INDIANAPOLIS -- Quarterback prospect Joe Burrow called his relationship with passing-game coordinator Joe Brady at LSU last season the “perfect fit from the very beginning" in his drive to the Heisman Trophy and the national championship.
It might take the perfect storm for that relationship to continue in the NFL, as the 23-year-old quarterback is projected to go to the Cincinnati Bengals with the top pick in April's NFL draft. Brady is the new offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, who don't pick until No. 7.
But don’t rule it out, even though new Carolina coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday at the NFL combine that he “absolutely" expects current quarterback Cam Newton to be on the Panthers' roster in September.
First, the Bengals would have to decide not to make Burrow -- an Ohio native -- their quarterback of the future and then likely trade the rights to the No. 1 pick.
The Panthers would have to come up with enough current and future draft picks to make an offer, and they don't have any compensatory picks this year. A lack of draft picks would complicate the rebuilding process under Rhule.
The Bengals certainly are aware of Carolina’s interest in Burrow, according to sources, because of the Brady connection. Cincinnati considers the Panthers perhaps the most likely team which with to pursue a trade, even though the Detroit Lions (No. 3), Miami Dolphins (No. 5) and Los Angeles Chargers (No. 6) also appear to be in the quarterback market.
That's partially because Detroit, Miami and L.A. would have a clear shot to pick one of the other top quarterbacks in the draft -- Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love -- without giving up further draft capital.
Having the draft picks to make a trade would be the primary stumbling block from Carolina’s perspective. A good baseline would be the 2016 deal in which the Philadelphia Eagles traded five picks to the Cleveland Browns to move from No. 8 to No. 2 to select quarterback Carson Wentz.
Carolina likely would have to acquire extra picks through trades, whether that is with Newton or other veterans with roster value. That might be tough for the Panthers, because there aren’t a lot of veterans -- outside of veteran guard Trai Turner -- who would bring good value in return.
With that, let’s explore everything that would need to happen to make this trade go from fantasy to reality:
The Panthers have seven draft picks (Nos. 7, 38, 69, 113, 153, 184, 222) this season, so logically, they would want to acquire a few more to make any deal work and also be prepared to deal picks in future years. In the 2016 deal for Wentz, the Browns got the No. 8 pick, a third-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2016, a first-rounder in 2017 and a second-rounder in 2018. Cleveland also sent a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Eagles. To jump all the way to No. 1 this year, the Panthers would likely have to pay an even steeper price.
Was the Wentz trade worth it for the Eagles? Philly coach Doug Pederson said he would do it again.
“The risk was giving up draft picks. The reward was getting the guy we want," he said. “We knew we were going to be limited in resources, but as the years kept coming, we knew there would be more resources."
Eagles general manager Howard Roseman agreed, calling it a Catch-22 “when you’re talking about the quarterback position, because it’s really hard to win unless you have a great quarterback."
Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian said what Philadelphia did to get Wentz was "absolutely" the right thing to do and that if Carolina believes in Burrow, such a deal would be worth the cost.
"If you’re going to go all the way, you have to get that right," Polian said about drafting a franchise quarterback.
The Panthers currently have $32 million in cap space. That should increase by another $8.6 million to $13 million, with the league set to increase the cap in 2020. They would free up another $19.1 million in space by trading or releasing Newton. They could clear even more if they don’t pick up the option on 30-year-old defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who is scheduled to count $13.1 million against the cap. So there is potential to try to rebuild with free agents should Carolina mortgage their draft future by trading picks.
Could the Panthers keep Newton and still draft Burrow? Yes. Even if the Panthers keep Newton with a cap figure of $21.1 million, that’s still in the middle of the pack among NFL quarterbacks. So adding a rookie who could play behind Newton for a year and then take over in 2021, when Newton’s contract is up, would leave the Panthers in better financial shape moving forward. Should Carolina let Newton go in free agency after the 2020 season, they would receive a compensatory pick in 2022.
The chemistry factor
There’s no doubt Burrow trusts Brady, and vice versa, and trust is among Burrow’s No. 1 criteria for a good fit in the NFL. Burrow said Brady and LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger were the perfect fit because they gave him “a lot of freedom at the line to make checks, to make reads and to play fast."
Continuing to work with Brady would give Burrow a great chance to succeed.
“It would be pretty special," said Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who last year drafted a quarterback he spent a lot of time recruiting as a college coach in Kyler Murray, the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019. “They have great synergy. ... That would be an ideal situation for guys that have that type of synergy."
The Tepper factor
Panthers owner David Tepper didn’t make his $12 billion fortune without taking risks. He took a big chance in hiring Rhule, who has only one year of experience in the NFL. He also allowed Rhule to hire Brady, who at 30 is the youngest offensive coordinator in the league. So if Tepper believes a Brady-Burrow reunion would lead to long-term success, he wouldn’t hesitate to take a his lumps in the near term.
The Newton factor
Let’s say Newton is the starter in the final season of his current contract. If he performs well, he’ll demand a really big contract in 2021, likely north of $30 million a year. Even with a rising salary cap, that’s a lot for a rebuilding team that needs to invest long term in running back Christian McCaffrey and other younger players.
Burrow’s four-year deal as the top pick will be in the $37 million range, which would be just north of $9 million per season on average. That would leave Carolina general manager Marty Hurney plenty of money to spend to build a complete team.
Rhule insists he hasn’t looked that far ahead.
“Philosophically, we’ll always explore any and all options," he said. “I’d have to get to that moment to really know. Right now, I’m focused on crushing the combine."