirror Burrow's meteoric rise in 2019, but don't expect him to go #1 overall. He has shown examples of reading the field well and going through his progressions, which other QBs in this class struggle with more often. He's also able to make throws off-script routinely. That proficiency could translate well to the next level, giving him a higher floor than the rest of the prospects available in the 2022 draft.
His small hands and lack of an elite arm have hurt him in the pre-draft media cycle, but despite those factors, he still has a chance to step in and be the solid signal-caller that the Panthers need. Until recently, Pickett was the uncontested QB1 in this year's class, due to his athleticism, ability to make throws when escaping the pocket, and his natural improvement year over year.
Some have compared him to Burrow, saying that he's a "lite" version of the Bengals' star QB. His arm is not exceptionally strong, but he reads the field well and is constantly cited as the most "pro-ready" QB in the draft for that reason.
One glaring negative about his game is that he bails on clean pockets far too often, but that can hopefully be fixed in the NFL through coaching and film.
Despite the perceived "lower ceiling", it's not hard to see why a QB-needy coach would go with the "safe" bet in this year's class, looking to avoid getting fired for selecting a less-developed prospect that could easily bust if not surrounded by a good support system. It's not like he can't throw the ball 50 yards downfield, though.
Could the Panthers win with a slightly above-average QB? Absolutely. That may even be enough to win the division in 2022, with the Saints, Falcons, and Buccaneers all in some state of rebuilding as well. All things considered, Pickett is Rhule's best option to save his job.
Two years ago, Panthers owner David Tepper said “Unless you have that guy for sure that gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep evaluating that because that’s the only thing that matters is Super Bowls. And until you have that guy, you’re evaluating, evaluating, evaluating every year.”
If Carolina believes that Pickett can take that leap and be the guy to take them to the playoffs, and hopefully a Super Bowl, there's no reason to overthink it. When you have a chance to select "your guy," you get him. No cost is too high for a franchise quarterback, despite the 6th overall pick sounding a little rich for the QBs in this class.
While you won’t find a huge frame when looking at the 6’0”, 220-pound quarterback, it’s no question that Malik Willis’ arm talent is off the charts. His mobility and speed are electrifying tools in his game that separate him from other prospects in this class. He has the ability to hit just about every throw you could want. The issue comes from him not being consistent or polished enough to be considered a slam-dunk QB prospect. He's as raw as they get, but is there a chance that the league's next big mobile QB?
First, he "won" the Senior Bowl, dazzling scouts with his raw athleticism. Despite being the least accurate quarterback on the first day of practice, but reportedly improved his accuracy throughout the week while impressing the teams who interviewed him.
Next up was the NFL Combine, where he dazzled the media and teams in attendance by throwing some of the best deep passes at the event. There was an aura around him, a certain energy that was unmistakable. Willis was just plain fun to watch. As soon as he stepped on the field, it wasn't the NFL Combine anymore. It was his show, and he was ready to entertain the fans in Indy. He was making 50+ yard throws look easy.
Surrounded by a questionable offensive scheme at Liberty, (who runs five comeback and curl routes at once multiple times a game?), some could make the excuse that he was being held back by a poor offensive line and some suspect play designs. Still, his decision making needs improvement, and in order to develop as a true NFL QB, he'll need something that Carolina can't currently grant him: the ability to trust the offensive line.
Watch any Panthers game last year and it won’t be hard to find an example of Darnold getting happy feet and looking to escape the pocket, even when facing three-man fronts. He clearly didn’t have faith that the line would protect him, but in fairness, how could he? The Panthers allowed 52 sacks last season, just three fewer than the oft-maligned Bengals. This shouldn’t have to be clarified, but you don’t want to be mentioned in the same sentence as the worst pass-protecting line in playoff football history. The difference here is that Sam Darnold doesn’t have the superpower of somehow getting tougher and more powerful every time that he’s drilled behind a line held together by paper clips and glitter.
Even though Rhule feels the pressure to win now, Willis’ physical traits alone could outweigh the risk of him not developing enough to be a polished starter for anyone desperate enough to draft him. He's extremely raw- there's no avoiding that. No matter what, Carolina has to improve the OL for him to have a shot.
Make no mistake- this is a league that is beginning to show the payoff for betting on traits instead of selecting high-floor QBs like Pickett that, at first glance, have limited upside when compared to the Willis' of the world. If the Panthers want to compete in it, they need to prove it by drafting like it.
When it comes to the NFL, none of us know what could happen with any trade, free-agent signing, or draft pick. The probability that the Panthers wind up with none of these players is nonzero. There's nothing that says they won't take a tackle in the first round, attempting to finally fill the void left by Jordan Gross' retirement in 2014. Since then, the Panthers have made a change at left tackle every single year.
Who says that the new QB can't be Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder? Or possibly North Carolina's Sam Howell? Maybe the solution won't be found in the draft at all, and the team will opt to trade for the 49ers' former starter Jimmy Garropolo.
Even still, there's nothing wrong with taking a tackle, drafting more OL help, and not trading for a QB at all, instead opting to pursue a low-level starter like Mariota or Trubisky in the hopes of fixing the QB position next season. Unless you're Matt Rhule, of course, who needs this solved now.
The two quarterbacks leading the 2023 class, CJ Stroud and Bryce Young, are elite prospects that would easily be drafted in the top 10 this season. However, waiting around and trying to get them may require trading up, sending multiple first-round picks and other choices to a team in next year's draft.
Whatever happens, the path forward can't include Sam Darnold, whose value has "cratered" since coming to Carolina.
The answer might not be clear, but the situation is: The Panthers have to stop trying to win in spite of their quarterbacks' performances and find someone who they can start winning with, even when the rest of the team can't pick up the slack.
No matter the cost.