The Panthers only have one quarterback rostered: 2022 third-round pick Matt Corral. In other words, Carolina has zero professional snaps at the quarterback position.
General manager Scott Fitterer and newly appointed head coach Frank Reich will be looking to change that this offseason. Fitterer will now have more control over the roster after the departure of Matt Rhule and his “CEO-type” methods, said owner David Tepper.
Reich and owner David Tepper have filled the coaching staff with enormous offensive experience, players and coaches who have succeeded at a number of places and drawn respect from across the league. Among them, OC Thomas Brown, QB coach Josh McCown, Asst. HC Duce Staley and passing game coordinator Parks Frazier will all get a say in the quarterback hunt.
They are likely to draft that player, but the No. 9 pick might not be high enough to get the guy they want. Reich, a former Panthers quarterback himself, has a history of working with tall, gun-slinging QBs as a coach – including Peyton Manning, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers. In this class, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson fit that mold, but add varying levels of escapability.
Here are the most likely quarterback options for Carolina right now and how it can get them:
The 6’4” dual-threat from Ohio State tops many fan boards. He’s tall, he’s athletic, he’s got a cannon for an arm and he brought the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoffs, where they lost to Georgia in heartbreaking fashion. He threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns, generating the second-highest single-game PFF score of his career in the 41-42 loss.
In 25 games over two seasons, Stroud collected 8,123 passing yards and 85 touchdown passes. He threw for over 40 scores and over 3,600 yards in both seasons. Stroud had the No. 1 PFF passing grade in all of CFB in 2021 and ranks fifth on their 2023 draft big board. Carolina would likely need to trade up to select Stroud, maybe even to No. 1 overall, which Fitterer has seemed willing to engage in.
In a clean pocket, Stroud is arguably the best quarterback in the country,” said PFF writer Mitch Kaiser. Here’s back-to-back throws where Stroud threaded the needle in traffic to his receivers against Iowa last season.
2 absolutely ridiculous throws by CJ Stroud back 2 back. pic.twitter.com/hGJ8irvJuI
— The Fantasy Fanatics (@TheFFFanatics3) January 26, 2023
Stroud’s biggest weakness is panicking under pressure, which Carolina would surely address. He boasted a 41.3% completion rate, six touchdowns and a 42.0 PFF grade under pressure last season.
Carolina improved its offensive line unit significantly, ranking ninth in adjusted line yards (Football Outsiders) and 11th in team pass block win rate (ESPN). Stroud has the tools to highlight Carolina’s offensive strengths and weapons while also matching the physical and athletic profile that Reich and the staff prefers.
The 6-foot-4 pure athlete out of Florida had just one season under center for the Gators, but his draft stock soared in those 12 games. The junior accounted for 2,549 passing yards and 19 scores as well as 654 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns.
He’s one of the only first-round quarterbacks listed that Carolina wouldn’t need to move up to get. That’s because he’s a raw talent. Richardson had barely over a 50% completion rate, throwing nine picks. He also didn’t rank higher than fourth in the SEC in any of the 11 standard passing statistics. While his spectacular athleticism has analysts raving about his “All-Pro upside,” Richardson’s floor is concerningly low, according to CBS Sports’ Chris Tapasso.
The Florida product has a tendency to escape the pocket unnecessarily, struggling to read defenses under pressure. But when Richardson’s pocket is clean, he can sling it as well as anyone in this draft class while adding elite speed as a true dual-threat quarterback.
Anthony Richardson's flashes are so so good pic.twitter.com/oNvUxJX7GU
— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 4, 2023
With the preference for pocket-passers that Carolina has on staff, it’s unlikely they’d have Richardson as the primary option entering draft night.
Coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2021 where he accounted for 50 touchdowns, Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide stumbled by Nick Saban’s standards. Yet, Young still compiled at least a 91.5 passing grade in both seasons, ranking in the top 10 in all of CFB both times.
Young’s miraculous play-making ability is reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes. No Power Five quarterback has passed for more yards (565), touchdowns (10) and first downs (52) after escaping the pocket over the last two seasons, according to PFF.
While Alabama’s dominant offensive line has usually hindered QB’s at the next level, Young’s decisive play style has given scouts reason to believe he’ll adjust well to the pro game.
At 6-foot 194 lbs, Young doesn’t fit the frame the Reich typically seeks out. He’s also ranked No. 1 on PFF’s big board and could be the first quarterback off the board (the Texans have been linked to him heavily at No. 2). Carolina would likely need to trade up to draft Young.
The Kentucky standout has a quick release and can flick it downfield with the NFL’s best. “He has claimed he can throw it 80 yards, and I believe it,” one PFF analyst said.
Levis is actually the No. 2 Quarterback on PFF’s big board, ahead of Stroud, but is likely to be picked later due to Stroud’s high-profile playoff success. PFF has him high because of his ceiling – he’s a poised pocket-passer with elite arm strength from a pro-style SEC offense. But, because it’s Kentucky, his college production is often overlooked.
Last season, he threw for 2,406 yards and 19 touchdowns in 11 games, leading the Wildcats to a 7-4 record as a starter. They finished the season at 7-6. But in 2021, he ranked 21st out of 294 QBs with a 90.6 PFF passing grade.
Analysts have raised concerns about Levis’ immovable release point, as well as being oblivious to pressure.
As a former NFL Scout, it’s downright frightening how Will Levis can’t feel or see pressure in the pocket #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/yUwO2cnvW1
— FIRST ROUND MOCK (@firstroundmock) February 10, 2023
However, his PFF pressure grade (54.1) was still better than Stroud’s (43.9), which brings Stroud’s struggles into question as well. Carolina could very well end up with Levis if they keep the No. 9 pick, choosing to develop a pocket passer with the pass-heavy staff they’ve assembled.
Sam Darnold went turnover free for the first four games of his 2022 campaign. That streak came to an end in Carolina’s pivotal week 17 matchup against the Buccaneers, when they were eliminated from playoff contention. Darnold threw one interception and dropped three fumbles, losing two.
If that game had been won, along with the next week against the Saints, this might be a completely different narrative surrounding Darnold’s potential return. But as of now, Darnold isn’t rostered by the Panthers. After a solid showing with Wilks at the helm, the Panthers could bring Darnold back to compete with a newcomer for the starting spot.
“Bearded Darnold,” as Panthers Twitter branded him, looked sharp and decisive last season, leading Carolina to a 4-2 record in the final six weeks. But, his role would likely be a backup one if he were to return. It’s been made clear that this staff wants to develop a quarterback from scratch.
My Prediction: Fitterer trades up for C.J. Stroud
It seems like the Panthers are looking for a quarterback with C.J. Stroud’s skill set. They want the luxuries that Jalen Hurts have granted the Eagles – a confident signal-caller who can also outrun defenders at multiple levels. I see the Panthers trading into the top-three picks for Stroud, possibly on draft day, and the Bears’ No. 1 pick is certainly in play.
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