Panthers need to follow NFC South lead

I said last week the Carolina Panthers need to take Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. I also said there are pretty good indications the Panthers are at least giving very serious thought to using the pick on Newton or Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Nothing’s changed in my eyes and my ears tell me nothing’s changed in how the Panthers are thinking.

But as I was working ahead on our weekly Draft Watch post, I realized something that adds even more reason for the Panthers to go ahead and draft a quarterback. I thought about the rest of the NFC South.

What’s the first thing New Orleans coach Sean Payton, Atlanta coach Mike Smith and Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris did when they were hired? The methods varied and they each had some help from their general manager, but Payton, Smith and Morris went out and got a franchise quarterback.

You can’t argue with the results. Payton won a Super Bowl title, Smith has had three straight winning seasons and Morris took the Bucs from 3-13 to 10-6 last season.

You know Payton got Drew Brees, Smith brought in Matt Ryan and Morris found Josh Freeman. But what you might not realize is how specifically each of those three coaches targeted each of those three guys.

Coming into New Orleans the season after Hurricane Katrina, Payton decided quickly he wasn’t going to go draft Matt Leinart. In his book “Home Team,’’ Payton describes at length how he and general manager Mickey Loomis saw a rare opportunity to get an established franchise quarterback. The San Diego Chargers were letting Brees walk into free agency because they had Philip Rivers and Brees was coming off major shoulder surgery.

In his book, Payton wrote that the Saints were competing with the Miami Dolphins for Brees. Payton and Loomis decided they had to “overpay’’ to get Brees to avoid the comforts of Miami and come to a city and a franchise that was in a total rebuilding mode. The Saints jacked up their offer, got Brees and it turned out to be the best move in franchise history.

When Smith took over, the Falcons had needs just about everywhere. But Smith and Dimitroff realized you might as well start building a program with a quarterback and they took Ryan with the third overall pick, after spending some nervous nights worrying the Dolphins and Rams might botch their plans. But Miami and St. Louis passed on Ryan and Atlanta’s been winning ever since.

It was basically the same thing in Tampa Bay. Although fans and media were screaming for defense, mainly because that’s what the Bucs had trained people to do since the franchise started, general manager Mark Dominik and Morris decided they had to get a quarterback. There are some, mainly Doug Williams, who will tell you the Bucs wanted Mark Sanchez. But Dominik and Morris have said all along Freeman was the guy they wanted. In fact, they initially were slated to draft at No. 19. But, fearing someone would jump into the No. 18 spot to get Freeman, the Bucs moved up to No. 17 and got their quarterback.

New Carolina coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background. But, in his hiring process, it was established the organization now realizes the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. General manager Marty Hurney is fully committed to giving Rivera the kind of quarterback he needs to win.

Could there be someone like Brees out there if the lockout ends and free agency and trades are allowed? It’s not real likely. The names you hear might be available are guys like Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb. McNabb was a franchise quarterback for a long time, but he’s on the downside of his career. Palmer might have briefly been a franchise quarterback, but his career has regressed. Young was drafted to be a franchise quarterback, but hasn’t come close. Kolb’s basically a career backup with some upside, but it’s a stretch to envision him as a franchise quarterback.

More and more I think Hurney and Rivera need to do what the other three franchises did when their current regimes started. They need to go out and get a franchise quarterback and it’s looking like the draft is the only spot to do that this year.