The franchise quarterback is a position the Panthers haven’t had since the team cut Cam Newton two seasons ago. Darts misses by Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield cost the former team coach his job.
The Panthers tried and failed with veteran stars like Matt Stafford in 2021, and Deshaun Watson last year. According to a source familiar with the situation, the team could have landed Watson and owner David Tepper has agreed to secure a third and fourth year quarterback deal worth $156 million. Tepper – the league’s richest owner with a net worth of $18.5 billion – had put that much money into an escrow account but didn’t want to.
“(Tepper) was all into Deshaun (Watson) until he wanted a guaranteed contract,” a league source told The Observer. Then he was like, ‘No hell. ”
“There were other considerations beyond money,” said a source familiar with the team’s thinking.
Atlanta and New Orleans also refused to guarantee Watson much money considering he still had 22 active civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct pending at the time. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t hesitate, upsetting owners all over the league by giving Watson the largest single contract guarantee in NFL history. Most league executives consider Watson’s deal ridiculous.
Watson joined the Browns via trade and signed a fully guaranteed $230 million extension. Carolina turned months later into Mayfield. After losing 13-3 in Baltimore as the offense was sleeping, it’s clear that Mayfield won’t be back next season. And he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter against the Ravens on Sunday.
The team can explore veteran options again this off-season. Maybe Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay. Kyler Murray looks unhappy in Arizona. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is always available.
But Carolina (3-8) is heading towards the top 5 pick in the rookie quarterback class that most are excited about. CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Bryce Young (Alabama), Will Levis (Kentucky) and Anthony Richardson (Florida) highlight a group that could see two quarterbacks battling it out for first two picks.
If the season ends today, the Panthers will pick the runner-up in the 2023 NFL Draft. According to a source familiar with the situation, Tipper entered the season with the eyes of the Levi’s.
“(Tipper) sees football differently,” a league source said. “He’s not going to pay for (a) DeShawn (Watson). He’s going to try and win with a QB on a rookie contract. He wants Will Leevis.”
That was before Levi’s played a game in 2022. A source familiar with the team’s thinking said: “(Locking down) one player is not a reflection of the team’s process. Decisions are not made on a whim. There is a lot of analysis involved and one person is not driving that decision.”
Here’s a look at the top four quarterback prospects through conversations with ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reed, The Draft Network’s Damian Parson, and several NFL front office staffers.
CJ Stroud, Ohio State (6-foot-3, 215 pounds)
First round drop: top 2
Stroud’s case: “Stroud, he’s got the scale that teams aspire to,” Reed said. “He plays the position the way he’s supposed to play. Very clean. The mechanics are very good. He handles really well and has a very good arm.”
It is early in the evaluation process but there is already a consensus on Stroud and Young. Both Reed and Parson said they wouldn’t be surprised if their quarterbacks go first and second overall, compared to Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
However, this class compares more to the class of 2015 when James Winston and Marcus Mariota were top quarterbacks but Speech never proved a clear first-class selection.
Some residents prefer Stroud. Reid and Parson lean toward Young.
“Whichever teams you go down, first and second picks will have a pick of either quarterback,” an NFL scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the prospects, told The Observer. “You can’t go wrong with either of them. The (Panthers) upcoming offensive coach, planner, and how they are developed will be the most important.”
As a pitcher, Parson said Young displays an off-script playmaking ability that Stroud has yet to demonstrate.
“CJ isn’t a statue. He’s not someone who can’t move. It’s like he doesn’t want it that much,” Parson said. “It’s like he wants to sit in a pocket. He wants rhythm and play in structure.”
There isn’t much to pick out about Stroud. Many raters stated that his personality and demeanor are less “intense” than Young’s.
With 10 starts this season, Stroud has 2,750 passing yards, 34 touchdowns (most in FBS), and just four interceptions. His overall quarterback rating of 90.8 is the best in the country.
