CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As the dust settles on the Los Angeles Rams' trade for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, it’s clear to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. the Carolina Panthers want to upgrade at quarterback -- if possible.
"If possible" being the key phrase.
The Panthers made a run at Stafford last week, according to league sources. That was the latest sign they aren’t fully committed to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the 2021 season.
The Lions will get quarterback Jared Goff, a third-round pick in 2021, a first-round pick in 2022 and a first-round pick in 2023 in exchange for Stafford -- which shows how hard and costly it will be to trade for an elite quarterback.
“Teddy is a good quarterback, but how far can you go with him?" Kiper told ESPN.com. “He’s like [San Francisco’s] Jimmy Garoppolo. How far can you go? Garoppolo took them to a Super Bowl last year and almost won that game against Patrick Mahomes, so I’m not saying Teddy can’t get you to a Super Bowl. You’ve just got to have a lot of things going for you."
The initial sign Bridgewater could be one-and-done as Carolina’s starter came when owner David Tepper, coach Matt Rhule and ultimately first-year general manager Scott Fitterer didn’t commit to the 2014 first-round pick after the season.
“Unless you have that guy, for sure, that gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that," Tepper said of the quarterback position.
Fitterer didn’t even address Bridgewater by name in his introductory news conference. However, he mentioned wanting to “be in on every deal."
That happened with Stafford, as Carolina was willing to give up a player and draft picks, a league source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Making a run at the soon-to-be 33-year-old Stafford when Bridgewater, 28, is scheduled to count $23 million under the 2021 cap, with only $1 million in cap savings with a post-June release, speaks volumes. It also makes Bridgewater almost impossible to trade.
Whatever it takes for Watson
The Panthers, per a league source, are interested in Watson. Then again, so are more than half of the league’s 32 teams.
“I would make that move in a minute," Kiper said. “Even if it was super costly, I’d probably still do it."
Even if that meant throwing in 2017 first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, who's arguably the most versatile running back in the NFL.
“Definitely, but that’s a big cap hit," said Kiper, reminding of McCaffrey’s $64 million extension in 2020 that made him the highest-paid back in history at $16 million per year. “I always believe running backs you can find. I’d do anything possible to get Deshaun Watson."
That Rhule wants to build through the draft makes giving up the eighth pick in 2021 and first-round picks in 2022 and ’23 a risk if the latter two are top-15 picks. Top 15 is the line where Fitterer says the talent pool generally drops from elite status.
But if Watson elevates Carolina immediately and those picks aren’t early ones, there's less risk.
Regardless, as Kiper said, the Panthers would be getting a “25-year-old who is a franchise quarterback."
Ideally, the Panthers would include Bridgewater in a deal. If not, with a little salary-cap manipulation, it’s feasible to keep Bridgewater and Watson for a season.
Watson’s cap hit in 2021 is $15.94 million. It doesn’t take a big jump to $40.4 million until 2022, at which point the Panthers could release Bridgewater with a $21 million cap savings.
Watson will have a say in where he goes because of his no-trade clause.
So why would Carolina be a good fit for Watson? It gets him close to Clemson, where he won a national title, and his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia. He would be paired with Joe Brady, considered one of the up-and-coming offensive coordinators in the NFL, and Sean Ryan, his former Texans quarterbacks coach.
The drawbacks? Carolina is rebuilding its offensive line almost from scratch, including left tackle, and has a projected $14 million in cap space. The latter, however, can be remedied by releasing defensive tackle Kawann Short and making other moves.
Trade up in the draft
It’s all but certain Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is heading to Jacksonville with the draft’s top pick. But Kiper has three other quarterbacks -- BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance -- going in the top 10.
All have franchise-QB potential.
Depending on which quarterback the Panthers covet, they might have to trade up to be assured of getting him.
The issue with this is Fitterer came from a Seattle organization that likes to trade down to acquire picks. A trade up would mean fewer picks with which to build. It could be considered riskier than giving up picks to get Watson, who is more of a sure thing.
“In order to get Zach Wilson, you may have to go to [pick No.] 2 [New York Jets], and if you want Justin Fields you may have to get to 3 [Miami]," Kiper said.
Trade down for Mac Jones
This feels more like a Fitterer move, trading down into the 10-15 range to get the Alabama star and a later-round pick or two. That the Carolina staff had a week with Jones at the Senior Bowl could make this enticing.
“I've been really impressed with who he is," said Rhule, who tried to recruit Jones to Baylor when he was their head coach.
Jones liked the Carolina staff he worked with at the Senior Bowl, calling Rhule "awesome."
Kiper was so impressed with Jones at Senior Bowl practices, Kiper might consider Jones to Carolina at No. 8 in a future mock draft.
The issue with trading down is another team, say the New England Patriots, might move up to get Jones.
“He has that [Tom] Brady style ... a pocket guy, leader, spark, competitive," Kiper said of Jones.
Stay at No. 8
Detroit getting Goff could be a good thing for Carolina, because it eliminates the Lions from drafting a quarterback at No. 7. Kiper had Fields going to Detroit in his latest mock.
It could be a bad thing, too, because the Lions might be more willing to move down in a trade with a handful of teams looking to get ahead of the Panthers for a quarterback.
Stick with Bridgewater
Joe Brady referred to Bridgewater as a “franchise quarterback" midway through last season. The tone changed throughout the organization as the losses mounted in a 5-11 season and Bridgewater was unable to win games in the clutch.
He was 0-8 when he had a chance to tie or win on his final possession.
Still, Bridgewater was considered a strong leader and McCaffrey was out 13 games with injuries. Bridgewater also didn’t have the dynamic playmaker at tight end Rhule wants, which will be a priority this offseason.
Say you keep Bridgewater and use the eighth pick on Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who has been compared to NFL stars Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Pitts and the return of McCaffrey should make Bridgewater better, and the team could look to shore up the offensive line in a deep draft at that position.
“If you decide not to take a quarterback, you take Kyle Pitts," Kiper said of the No. 8 pick. “The Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer; they won one with Joe Flacco. You don’t have to be elite to win a Super Bowl if you have everything around you."