Panthers keeping options open at No. 1

As he drove to work early Friday morning, Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said he knew exactly what the Panthers’ draft board looks like. As he closed his car door to begin the walk to his Bank of America Stadium office, Hurney said goodbye to a caller only after offering words of caution.

“That will probably change before the end of the day,’’ Hurney said with a laugh.

But he wasn’t really joking. He simply was referring to the fact there are more than two months until the college draft and there are hundreds of prospects, many of whose names will go up and down Carolina’s draft board many times over.

Let’s narrow the scope, though, and talk what everyone wants to talk about. The Panthers hold the No. 1 overall pick.

Is there someone currently atop Carolina’s board?

Absolutely, Hurney said. Of course, he’s not ready to divulge who that is and that’s largely because, just like the rest of the draft board, the No. 1 spot could change between now and the draft. It’s early in the process. Although Carolina has changed coaches, from John Fox to Ron Rivera, it hasn’t changed at general manager.

If you know anything about Hurney, you know that he’s as methodical as they come and isn’t prone to making split-second decisions. He believes all the scouts and coaches have a voice and he wants to hear every one of them before making any final choices.

Carolina’s had its board up since December. It was tweaked some after the college bowl games. It’s been tweaked some more after the college all-star games and those results are still coming in. This weekend might be as important as any in Carolina’s draft preparation.

All the scouts arrived in town Thursday night. They were meeting first with Hurney and will continue to meet with the coaching staff later Friday, Saturday and Sunday to go over the prospects who will be attending the combine, which starts Feb. 23.

The results of the combine and individual workouts will factor in to Carolina’s ultimate decision at No. 1. Even if there is a change at the top of Carolina’s current draft board, Hurney admitted the Panthers have a pretty good idea of who the top alternatives are.

“We’re constantly trying to keep an open mind,’’ Hurney said. “But, honestly, I’d say there are anywhere from five to eight players who could qualify at this point. We’ll narrow that down as we move forward.’’

When Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to stay in college, that left the draft void of a consensus No. 1 pick. Most experts are ranking Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers as the top two prospects. Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller are among the players most experts have rated highly.

Like a lot of general managers, Hurney’s always been one to talk about taking the best available player, although his track record gives some pretty strong indications of times when he’s drafted for needs. But as he holds the No. 1 pick for the first time in his career, Hurney is talking a little differently and that might provide one of the few clues he’s offering at this point.

“With the first pick, it’s about impact players,’’ Hurney said. “But it’s also about impact positions. Certain positions take priority.’’

Take that for what it’s worth, but I’m taking it to mean that Green and Miller probably aren’t priorities. Assuming the Panthers keep what they have, they’ve got a strong group of linebackers. Assuming Steve Smith stays (he’s been told to think about his future and if he wants to stay in Carolina, but there is no indication he has asked out), the Panthers don’t have a huge need at receiver. They drafted three -- Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Armanti Edwards -- last year. LaFell and Gettis each showed promise as rookies and there is hope Edwards will blossom as he enters his second year of transitioning from college quarterback to NFL receiver.

If you’re talking about impact positions, you have to talk about quarterback. Hurney’s not about to give away any secret plans, but he’s not denying that position is in the mix of what the Panthers are looking at with the No. 1 pick.

Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert is the highest-rated quarterback by most experts. Auburn’s Cam Newton has drawn mixed reviews, but some say he can be a franchise quarterback.

The Panthers have to do their homework on Gabbert and Newton because they’re coming off a season in which they had disastrous quarterback play from Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen. Moore’s not under contract for 2011. Clausen will be back and Hurney and others in the organization still have hope he can develop into a solid starter.

But they know nothing is definite with Clausen. If they don’t draft a quarterback with the first pick, they’ll have to go get one through free agency or in a trade, and that would mean they probably would draft Bowers or Fairley.

All around the world, the gurus are debating if there’s a clear-cut No. 1 pick and if there’s a true franchise quarterback in this draft.

Funny thing is, none of those opinions really matter. The only people who will make that call are the guys gathering in Bank of America Stadium this weekend. They’ll go through the combine and the private workouts and they’ll supply Hurney with lots of input and information.

He’ll process it all and consult closely with Rivera. In the end, though, there is guaranteed to be a clear-cut No. 1 pick.

That will be whatever player Hurney decides is the No. 1 pick.