Bryce Young, Alabama (6 ft 6 in, 190 pounds)
First round drop: top 2
case for youth“He’s the best player in the position at the moment,” Reid said. “He has no size. But as far as charisma, aptitude, the way he’s supposed to play the position, having faith in him no matter how long he’s been in the game, and then the way he goes about planning the job and carrying himself. It’s the kind of thing that could be a cornerstone of a franchise.”
Parson said Young leads his teammates similarly to Galen Hurts. He is stoic, confident and never afraid. He doesn’t play with the barking Tom Brady but when he talks his teammates and coaches (including Nick Saban) listen.
Size is the only global concern surrounding Young as a potential. Every assessor and scout mentions it. One scout joked that he was built like a bar stool, short and skinny. But reviewers agree that his height does not impede his driving or vision.
Residents worry that his elevated stature could lead to long-term durability issues. Young is currently suffering from a shoulder injury. He sprained his AC joint during Alabama’s 49-26 win over Arkansas in early October. The injury isn’t a long-term problem but it illustrates why teams worry about whether he’ll make it through the 17-game NFL season.
Young won the Heisman Award last season as a sophomore. He has 2,443 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes, and only four interceptions. It ranked 10th in the country with 83.0 quarterly totals.
Will Levis, Kentucky (6-foot-3, 230 lbs.)
First round drop: Wild card in the first round
levis case: Reid said he understands why the Panthers entered the season with an eye on the Levies.
“Levis has all the arm strength you want in that position. But right now, mentally, he’s really struggling as far as reading and tackling. The thing that’s most concerning about him is how he takes care of the football,” Reed said. “Maybe the Panthers think that They have the proper training that can help solve some of his problems that he has now. They might see a little Big Ben (the Roethlisberger) at Will Lives.”
Levis has hit at least one turnover in every game but two this season. He threw for just 98 yards and had three interceptions in a 44-6 loss to Tennessee last month.
But Parson called Levis a “wild card” who expects to see the draft boards climb during the offseason evaluation process. In large part because he was built like Josh Allen. Parsons also said that Levi’s has the NFL’s work ethic, and his team would be willing to bet despite his concerns about his turnover.
If the Panthers don’t land in second place, the Levis could be an ideal pick.
Levis has 2,012 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes, and completes 66.1% of his throws.
Anthony Richardson, FL (6-foot-3, 235 lbs.)
First round drop: A super wild card from the first round
Richardson’s case“He’s my favorite quarterback this season. I love Bryce (Young). I love CJ (Stroud). I love Will Levis, but it’s this kid who I feel could be a star,” Parson said. . It has all the tools you want. He just needs time. …you have to be patient but if you do it right by this kid. You will have a star.”
Parson may have to wait up to a year for Richardson to be evaluated as a professional. The 21-year-old quarterback is a redshirt sophomore and could decide to return to Florida next season.
Several NFL evaluators said that Richarson is ready for the NFL and could become a point of fascination if he declares for the draft.
“First, you’ll have an absolute star athlete,” Parson said. “But this kid is so beatable. It is teachable. He’s a student of the game.”
Richardson impressed evaluators as a sprinter and pitcher as the college season got under way. This season, Richardson completed 55% of his passes for 2,351 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He gained 613 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns on 66 carries.
He is currently riding a five-game heater. Over the past five weeks, Richardson has thrown nine touchdowns and one interception, including throwing for 400 yards in a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt this past Saturday.
Why the Panthers should draft a quarterback in the first round
Former Panthers head coach Matt Rule oversaw three NFL drafts during his tenure. Not once have the Panthers selected a quarterback in the first round. Instead, Derek Brown (2020), Jesse Horn (2021) and Ekem Ekowono (2022) await their next coach, clearly identified as key players.
But the time has come for the Panthers to draft a quarterback for the franchise. No one interviewed for this story suggested or advised Karolina to use a future first-round pick differently.
“They have to take one because (Christian) McCaffrey has been the face of the franchise. Right now on the offensive side of the ball, I don’t see anyone who can be that guy,” Reed said. “I love DJ Moore. He’s a good player, but I think you need that quarterback who can be the face of a franchise player. They really haven’t had that since Cam Newton.”